"You'd better watch out. If you're not a good girl, you'll find nothing but a lump of coal in your stocking." I'm sure most of us heard that one while we were going up, and it still amazes me, the lengths that our parents went to to ensure that we behaved. I remember every year as a child that I would be so anxious to see if Santa really did believe I was naughty or nice, always fearful that maybe I had done something wrong...and it didn't help matters any that my grandparents were still heating their home by coal; hence, I was told that Santa would stop there first and pick up a few lumps. And, although I always considered myself a good girl, I still worried that one Christmas morning I would wake up and instead of the usual candy, chocolate, and small toys, I would find coal in my stocking.
I both loved and feared Santa, and as I look back on it, I think it took a lot of joy out of the holiday for me. I was just a little girl with really no clear understanding yet of what adults considered good or bad. If I spilled my milk, was that considered bad? Or when I came in from playing outdoors and tracked some mud on the floor. My parents had their faults, but I do realize that they were not trying to be mean about this. They were only following a tradition that was so old no one really knows where it came from. But, it was not one that I chose to pass along to my sons. I didn't want them to live in fear around Christmas. I wanted them to enjoy every aspect of the holiday....so the lump of coal was left in the past... where I believe it well belongs.
While most in most traditions, a lump of coal in one's stocking is the result of bad behavior, for some, coal was a welcome gift. At one time, most of England and Europe were powered by coal, and most household furnaces were coal burning. The people would take hot coals and place them in pans under the bed in order to keep themselves warm at night. Hence, coals was a valuable commodity. Hence, when you were a child from a poor family, you considered yourself lucky to get that coal that you could use to keep yourself warm on cold winter nights.
From Italy comes another legend. According to tradition, good old St. Nicholas of Padua was known to throw long knitted purses, tied at both ends, into the open windows of those who were very poor. These purses were made of yarn and not unlike a footless stocking. Eventually, it became the people began hanging these long empty receptacles out of their windows on the night before Christmas so that St. Nicholas could put a gift into them as he passed by. By and by, when coin became scarce, toys were put in for the children and useful presents for grown people. And, in the northern part of the country where it was actually quite cold at Christmas time, the purses were hung on the mantelpiece; it was believed that St. Nicholas would come down the chimney and fill them. When these purses went out of use, stockings were substituted and have been used ever since.
So, come Christmas, I will once again fill our stockings. Each of us has one, including my cat whose stocking usually is filled with treats, balls, and little furry mice. Even my birds had one when they were still with us. It's just one tradition that I will never let go of , and the stockings are usually filled with something that will encourage the use each of the five senses--touch, smell, taste, see, and hearing...just as I had been taught. And hopefully one day, many generations from now, my descendants will arise on Christmas morn and, as they look into their stockings, remember the tradition that was passed on by their great great grandma, Mary.