null Skip to main content Skip to footer content

What Does it Mean When You Get a Lump of Coal in Your Christmas Stocking?


“You’d better be good, or all you’ll get for Christmas is a lump of coal.”

What child, waiting for Santa to arrive, hasn’t been threatened with coal for Christmas?

Yet, in today’s electronic age, leaving a lump of coal in the stocking of a misbehaving child sounds a little unlikely.

There was a time, however, when getting coal in your stocking wasn’t necessarily considered a bad thing. For much of the 1800s, coal was valued as an alternative to wood for home heating. In fact, a stocking full of coal might have been welcomed by some poorer families. 

Back then, children who didn’t behave might have found their Christmas stockings filled with stones, sticks and even cold potatoes, instead of coal.

While getting a lump of coal for Christmas is common American lore, the notion of leaving undesirable gifts for undeserving children is multicultural. La Befana, Italy’s legendary “Christmas witch,” rides through the sky in early January. On the eve of the Epiphany, she leaves toys and candy for good children, but bad children get coal. 

In other European countries like the Netherlands and Germany, children dread a visit from St. Nicholas’ frightening counterpart, the Krampus, who may leave coal instead of gifts.

In America, coal began to develop a reputation as an unwelcome gift in the early 1900s. 

Not only was coal an objectionable stocking stuffer, giving coal as a form of discipline lends itself to some religious symbolism. Coal is black, the color associated with sin. When you touch a lump of coal, it leaves a mark. And since coal burns, the very faithful may have linked it with the idea of everlasting punishment. So the threat of coal in a Christmas stocking became part of a larger moral lesson.

Also, coal was easy to come by. Santa could easily toss a piece of coal from the home’s fireside scuttle into a child’s stocking on his way back up the chimney.

Today, few people fear getting coal in their Christmas stocking, although you might receive lumps of coal as a gag gift. However, it’s fun to explore how a common lump of coal has adapted through time and cultural changes to become part of the Christmas story.

To find holiday decorations and gifts for people on your “good list,” check out our Gift Shop at