Santa Claus is soon coming town. I hope you know what that means. By now, he is busy making a well-refined list and cross-checking it to ensure that he carefully isolates the good and obedient kids from the bad and naughty ones. You know what’s next—he will be giving the naughty kids lumps of coal and rewarding the good children pleasant gifts. But why? Why does he give the naughty children coal? I mean, it seems somehow random—don’t you think so? Especially, in the current world, who keeps coal in their homes? Just as most of the holiday traditions, this one is deeply rooted in the history of the festive seasons.
As a child, Santa’s visit was the best (or should it be the worst?) blackmail that my parents used to make me change my bad behavior. For those of us whose bedrooms were ever untidy, and those who would rather be mad over food cooked than eat what is served, we knew that our worst fears could come into reality during Christmas—a lump of coal on my stockings! At one point, we all pass through this stage, but where does the idea of a lump of coal come from?
Well, to confirm your worst fears, you probably found out by checking your stockings. What if you do not receive either a lump of coal or presents? Let us see how it has been over the years.
But Why Does Santa Claus Really Give Coal to Naughty Children?
The main reason Santa Claus gives the naughty children coal is… Actually, it is not clear why he does that. Moreover, no one can boldly state a specific date when Santa stared giving lumps of coal to naughty children. One thing is for sure—it was after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, there is some relevant evidence that Santa giving coal to naughty children has existed several centuries ago.
Some bad kids are not bothered to receive a lump of coal. In parts of some European countries, such as Belgium and France, history has it that St. Nicholas was accompanied by a figure known as “Père Fouettard,” who punished schoolchildren. That is absurd, isn’t it? Not all was lost—the savior was around. The word has it that St. Nicholas saved the children from Père Fouettard and later made Père Fouettard his close companion. As St. Nicholas awarded good kids beautiful presents, Père Fouettard gave naughty kids unpleasant objects such as birch branches and coal.
In fact, a number of traditions and cultures have varied ways of a mythological gift-giver at Christmas, and most of them are similar in a way that they have a punitive component to their holiday Christmas stories—as naughty kids are punished by being given undesirable objects such as coal, good ones are given gifts. For instance, near Epiphany in the first few days of January, Italian kids were visited by La Befana. She entered homes through the keyholes and chimneys. She then gave bad children coal and good ones small, beautiful toys and delicious candy.
This idea of jolly St. Nicholas’ sinister side is viewed to predate the modern day version of Father Christmas. The legend can be traced back to Italy where people believed in La Befana. The legend has it that in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Black Pete (Sinterklaas’ sidekick) dealt with good and naughty kids just as St. Nick and La Befana did. I hope you know what St. Nick and La Befana did!
You may have heard the story of the “bad guy” of Austria known as Krampus. Wait… Have you seen some of the films that share the same concepts? Far from them, various historical images show Krampus as an unpleasant person who the naughty children would not want to get involved with or relate to—the best way to avoid him is to change your bad behavior. As depicted by The Scotsman in Australian folklore, Santa Claus rewarded presents and gifts to good children as the bad ones were given unpleasant objects by this “bad superhuman.” Krampus could give them a lump of coal or any other unpleasant object. You know children do not like unpleasant things!
The German companion of St. Nick is Knecht Ruprecht. He punished naughty kids by coal-adjacent. He gave sack of ashes to the kids who fail to pray properly.
Some people believe that the story of giving lumps of coal to bad kids began in the sixteenth century in Holland. Before the day of Christmas, kids placed their clogs by the fireplace. This was long before stockings were used. Bad children got lumps of coal while good ones got small toys, candy, or cookies.
History has it that a proud but poor nobleman was blessed with three daughters who were ready to get married. Sadly, this nobleman did not have dowry to give his daughters. But wait for it… St. Nicholas came to their rescue. He secretly gave the nobleman’s family enough money that enabled his daughter to comfortably begin their new lives with their husbands. The word has it that St. Nick placed the money in some stockings that were left to dry by the fireplace.
The word of this amazing miracle spread out there. Everyone began to hang their stockings by the fireplace, hoping that St. Nicholas (the secret benefactor) may visit them too. Indeed, he visited those houses. While visiting, he ensured that he left lumps of coal (instead of money or gifts) to those who he knew to be bad.
Just a little history to crack up our minds: most countries in Europe were powered by coal in the nineteenth century. Most households also used burning coal as the main source of fuel. In order to keep the house warm, a pan of hot coal was placed under the bed.
In mainland Europe, coal was the staple Christmas gift to bad kids. However, Father Christmas took a unique approach to Victorian England. England has an interesting story—lucky children from poor families got coal in their stockings as they believed that it was a punishment for bad deeds that made their families poor. On the other hand, the children from the rich families received beautiful toys, cookies, and candies.
Similarities that the Christmas Figures Share
From the stories above, we can deduce that it is not a new or unique thing for Santa Claus to give bad children lumps of coal. But why is this a popular punishment? Some theories suggest that coal is a convenient object—Let’s wait for Santa to clarify this issue in his next visit. According to Brian Horrigan of the Minnesota History Center, as Santa Claus comes down the chimney, a lump of coal is the closest object he can get to give the naughty children and stick it on their stockings.
Although there is no specific history about any of the Christmas figures that offers a concrete reason for giving out lumps of coal to naughty kids, the most probable reason as to why they did so was due to convenience.
Most of the Christmas figures we have discussed above are somehow tied to a fireplace. For instance, Santa Claus, La Befana, and the controversial companion of Sinterklaas known as Black Pete all got in homes through the chimneys—how hot can the chimney be? Besides, St. Nicholas placed beautiful gifts to kids in shoes that are located by the fireplace. Therefore, any supernatural Christmas figure who visits a home with naughty kids will just grab a lump of coal from the fireplace and offer a naughty child as a warning that you have noticed his or her bad behavior.
Even though Santa Claus gives lumps of coal just as the rest of the Christmas figures, his punishment does not seem as bad as that of shenanigans of Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht, or Père Fouettard. You will certainly be disappointed to wake up with a lump of coal rather than lovely Christmas presents. However, it is far much better than being grounded.
It is worth noting that apart from Santa Claus, none of these Christmas figures limits himself to lumps of coal when it comes to naughty children. These super humans are said to also leave behind bags of salt, onions, and garlic as well as bundles of twigs. These objects suggest that these Christmas figures are less reluctant than Santa Claus when it comes to hauling their naughty kid gifts through the night besides rewarding good children.
To Sum it Up
This Christmas event that naughty kids will receive lumps of coal in their stockings rather than get beautiful presents has several potential origins. All these Christmas figures are similar in many ways. Their approach somehow differs due to the varying culture and traditions of the places of origin. Just as expected, it is hard to tell who did it first, but it is very interesting to consider all the possibilities behind the Father Christmas figures, especially for Santa Claus.