In honor of the fast-approaching holiday, I’d like to explore a bit of yule-tide trivia. It isn’t smarmy, but it could become so, I suppose, should I lose my nerve and wax sentimental. I’ll try not to do that.
The aforementioned holiday is Christmas and the trivia is coal in the stocking. I’ve done no research on this whatsoever, so we’re bobbing on the crests of waves of conjecture and hear-say here. My ideas might be completely historically inaccurate. Don’t expect to learn anything from this.
Coal in the stocking is not a new idea. I’ve heard it proclaimed since I was young that a bad boy gets a stocking full of coal. And I didn’t only hear this from my parents or others in their age range. I heard it from my grandparents and even from older folks at stores and restaurants when it’s cold outside and garland hangs from every indoor precipice and some youngster isn’t being quite obedient. “Better straighten up there, young person. Wouldn’t want Santa to stuff sooty rocks into you goodie sock, would you?” The preceding is not an exact quote and should in no way be construed as something I’ve actually heard someone say. But I’ve heard a lot of things said along those lines.
I’m assuming that, for the older folks, it isn’t (or wasn’t) a new idea either. I don’t think the idea came into being around the time I was born. I believe it to be older than 34 years. Here’s why I say that. My grandpa was a coal miner for some time. He had issues with black lung. He never talked about it but, through the family grape vine, I heard he didn’t much care for coal mining. Understandable. But, for someone who sacrifices his health and happiness to dig the stuff out from under mountains, is it really something to joke about? Now, if grandpa said “Be good or Santa will chain you up to a bunch of other naughty kids and drive you down into the dark to mine coal.”, that would’ve shown some sort of fearful respect for the idea. Instead he’d say what everyone else says. Be good or get a stocking full of coal. This makes me think that it’s also something he heard as a child, before he knew the horrors of coal mining, and it meant no more to him than saying an apple a day keeps the doctor away or some other such folk wisdom. He’s heard it, he says it, it’s a habit, he doesn’t consider what it means. To him, it was just what you say to a cranky or disobedient grand kid. The idea is older than Grandpa.
The preceding paragraph is hear-say and conjecture. No solid evidence exists, that I know of, to support my thesis.
I’m just guessing here, but I think that coal used to be a highly sought after gift. In the Dickensian era, and other such similar eras, when coal was perhaps harder to come by and even harder to procure unless you were affluent, a lump of coal in a stocking could’ve meant a great deal to a child. “Coal! Coal! Mother, Father, observe it! We shan’t this cold Christmas day die of exposure within our own dear domicile! Oh, Mother, Father, what a good boy I must’ve been! Come now, let us set it ablaze that this blue hue might fade from our extremities and our cheeks might lose this waxy quality and assume again a rosy glow! Merry Christmas!” Once again, not a direct quote.
Another guess, here: when coal based heating was phased out and replaced with gas or oil or whatever it was that came after coal, people, excepting perhaps the blacksmiths and goldsmiths and various other smiths who forge metals, didn’t want coal anymore. And no one wants a stocking full of gas or oil. That idea seems cruel, even for the naughty children. “Here, son! You’ve been less than exemplary this year. Have a sock full of dangerous combustibles! ‘Tis no less than you deserve. Just don’t go near the fire with that, or we’ll all come to know the Christ whose mass we now celebrate much sooner than we’d hoped.”
So I guess, once coal was no longer sought after, folks could get it easier and more cheaply so they continued to put it into stockings, now as a punishment rather than a reward. I think the logic went something like this: Coal is cheap now. I’ve been getting coal for my kids every year from Soot-eye Steven. I’m not so creative as to be able to deduce a better gift and Steven’s business isn’t doing so hot (Saints forgive me the pun) right now. I’ll keep getting them coal, but tell them it’s because they didn’t finish their figgy pudding. We all must keep up with appearances and eat that stuff. Elsewise how will future generations know that we were true Dickensian Londoners? Perhaps when they receive a filthy rock we’ve no longer a purpose for they’ll get the idea.
Then somehow the idea stuck.
I bid you adieu…and a don’t.
Adieu…enjoy Christmas for what it is. A hodge-podge of strange traditions that, while making little sense, brings loved ones together.
A don’t…fill stockings with electricity. It is a prevalent source of heating these days, but now they have programs to help those who can’t afford a warm home.