The history of the stocking

Oct 29, 2009 at 12:23 a.m. ET

Families in the US have been hanging stockings above the fireplace mantle for years. But where did this tradition actually come from?

Three Christmas Stockings

A fuzzy red stocking with white, fluffy trim is a quintessential symbol of Christmas and the holiday season. Most modern families use stockings as a small gift holder, but there are actually some very colorful legends associated with the Christmas stocking that don't include the purchase of impulse buys from your local department store!

The poor, kind nobleman

Many believe there was once a kind nobleman whose wife had died of an illness, leaving the man and his three daughters in despair. In those days, a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands a dowry that usually included money and property. Without dowries, the man's daughters were therefore destined to be sold into slavery.

When the good Saint Nicholas of Myra heard of the family's plight, he went to their home late one night and tossed three bags of gold down the chimney, knowing that the father would be too proud to accept money from him. As the story goes, a bag fell into each of the sisters' stockings that were hanging by the fire to dry. His kindhearted gift made it possible for all three sisters to marry.

Word spread quickly of the kindhearted St. Nicholas. Soon the villagers, as well as children around the world, started hanging stockings by the fireplace.

The Dutch theory

One legend claims that it was the Dutch who introduced the Christmas stocking to America. It is said that during the 16th century, children in Holland would leave their clogs by the hearth filled with carrots and straw for the reindeer (or donkey). A treat for Sinterklaas was left in the house near the fire, and in return he would leave the children treats. Later the clogs would become stockings and the saint would become known by all as Santa Claus.

The North American theory

Some believe the first mention of Christmas stockings being hung from a chimney was through pictures illustrated by Thomas Nast that accompanied the story written by George Webster about a visit from Santa Claus.

Cultural variations

Families all over the world continue to practice traditions associated with the Christmas stocking. In Puerto Rico, children put flowers and greens in small boxes and place them under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings. On the night before Epiphany, January 5th, Italian children leave their shoes out for La Befana, the good witch, and children in Hungary shine their shoes before putting them near the door or a windowsill.

Today, modern American families decorate stockings to their own character and taste. Until recently, it was traditional to receive small items like fruit, nuts, candy and coins in your stocking. No matter which theory or legend you honor, the tradition of the Christmas stocking remains a significant part of holiday cheer the world over.

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