Misbehaving children getting lumps of coal actually predates Santa as we know him now; the tradition is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and La Befana. There doesn’t seem to be a single specific legend about any of those figures that might give us a definitive explanation as to why coal is doled out to bad kids, but the commonality between them all: convenience.
Santa, as well as La Befana in Italy, enters folks’ homes via the fireplace chimney, leaving gifts in stockings hung on the mantel. For the Dutch, Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney & places gifts in shoes left near the fireplace. St. Nicholas used to come in through the window, but then switched to the chimney once they became common in Europe. And, like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.
This is pure speculation, but: all these characters are tied to the fireplace. And, when filling the stockings or the shoes of so many children, the holiday gift givers are inevitably going to come upon a kid who doesn’t really deserve a gift. So, to send a message & encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the expected toys, money, or candy. And, think about it: since the fireplace provides an easy source of obvious non-presents, all the gift-giver has to do is reach down into the fireplace & grab a lump of coal. (FYI: while we modern-day folks tend to think of fireplaces that burn wood logs, coal-fired fireplaces were actually very common in the 19th & early 20th centuries, which is when this coal portion of Santa’s history really got established.)
With that said, and with the exception of Santa Claus, none of those gift-givers actually limits themselves to coal when it comes to “rewarding” bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions. The moral of this story, though, is this: kids, just don’t be bad, so that Santa doesn’t have to haul around all that coal all night in such close proximity to the good gifts…YOUR good gifts, right?
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