Why Coal Symbolizes Naughtiness

And how it should be used instead. An Object Lesson.

A woman holds a lump of coal
Susan Walsh / AP

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.

That’s likely because coal was relatively new to domestic infrastructure. The adoption of coal, as the historian Sean Patrick Adams explains in his book Home Fires, was just beginning in the 1820s. It would not finish until roughly the 1870s. Before then, many people still burned wood in their hearths. Instead of coal, naughty children received stones, fresh whips in the form of small branches, ashes, or cold potatoes as punishment.

As the century progressed, American households became increasingly reliant on coal for heating. Stoves replaced inefficient hearths, and coal replaced rapidly dwindling supplies of wood. Around the end of the century, coal starts to appear in Christmas stories.

Among them is the 1892 W. D. Howells story “Christmas Every Day,” in which a little girl wishes for infinite Christmases. Howell writes that parents get stockings filled “with potatoes and pieces of coal wrapped up in tissue paper, just as they always had every Christmas.” Later in the tale, the narrator notes, “After a while, coal and potatoes began to be awfully scarce, so many had been wrapped up in tissue paper to fool papas and mammas,” suggesting that coal might have been a gag present—or, like socks, a disappointing gift for a child but a reasonable one for an adult.

In many cases, characters are downright happy to receive coal for Christmas. In one Victorian poem, a poor couple gratefully receives turkey, potatoes, and coal from a neighbor on Christmas Day. In another short story, a poor family gets piles of Christmas presents from some relatives, including a full cellar of coal.

Coal seems to adopt its punitive symbolism around the turn of the century. The material had taken over most domestic heating by then. While there were outliers, like those with expensive wood or steam heating systems, many Americans relied more and more on their local coal merchant and the ever-more distant mines. Coal was common and plentiful, features that made it a bad gift, like the switches and stones of earlier years.

The 1912 short story “A Prince of Good Fellows,” by Myron Adams, offers a clear link between coal and bad behavior. In the story, Tom and his mother take on the responsibility of providing a “real Christmas,” including presents from Santa, for Tom’s little sisters despite the family’s poverty. To make sure the deception works, Tom tells his sisters the same story adults used a century before: that Santa gives stones to bad boys. He then fills his stocking with wrapped pieces of coal.

Coal was likely the closest stone Tom could find in his urban environment. His house would have a small pile ready to be burned. Come Christmas Day, the little girls riot when Tom’s “presents” are revealed; they believe Santa made a grievous error because Tom is not a bad boy. Tom’s story is a good model for how coal was substituted for switches or stones: Someone needed a punishment at the last second, and coal was everywhere because of its use in domestic stoves.

The Toy-Makers’ Strike,” written by Ruth Catherine Wood in 1918, records the continued progress of coal as punishment. In this tale, the toy-making elves go on strike, so a group of fairies and an ice bear turn scab to make Christmas happen. They are not very good at their jobs, particularly the ice bear, who “gave one bad boy a nice big doll, and put the lumps of coal and the switches in a good little girl’s stocking.” Like the stones from Tom’s story, the switches here are brought forward from a century before. In fact, the coal seems to be a replacement for the ashes in the “ashes and switches” that were given to bad little children. The swap from ash to coal is an easy one, but it also suggests burgeoning wealth: Santa doesn’t stoop to scoop dead ash out from the fireplace when he can instead just grab a few handfuls of unburned coal from the scuttle. These stories seem to draw a direct connection between coal and bad behavior.

Still other stories from the turn of the century show poor families happily receiving coal. New methods of mining, shipping, and burning made coal so available, the well off might not have hesitated to give it to their children as a punishment (or a joke). But for the poor, the winters were surely brutally cold, if not fatal. As coal became an affordable commodity, that changed, and by the 1920s coal’s status as a punishment for bad children was everywhere—in humor magazines, children’s books, and newspaper articles. Coal was a fondly remembered Christmas tradition by the end of the decade. In 1928, Robert Denvir recalled the shock of seeing his stocking topped with coal: “When you looked in the stocking that hung by the edge of the fireplace there was always a large piece of coal and your heart took a sudden bump downward.”

Today, nobody would actually give anyone coal—largely because it’s hard to find in ordinary, domestic life. Instead, the lump of coal has become a symbol of its history a century ago.

For the truly dedicated, you can purchase a satchel of anthracite from Pennsylvania via the internet. One box of fresh coal advertises itself as good for school projects, crafts, displays, decorations, stocking stuffers, “or of course you can burn it.” The reviews suggest the box is frequently purchased as a gag Christmas gift. On Etsy, you can purchase artisanal coal straight from West Virginia.

Most people have no use for actual coal today, so useful items get marketed as if they were coal. You can purchase soap with charcoal in it, black popcorn, bags that say “lump of coal,” a lump-of-coal puzzle, jewelry with coal in the setting, catnip pouches that say coal on them, candy coal, and hundreds of similar items. These are all jokes, of course. Giving someone a piece of “coal” soap has the nice double meaning of telling them you think they are naughty and then giving them a tool to clean up their moral filth.

Coal symbolism also appears in popular media. Coal finds its way into pop songs, like “Joel, the Lump of Coal.” Cartoons such as SpongeBob and Teen Titans Go repeat the idea that getting coal is bad. Books for all ages, from children to adults, retell the moral to encourage good behavior or at least joke about it. Newspapers continue to hand out lumps either in headlines or cartoons. Coal gifts even come in GIF form.

Social media is no stranger to lumps of coal, either. On Twitter, you can find people suggesting potential lump-of-coal recipients all throughout the year. Instagram has a few thousand posts for #lumpofcoal and #coalforchristmas, although the former is mainly advertisements for products on Etsy. There’s even a strange collection of YouTube videos where parents film their children receiving coal. A poignant example of this type of video records a child gloating with thanks for Santa—only to open a box filled with what appears to be charcoal briquettes. She cries as she stares, like Lady Macbeth, at the black stains on her hands. This poor girl is so assured of the bounty that awaits her, and so keenly struck by the meaning of those black bricks (unlike some of the other videos where the symbolism is lost). The rebuke to her behavior stings. This coal carries a moral weight, visible as it slides from the girl’s hands.

That moral burden persists, even if most Americans aren’t in regular contact with lumps of coal. Coal accounted for nearly 15 percent of all the energy consumed in 2016. But it is still widely used to generate electric power. Unlike turn-of-the-century furnaces, that use of coal is largely invisible to citizens today, making a lump of coal seem merely diverting. People joke about giving gifts of coal as a nostalgic vestige of Christmases past.

But unlike in the 19th century, today’s gift-givers possess a darker knowledge about the substance. Even jokes about coal, like Joel, feature widely known facts about its role in climate change. Despite that awareness, people continue to accept coal power and blithely give coal gifts. That makes coal the ultimate Anthropocene stocking stuffer: Without the advent of fossil-fuel infrastructure, people would never have used coal to punish children—and now humankind can’t seem to stop relying on it. Coal need not be kept as a symbol of individual naughtiness when it persists as a real cause of collective wickedness—a nonrenewable energy resource that continues to endanger the environment. Maybe as a gift, coal can serve a new purpose: as a reminder of that ongoing fact—an earnest, ecological memento mori instead of a chastisement or a joke.