The Birth of the Christmas Stocking: A Time-Honoured Tradition

What is it about family traditions that open the floodgates of our memories and warm the cockles of our hearts? Most often observed during a holiday, traditions learned during childhood are carried into adulthood without question or missing a beat.

Mum’s special stuffing – always the same every year, dad’s life-sized Santa standing by his sleigh and reindeer up on the roof, and Christmas stocking toes filled with a big navel orange.

I may not have the big ole Santa on my roof, but I still make my mum’s stuffing every
Thanksgiving, and a stocking is not a Christmas stocking unless the toe is plumped up with an orange.

Do you ever wonder where your family traditions began? I’ll bet if you asked your parents, the answer would be “because that is what my parents did.” We need no other explanation; hence the tradition lives on.

The Christmas stocking – my all-time favorite tradition – has quite a compelling past and although each story has the same happy ending, the specifics change from country to country.

Legend has it that the tradition of filling stockings with gifts started back in the fourth century when a kind nobleman, with three marriage-minded daughters, was too poor to pay their dowries. Saint Nicholas heard of the father’s despair and stopped by their home one evening. Everyone was already in bed; peeking in the window, St. Nicholas saw the daughters’ stockings hanging by the fire to dry. He climbed on the roof and threw three bags of gold coins down the chimney into the daughters’ stockings so the dowries could be paid. The girls were married and they all lived happily ever after.

As the story traveled around the world and through the years, it was twisted and tweaked, as stories often are. In some countries, stockings were replaced with shoes - some as empty vessels ready to welcome small gifts, cookies or candy, and some filled with gifts for the giver.

In Holland, wooden shoes are left by the fireplace filled with hay and a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse, which is replaced with gifts during the night.

The French version dates back to when wooden peasant shoes were worn by the children, who placed them by the fireplace waiting to be filled by Le Pere Noel.

In Italy, shoes are left out the night before Epiphany, January 6th, as opposed to Christmas Eve. Instead of Santa, La Befana, the good witch, is the bearer of surprises.

The children in Hungary shine their shoes until they can see their expectant faces in them, and then place them near a door or on a windowsill to be stuffed with treats.

In Puerto Rico, small boxes are filled with flowers and greens, and then tucked under the bed for the Three Kings’ camels.

In Canada, it is tradition for Santa to stuff the toe of stockings with oranges (hmm…), and in China children hang stockings made of muslin, which are filled by Dun Che Lao Ren.

Here, in America, it seems bits and pieces of these traditions have weaved their way through the ages into our homes, all starting in the 1800’s with Twas the Night before Christmas by Clement Moore Clark and illustrated by Thomas Nast.

Today, the tradition of the Christmas stocking, although glittered with yet more tweaks and twists, carries on. The anticipation when hanging that empty stocking is the same; the happy ending as you tear into the delights inside is the same. Santa still earns his cookies and milk - the difference is in the stuffing.

Christmas Stockings

Stockings, once filled with little toys, fruit, nuts, cookies, and candies, are now filled with iPhones, diamond earrings, the occasional set of car keys, and gift cards for a coveted Babolat tennis racquet, leather jacket, or snowboard.

Although Santa has upped the ante from trinkets to high end treasures, the romanticism of the Christmas stocking remains the same at every age.

For me, digging my way through the gifts and the walnuts, to the orange – the grand prize – conjures up memories of Christmases past; always warming my heart, maybe bringing a tear or two as I remember my mum, and never ceasing to turn the corners of my mouth into a big smile.

How about you? What is the one thing that finds its way into your family’s Christmas stockings year after year?

Suzi Martel, founder of In Suzi’s Words, is a freelance lifestyle writer, from Southern California, who has a passion for writing informative, entertaining copy on a variety of topics such as; sports, exercise, healthy living, and caring for others.

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