In 2014, The Killers released a Christmas single, “Joel, the Lump of Coal.” Rather than featuring a traditional Christmas character, the song tells the bittersweet story of Joel, an animated chunk of coal who wants to be given as a Christmas present. Coal, everyone knows, is not a gift anyone desires; it is a punishment and a rebuke.
But there was a time when Joel—and coal—would have been happily received by many Americans. Until the turn of the 20th century, coal was a token to ward off winter’s chill. Only as fossil-fuel supplies and access expanded did a gift of coal become a consequence of naughtiness. But a century has passed since coal was in widespread domestic and industrial use. Today, as humans still burn coal despite the known ecological costs, it might better serve as a reminder of collective ecological arrogance.
In the 19th century, when the modern forms of both Christmas and Santa Claus were developing, there was little mention of punishing naughty children with coal. The most famous depiction of Santa Claus from that period, the “Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas,” imagines St. Nick as wholly benevolent, his bag containing only toys for the good little girls and boys. Even images that record his disciplinary role leave out the dark lumps: In a similar poem published two years before, “Old Santeclaus With Much Delight,” Santa states, “But where I found the children naughty, / […] I left a long, black, birchen rod” as a threat. A lash meant for punishment appears, but again no coal.