Why Do Bad Kids Get Coal on Christmas?

bad-kids-coal-christmas Credit: TimothyJ/CC-BY 2.0

The tradition of Santa giving bad kids the undesirable present of coal in their Christmas stockings derives from earlier European traditions. Both the Befana, the Italian Yuletide witch and Krampus, the bizarre Christmas demon of Austria, have punished bad children with gifts of coal for centuries.

The horned Krampus, monstrous and horrifying in appearance, accompanies Saint Nicholas on his house visits, frightening and threatening the bad children and giving them coal. Regional variations of Krampus include the Swiss Schmuztli and the Bavarian Pelzebock.

Though a more amiable being, the Italian La Befana is a witch. Her story begins on the night of the Nativity, when the shepherds asked her to come along with them to the site of the miraculous birth. She declined, and did so again when the Magi invited her, preferring to stay and sweep the floors. Soon she realized her error, and since then, so the story goes, La Befana has been looking in every house for the Holy Infant.

She flies on a broomstick, distributing gifts to worthy children on Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Italian Children receive presents from both La Befana and Santa. In contemporary times, all of the children also receive coal in the form of a black, blocky candy called carbone dolce della Befana, or Befana's sweet coal.