The etiology of the Christmas stocking is unconfirmed, but people have been using stockings for centuries (Spivack). Today’s American children hang stockings on their fireplace mantels or wherever they can if they don’t have fireplaces. On Christmas morning, everyone opens their stockings and gets small gifts. The origin of stockings is supposedly a story about three daughters who need money to get married, but the tradition has evolved into a Christmas action tailored to each individual family celebrating the holiday.
One account of the legend of the Christmas stocking surrounds a widowed man who is the father of three daughters. He is poor, and although his daughters have beauty, he fears their future if he doesn’t have enough money to marry them off. Santa hears of the family’s plight, and one night, he fills their drying socks with gold. The family’s problems are solved, and it is unknown where this legend originates (Spivack).
Another account of the same story still includes a widowed man with three daughters, but it includes more detail about the events. The father is poor due to running out of money through poor investments. He fears his daughters will have to become prostitutes because he has no money for a dowry. A former monk, Sinter Klaus, hears about the girls’ problems, and he decides to help. He leaves bags of gold by their chimney, and one bag accidently falls into a sock that is drying on the mantle. He is caught but tries to reject recognition. The tales of his generosity leaks to the public, and he is named Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children (Melina).
One gift that is often received in a stocking is an orange, and this is related to another account of the legend of the Christmas stocking. In some versions of the story, Santa gave 3 gold balls to the girls. Since the average person is not able to give gold balls to their children, oranges are a symbolic substitute. However, others claim that the orange used to be a special treat because fresh fruit was hard to come by. As previously stated, the etiology of the Christmas stocking is unconfirmed (Spivack).
Throughout Christmas literature, stockings are reaffirmed as a tradition. In 1823, Clement Clark Moore wrote, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” where the children received gifts in their stockings. Many are more familiar with “The Night Before Christmas,” where the stockings were hung by the children. Christmas stockings are well known in the United States, but in the mid-1800s, according to The New York Times, they were almost replaced by Christmas trees (Spivack). Today the trees and stockings coexist during the holidays.
In the past, children hung their own socks over the fireplace mantel, and they received candy if they were good and coal if they were bad (“Christmas Day”). Today’s stockings are fabric art pieces filled with an assortment of gifts, candy, and the occasional lump of coal. Many children still receive oranges in their stocking, but the symbolic nature of the gesture is largely unknown.
Many people cater their stockings to their own family’s wants and desires. I have heard of families that put chocolate oranges in stockings, yet another version of tradition. However, I’ve also heard of people putting cans of olives in stockings, so the children may play with the olives on their fingers. Some families give candy in stockings, and others give rather expensive gifts like jewelry. People decorate their stockings in Christmas colors traditionally, but today’s stockings appear in any color and are often adorned with names and other decorations. Even pets get stockings.
- “Christmas Day.” Federal Holidays, pp. 52-57, https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/christmasday.pdf. Accessed 27 February 2017.
- Melina, Remy. “Why Do We Hang Stockings for Christmas?” LiveScience, 2010, http://www.livescience.com/32906-hang-stockings-for-christmas.html. Accessed 27 February 2017.
- Spivack, Emily. “The Legend of the Christmas Stocking: What’s Behind the Holiday Tradition of Hanging Hosiery on the Firelplace?” Smithsonian, 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-legend-of-the-christmas-stocking-160854441/. Accessed 27 February 2017.