Tradition says that naughty children get coal in their stocking. In a state like Wyoming, where coal is such an important part of the state’s history and economy, that could be seen as a reward for bad behavior.
Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said giving coal shouldn’t be thought of as punishment.
“Frankly, I think Wyoming coal is an excellent present for good children,” Deti said. “We’re going to be delivering coal in the form of electricity to millions of people across this country during this cold winter. So, it really is an excellent Christmas present.”
Origins Of Tradition
There’s some debate as to exactly where the tradition of giving coal to naughty kids came from. Some people think the connection between Santa and coal had to do with the gift-giving man coming down the chimney.
Originally, Old St. Nick entered homes through windows, but later it was said he comes down the chimney, which was about the time people began heating homes with coal.
For much of human history, wood was the primary energy source in the home. Coal use goes back thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that people began using it domestically.
As coal displaced burning trees, coal and chimneys were more closely linked.
Sticks And Stones
Writing in The Atlantic, Kent Linthicum speculates that the evolution of coal giving as a form of punishment may be related to it becoming so widely available.
Linthicum writes that instead of coal, naughty children were originally said to get stones or small branches, which in the days of corporal punishment were meant as a warning.
As the century progressed, however, coal became the heating source of choice in many homes. The fossil fuel has advantages over wood, especially in Europe where trees had become considerably scarce.
It’s toward the end of the 19th century that coal starts showing up regularly in Christmas stories.
As Deti suggests, it was originally a delightful gift children received, and there are period poems and stories that speak positively of receiving coal as a gift.
Sometime in the early 20th century, getting coal became a form of punishment. Perhaps this is because coal mining had become so productive that coal was plentiful and cheap. Christmas stories then became filled with coal-as-punishment themes.
So basically, coal became a lot like a package of white socks today, which many well-meaning grandmothers give their grandchildren, who do their best to smile when the non-toy gift is unwrapped — at least the good kids do.
By 1920, coal had become solidified as Santa’s preferred gift for the naughty ones, and the tradition continues today.
Coal’s Continuing Evolution
In the modern world, the tradition has morphed again. While children are discouraged from being naughty, many adults take some pride in being bumped from the “nice” list.
For its “Proud to be Naughty” section, Amazon features a number of gifts with coal in Christmas sacks, buckets and boxes. For the teasing of misbehaving children, there are even “Lump O’ Coal” containers of bubble gum.
Even now, giving coal continues its evolution from a prized gift to a punishment to a gag gift.