Coal for Christmas


Riley Ehrenberg

                Coal in a stocking is a universal sign of a child being punished. It isn’t very clear when it became a tradition to leave coal in badly behaved kid’s stockings, but it is clear that this tradition came before the modern idea of Santa Clause. Many cultures have their own holiday stories and gift givers that are similar to Santa Clause.

            The Dutch have the tale of Sinterklaas and his assistant Zwarte Piet. In this tale the two dock in different cities and ride around leaving treats for animals and small gifts for the kids. Well behaved children were left things like candies, nuts, shells and small toys but children that weren’t well behaved got coal instead. This tale and tradition is where our modern day Santa Clause comes from.

            One of the first recorded instances of children having coal left in their stockings is La Befana. The tale of La Befana is an old Italian Christmas story of a witch that dates back to the 13th century. To celebrate the Epiphany on January 6th La Befana leaves good kids treats in their shoes or stockings, but if a child hasn’t been well behaved she will leave coal, onions or garlic instead.

            During the 19th century the majority of Europe was powered by coal, it was used for most furnaces and was also used as a source of heat. During this time much of Europe lived in poverty and coal was a valuable necessity. Because of this coal was a common Christmas gift for those who were poor. While the children of rich families received candy and toys, people who weren’t so fortunate considered themselves lucky to receive something as common as coal for Christmas.

            Tales of mythological gift givers leaving misbehaved children coal dates back to a very long time. Though this tradition is old it can still be seen in many cultures during modern times. All over the world people have incorporated this folklore into the way they celebrate their holidays and honor this tradition in their own unique ways.