The Christmas stocking tradition
Christmas is probably the most tradition packed holiday there is, and over the years I’ve enjoyed chasing some of them down to find their origin. One I’ve gone after is the Christmas stocking, which in present day has become a large, usually ornate sock shaped bag that is hung up on Christmas Eve so Santa can fill it with small toys, candy, fruit, and such.
Th modern stocking is an anti-climax to the larger, glitzier gifts found wrapped under the tree. But in my parent’s day, growing up on a Tennessee hillside farm, the Christmas stocking was center stage, because what was in it was all they got. Mom told me they would take a sock they wore every day (clean she emphasized) and hang it on the “fireboard” (mantle). In the morning the kids would find them filled with an apple, orange, banana, stick candy, nuts, and some small gift such as a doll, cap pistol, or pocketknife. And, long pause, they were very happy to get it.
No one knows exactly how the stocking tradition came about, but there is an old European legend that may have got things going, so gather round for a story: There was once a kind nobleman whose wife died and had lost all his money foolishly, leaving him and his three daughters in great despair. They had to move to a peasant’s cottage, and the nobleman was very distraught because his daughters could not marry without dowries.
Saint Nicholas heard of the nobleman’s plight and wanted to help, but knew the old man would not accept charity, so he decided to help in secret. Nicholas waited until night and snuck into their house, where he noticed that the daughters had hung their stockings over the mantelpiece for drying. So he put a bag of gold in each stocking and slipped back out into the night.
The family awoke the next morning and was overjoyed at finding the gold. The girls were able to get married, and everyone lived happily ever after, the end.
The Dutch like to claim starting the stocking tradition, for it was told that during the 16th century children in Holland would leave their wooden clogs by the hearth filled with straw and carrots for reindeer (or maybe donkeys), and a treat was left for “Sinterklaas”, their version of Saint Nicholas. In return the Saint would fill the shoes with treats.
Whatever the origin, the tradition is celebrated the world over in various ways. In Puerto Rico, Children put flowers and greens in small boxes placed under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings; French children place shoes (traditionally wooden peasant shoes) by the fireplace; Italian children also leave their shoes out on the night before Epiphany for La Befana, a good witch; In Hungary the kids shine up their shoes and place them by the door, hoping they will be filled with treats.
Whether you are the hanger of stockings or the filler upper, may the old tradition bring you joy.
Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tenn.