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My dear child.


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. 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.

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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. Nick as wholly benevolent, his bag containing only toys for the good little girls and boys.

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A lash meant for punishment appears, but again no coal. The adoption of coal, as the historian Sean Patrick Adams explains in his book Home Fireswas just beginning in the s. It would not finish until roughly the s.

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Before then, many people still burned wood in their hearths. Instead of coal, naughty children received stonesfresh whips in the form of small branches, ashesor cold potato es 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 W. 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.

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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. 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.

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Coal was likely the closest stone Tom could find in his urban environment. His house would have a small pile ready to be burned.

He knows if you've been naughty

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. 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.

Coal was a fondly remembered Christmas tradition by the end of the decade. 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.

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. These are all jokes, of course. Coal symbolism also appears in popular media. Books for all ages, from children to adultsretell 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.

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Read: The joy of no-gift Christmas. Social media is no stranger to lumps of coal, either. On Twitteryou can find people suggesting potential lump-of-coal recipients all throughout the year.

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Instagram has a few thousand posts for lumpofcoal and coalforchristmasalthough the former is mainly advertisements for products on Etsy. A poignant example of this type of video records 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.

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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.

Coal ed for nearly 15 percent of all the energy consumed in 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.

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People joke about giving gifts of coal as a nostalgic vestige of Christmases past. Even jokes about coal, like Joel, feature widely known facts about its role in climate change.

"does santa really know if i have been naughty or nice?"

Despite that awareness, people continue to accept coal power and blithely give coal gifts. 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. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe.

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You're at a Christmas party.


Traditionally the worst thing badly behaved American children have had to fear during the holiday season was reaching into their Christmas stocking and pulling out a lump of coal.