The hanging of stockings by the fireplace is one of the most popularly observed Christmas customs. However, the fireplace is not the exclusive option. People who do not have a fireplace with a mantlepiece hang their stockings on doorknobs, windowsills, or bedposts. But do not worry, when Christmas Eve arrives, Santa Claus will find them anyway!
In recent years, the stockings are made large and colourful and contain toys as well as the traditional orange, nuts and gold (chocolate) coins. But in earlier years it was usually an ordinary sock worn daily by the children which was hung up to wait for Santa.
Toys put into Christmas Stockings would be small items such as Spinning Tops, Knitting Dolls, Yo-Yo’s. with Sweets, oranges and perhaps a Party Blow-Out item with a feather on the end which made a loud noise when blown.
But what was the origin for this long-held tradition? While there is no single account that defines it, but there are a few legends that illustrate the custom of hanging Christmas stockings.
One of the legends regarding Christmas stockings takes us to a small village where the destiny of a once wealthy merchant and his daughters changed overnight when they fell into poverty. The father was worried about the future of his children and was afraid that he would not be able to provide dowries for their marriages in the future. At that time, this meant an almost humiliation due to the impossibility of wedlock.
The tradition of Christmas stockings originated in the generous deeds of a nobleman named Nicholas who was born in 280 A.D. in Asia Minor. Nicholas dedicated his life using his wealth to help impoverished and suffering people. He became the Bishop of Myra in his younger years and later a Saint, and was immensely popular for his kind, generous heart. While the now-famous St. Nicholas travelled, he passed through the village and heard the sad story about the merchant and his daughters, learning from the locals that he would not accept any gifts of charity.
St. Nicholas wanted to help but knew that the old man would not accept charity and so he decided to help in secret. After dark he threw three bags of gold through an open window, one landed in a stocking. When the girls and their father woke up the next morning, they found the bags of gold and were, of course, overjoyed. The girls were able to get married and live happily ever after. Other versions of the story say that Saint Nicholas threw the three bags of gold directly into the stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry. The oranges we receive today are a symbol of the gold that was left in the stockings.
Nicholas never married or had children, but he loved children and thus often regaled those who lived in his hometown. This practice provided him with the epithet “the gift-giver of Myra.” Interestingly, his nobility never prevailed his modesty, so he always gave his presents late at night in order to protect his identity. He did not like the children to know who their patron was, so they were often told to go and sleep or otherwise he would not visit them.
In the 12th Century, French nuns, inspired by the legend of St Nicholas – who gave gold to the poor – began leaving stockings full of fruit, including tangerines, and nuts at the houses of poor people, a custom still held by some.