Santa Claus is known throughout the world for keeping a list of who is naughty and who is nice. Rewarding good children with gifts on Christmas has made him one of the most beloved characters in contemporary mythology. Yet he also is known for leaving a lump of coal in the stockings or shoes of naughty little boys and girls.
Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian saint known for secret gift giving, often putting coins in the shoes and socks left out for him by children. The legend of Santa Claus evolved over many years to become the character we know today. By the 16th-century, Alpine countries created a beast-like counterpart to their Sankt Nikolaus, known as Krampus, who punished naughty girls and boys. Here, the traditions of not only rewarding good children but punishment for the bad took root.
Sicilian and Italian Folklore
In Sicily and Italy, the Santa character is known as La Befana. Since the 13th-Century, La Befana would sneak into people's homes to leave gifts via the fireplace. La Befana is a witch who leaves gifts for good children and a piece of coal from the fireplace for bad children. In modern times, she is known for leaving carbone dolce, a candy that resembles the density, texture and color of coal.
Folklore of Holland and Belgium
Sinterklaas is the Dutch equivalent of Saint Nicholas, who had a Krampus-like counterpart by the name of Black Pete. While Sinterklaas would leave good children gifts of toys and candy in the shoes they had placed out for him, Black Pete would model La Belfana and leave a lump of coal from the fireplace in the shoes of bad children. Black Pete also was known to punish children with gifts of onions or bundles of sticks.
Coal as a Practical Gift
By the 19th century, most of Europe was coal powered for heat. At this point in history, a gift of coal could be very valuable to an impoverished family. In these Dickensian times, poor people were thought to be made unfortunate as punishment from God. While wealthy children got gifts and candies on Christmas, poor families were fortunate to get coal with which to heat their homes.