Hanging out Christmas stockings for Santa, choosing and buying gifts and stocking stuffers for the family. For many, a holiday without stockings just wouldn’t feel like Christmas at all! So, imagine a time long before the holiday stocking and even before Santa. How did celebrating a Christian holiday turn into a celebration that includes a colorful cast of characters including Santa, elves and reindeer? To witness the history of the stocking and learn why these holiday must-haves hold such a place in our hearts, read on!
For many the legend of the Christmas stocking begins and ends with an old English story. According to the story, there once lived a widowed nobleman who lived with three daughters. Unhappy and unable to pay for his three daughters to marry, the nobleman prayed for good fortune. Then, one cold night, fortune came his way in the shape of Saint Nicholas. Knowing that the poor nobleman was proud and unlikely to take a gift of money out of hand, as Saint Nicholas crept through the village, he decided to slip down the nobleman’s chimney to leave behind a gift of money. Not knowing exactly where to safely stow the coins, he decided to hide the gold inside each of the three stockings that were left hanging on the mantelpiece to dry. The next morning, when the daughters awoke, they were stunned to find the money and praised Saint Nicholas. Now able to marry off his daughters, the nobleman and his family lived happily ever after.
And so, it is thought, ever since, children across the world have kept the legend of Saint Nicholas’ generosity alive, either by hanging stockings, or by waiting for Saint Nick to deliver them a few gifts or treats. In some countries shoes and clogs have replaced stockings and a few other Christmastime legends have also come into play. In France children leave shoes out for Père Noël to fill with gifts and little treats, and, in Spain children leave shoes out that have been carefully and kindly filled with carrots and hay to feed the Wise Men’s horses who they believe reenact the journey to Bethlehem each Christmas. And as for Santa, it’s not him that is said to visit children on Christmas night, it is Balthazar, one of the Wise Men himself!
And the differences in stocking traditions certainly don’t end there! In fact, elsewhere, children receive gifts on days other than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as well. In Italy, children wait until January 6, when La Befana, an old woman with a witch-like appearance comes to deliver treats to children who have been good and punishment to kids who have been bad! In Sweden, children celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day on December 13 with an elaborate festival featuring a special candlelit procession, traditional food and singing.
In fact, alongside the old English legend of Saint Nicholas, it is also thought that some other European festivals have played into our modern day legend of Santa too. Although different in many respects from our own Santa Claus, the Dutch legend of SinterKlaas or Sint Nicolaas may explain some of the traditions we follow today, especially as it widely thought that the Dutch colonials first introduced many Christmas holiday traditions to the US.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, is celebrated from the evening of December 5 through December 6. It is on this night, according to tradition, that Saint Nicholas and his faithful servant Peter come to visit, bringing with them gifts and filling children’s clogs with candy and surprise presents. Even today, Saint Nicholas’ Day is a much larger affair for Dutch children than Christmas Day itself. Across the country, children receive most of their holiday gifts on December 5 and 6 and the two-day festival is filled with processions symbolizing Saint Nicholas’ arrival and a host of special Sinterklaas parties.
Dutch Santa or old English nobleman — one thing’s for sure, whichever legend you believe, stockings have certainly got larger and more elaborate than their colonial predecessors. Whereas today oversized, intricately designed special holiday stockings are a household favorite, the first stockings were almost certainly regular household socks. It wasn’t until popular nineteenth century American illustrator Thomas Nast decided to publish a holiday illustration of a cozy fireside scene, complete with stockings hanging from the mantelpiece, that the idea of decorative holiday stockings entered public consciousness.
So this holiday season, why not borrow from history a little by adopting few age-old stocking traditions and legends alive? Enjoy the story of the poor noble man? Then why not try adding a bag of luxurious chocolate gold coins to your mix of fun toys and stocking stuffers? Or, you could even revive another old tradition by placing a small orange in the toe of your stockings as a symbol of the gold that Saint Nicholas left the three unmarried daughters. Happy holidays!