It terrified us all as children, and was the ultimate blackmail our parents could possibly use. For those of us who had constantly messy bedrooms and would rather throw a tantrum than eat our vegetables, we knew there was a slight chance that our worst fears would be confirmed- and come Christmas morning there'd be a lump of coal in our stockings. We all know the threat, but where did this idea come from? And why coal?

Christmas Coal

Image used courtesy of Star112 - Flickr Creative Commons

The idea of jolly old Saint Nick's slightly sinister side appears to pre-date our modern day version of Father Christmas and can be traced back to Italy, where they believe in la Befana, a witch who delivers presents. Legend has it, la Befana enters homes via the chimney and leaves small gifts placed in stockings hung from the mantel. However, for those undeserving of treats and candy, she leaves a lump of coal conveniently taken out of the fireplace as a reminder to naughty children that they must change their ways. Likewise, in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas, and his sidekick Black Pete, also adopted a similar approach to dealing with naughty children.

Whilst in mainland Europe coal was the staple Christmas gift to naughty and disobedient children, in Victorian England, Father Christmas took a different approach. Whilst the offspring of upper class wealthy families were rewarded with candy, toys and fruit in their stockings, the poor (who were believed to be being punished by God for their family's bad choices) were simply given coal- outrageous!

As coal-burning fireplaces became increasingly common throughout the US in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, this idea caught on and became canon. Suddenly, Santa had the option of punishing unruly brats- bet he was relieved he didn't have to carry as many presents around in his sleigh! And therein lies the ultimate threat our parents had over us- I think I spent the most part of my childhood wondering why anyone would misbehave in December if there was a chance of receiving coal on Christmas morning!

Indeed, in some cultures, Santa doesn't just stop at coal, but also leaves bundles of twigs, bags of salt, and garlic and onions to naughty children- we're not sure which one we'd least want to get!