The Christmas lore that children who have been bad throughout the year will get lumps of coal in their holiday stockings instead of presents has many possible origins. The difference between each origin story is cultural, varying between countries. Like most cultural rivalries, the answer to "who did it first" is buried in generations of storytelling. Regardless of whoever practiced the custom first, it's fun to consider all of the possible variations of this interesting legend.
Coal in Christmas stockings in Sicily
One of the many origin stories begins in Italy, where they believe in La Befana (a witch who delivers presents) instead of Santa Claus. As the story goes, when Jesus was born, La Befana saw a bright star in the sky and gathered some toys and other presents to give to the baby Jesus, but she couldn't find the stable. Every year, she roams the land looking for Jesus and leaves toys for good children and coal for bad ones. These days, Italians use a candy, called Carbone Dolce, to turn the legend into a joke. The dark, rock-like candy looks exactly like a lump of coal.
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Lumps of coal in clogs in Holland
Some believe the lumps of coal story began in Holland in the 16th century. Before Christmas, children would put their clogs by the fireplace, long before stockings were used. When a child was bad, they got a lump of coal, but if they were good, they received Christmas gifts of small toys, cookies or candy.
Coal for Christmas in England
In the 19th century, most of Europe was powered by coal, and most household furnaces were coal-burning. A pan of hot coals would often be kept under the bed to generate heat in the middle of the night. In England, while the children of wealthy families got candy and toys as stocking stuffers, those who were poor (believed to have been made poor by God as punishment for their family's bad deeds) would get coal as a Christmas present, if they were lucky.
The nobleman and the bounty of gold
Some believe the story that a proud but poor nobleman had three daughters ready to marry. The problem was, he had no dowry to give them. So, Saint Nicholas secretly gave the family enough money so the daughters could start their lives with their new husbands. He did this by placing the money in stockings that were drying by the fireplace. When word spread about this miracle, everyone started hanging their stockings by the fire in hopes that the secret benefactor would visit them, too. He did visit those houses on Christmas, but for those Saint Nicholas knew to be bad, he left a lump of coal instead of a bounty of gold.
The tradition of putting oranges or clementines into Christmas stockings is also alleged to have come from this story, with the round, orange fruit symbolizing gold coins that were said to have originally been left as a gift in the stockings by St. Nick.
Whether coal is a welcome holiday gift to help folks stay warm during the holiday season, or a prank as a stark reminder for children to change their ways, the history of coal in stockings is still up for debate—and our vivid imagination.