By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 December 2015)
The tradition of filling stockings with loot, which has been with us for centuries, is attributed to a legend of unknown origin. A widower despaired of his daughters’ marriage prospects because the family was poor. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but he knew that the father was too proud to accept charity, so he came down the family’s chimney, where he found the daughters’ stockings hanging to dry by the hearth and filled them with gold coins.
As for why badly behaved children are supposed to receive coal in their stockings, no one seems to know for sure. However, Matt Soniak (Why Does Santa Give Coal to Bad Kids, MentalFloss.com) suggests a plausible explanation: Santa comes down the chimney, and in the olden days, people often had coal fires, so there would have been lumps of coal readily available to pop into the stockings of children deemed undeserving of toys and treats.
For more on the history of Christmas and its traditions, gift ideas, and Christmas crafts, see the main Christmas page.