“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” This famous line from the 1823 poem. written by Clement Clarke Moore, entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” is widely known around the world. Therefore, we know that Christmas stockings were around since at least 1823 but when and where did they originate? This blog will look at Christmas stockings, possible origins, and modern-day usage. Information in this blog comes from Christmas stocking, Then and Now: The Evolution of the Christmas Stocking, The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings was introduced by St. Nicholas, the patron of children, and Socks or Shoes? Why We Hang Christmas Stockings.
What is a Christmas Stocking?
A Christmas stocking is an empty sock or sock-shaped bag that is hung on Saint Nicholas Day or Christmas Eve so that Saint Nicholas (or the related figures of Santa Claus and Father Christmas) can fill it with small toys, candy, fruit, coins, or other small gifts when he arrives. These small items are often referred to as stocking stuffers or stocking fillers. In some Christmas stories, the contents of the Christmas stocking are the only toys the child receives at Christmas from Santa Claus; in other stories (and in tradition), some presents are also wrapped up in wrapping paper and placed under the Christmas tree. Tradition in Western culture threatens that a child who behaves badly during the year will receive only a piece or pile of coal. Some people even put their Christmas stocking by their bedposts so Santa Claus can fill it by the bed while they sleep.
Christmas stockings did not used to be fancy. Each year, children would simply hang long socks over the mantel to be filled with nuts, fruits, candies, and small toys.
Eventually, families began knitting their own Christmas stockings and customizing them with names or initials. Once that trend caught on, craft stores started selling materials and patterns for stockings, which gradually gave way to mass-produced stockings. The traditional red stocking came into play around 1960.
Today, Christmas stockings vary in style from family to family. Pet stockings are becoming more and more popular as well. Pet-loving families purchase fish-shaped stockings for cats and bone-shaped stockings for dogs and fill them with the animal’s favorite treats and toys!
Possible Origins of the Christmas Stocking
According to legend, the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings comes from the fourth century and involves the man Santa Claus is based off, St. Nicholas. While passing through a town, Nicholas heard of a man who was grieving the loss of his wife, as well as his poor fortune, unable to pay a dowry for his three daughters’ potential suitors. Upon hearing the news, legend states Nicholas sneaked into the man’s home — or climbed down the chimney — and dropped gold coins in the daughters’ stockings, which were hanging by the fireplace to dry. The poor man, too proud to accept donations, could pay dowries for his daughters. As the story spread, families began putting gifts in stockings to mimic receiving good gifts from Santa Claus.
In another version of the story, gold balls were placed in the stockings. This turned into the tradition of putting oranges in stockings, which resemble gold but are much more affordable to the general public.
Another amusing legend that explains the tradition of Christmas stockings derives from the Dutch folklore. In the Netherlands, Santa Claus, called “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, and his fellow assistant Black Pete or “Zwarte Piet” annually dock in the harbor of a different city. When they disembark, Sinterklaas and his pal travel around upon a white steed and a mule. The children impatiently wait for their arrival and prepare special treats of hay and carrots which they place in their wooden clogs.
On the day of the arrival, the horse, the mule, and Sinterklaas would enjoy the children’s treats and then reward their devotion and care with small presents such as candies, ornaments, nuts in shells, miniature toys etc. When the Dutch settlers immigrated to America, they introduced Americans to many of their traditions. After a while, Sinterklaas became known as Santa Claus and, allegedly, the wooden clogs were replaced by stockings.
The tradition of putting coal in stockings comes from Italy, where La Befana, an elderly woman who is said to be searching for the three wise men and baby Jesus, left candy for the nice children and coal or dark candy for the naughty children on her travels.
Modern Day Stocking Traditions from Around the World
France: French children put their shoes by the fireplace with a carrot or treat in it for Père Noël‘s donkey. When they wake up, they find candy, money, or small toys in their place.
The United Kingdom: In the U.K., kids hang stockings from the fireplace mantle to catch the coins that Father Christmas drops down the chimney.
Ecuador: Ecuadorian children put their Christmas lists inside of their shoes. Those lists are replaced by Papa Noel with new shoes and presents.
Iceland: In Iceland, children leave their shoes on the windowsill. 13 mythical elves called Olasveiner visit one at a time over 13 days to leave gifts. Children that were bad over the year are given potatoes.
Hong Kong and China: Though Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in these countries, those that do celebrate hang muslin stockings up and wait for Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) to fill them.
Puerto Rico: In Puerto Rico, children put cut grass in shoeboxes underneath their beds on the night before Three Kings day (January 6th) for the three wise men’s camels. The next day, they find a small toy in the box instead.