Christmas stockings have become a huge part of our holiday traditions every single year. There’s something special about hanging them up on the mantel and searching for the perfect little gifts to add to each one. To many, stockings are just as precious and enjoyable as traditional gifts!
And it’s clear that the history and traditions behind stockings make them even more special.
The History of Christmas Stockings
While the exact origins of the Christmas stocking aren’t clear, there are two popular myths that have been told for generations and are believed to be true.
The first myth starts with the legend of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus). There was a poor man whose wife died, leaving him alone with three daughters. In his grief, he squandered the little money he had. So when the daughters were old enough to get married, the father didn’t have enough of a dowry to find them a good husband.
But good ole St. Nick heard their story and wanted to help, secretly. When he visited their house during the night, he saw that the daughters had hung their laundry up to dry over the fireplace, including their stockings. So while they were sleeping, he filled the first daughter’s stocking with gold. When the father and daughters woke up, they were elated! And on the following two nights, Nicholas returned, providing the other daughters with a good dowry as well. The girls were all able to marry well and the father was elated!
Fun fact: Oranges that are traditionally put in Christmas stockings represent the gold that the girls received from St. Nicholas.
In Holland, there was a man called Sinterklaas in Dutch (i.e. Santa Claus). He and his assistant Zwart Piet (Black Pete) would travel via boat and dock in the harbor of cities all around the country. Then, they would ride on a white horse and a mule from house to house with gifts for the local children.
Dutch children would leave wooden shoes by the fireplace filled with straw and carrots for the horse and mule. The next morning, the snacks would be eaten and, in their place, there would be candies, nuts, and small wooden toys!
Christmas Stockings in America
Interestingly enough, Christmas stockings weren’t mentioned anywhere in American writing until 1822, in “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” The traditional Christmas poem was written by Clement Clark Moore for his family and was later published.
“Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
It is generally assumed, though, that the idea of Christmas stockings migrated over from Europe, just like many of the other Christmas traditions that we celebrate.
Christmas stockings didn’t used to be fancy. Each year, children would simply hang long socks over the mantel to be filled with nuts, fruits, candies, and small toys.
Eventually, families began knitting their own Christmas stockings and customizing them with names or initials. Once that trend caught on, craft stores started selling materials and patterns for stockings, which gradually gave way to mass-produced stockings. The traditional red stocking came into play around 1960.
Fun fact: The idea of children receiving coal in stockings if they were bad is thought to have come from an Italian legend. In Italy, children were said to receive visits from a witch named “La Befana” who flew on a broom and would leave good children candy and toys, and naughty children coal.
Stockings in Different Cultures
The tradition of Christmas stockings varies dramatically from country to country. Here are a few ways that the tradition is carried out:
France: French children put their shoes by the fireplace with a carrot or treat in it for Père Noël‘s donkey. When they wake up, they find candy, money, or small toys in their place.
The United Kingdom: In the U.K., kids hang stockings from the fireplace mantle to catch the coins that Father Christmas drops down the chimney.
Ecuador: Ecuadorian children put their Christmas lists inside of their shoes. Those lists are replaced by Papa Noel with new shoes and presents.
Iceland: In Iceland, children leave their shoes on the windowsill. 13 mythical elves called Olasveiner visit one at a time over 13 days to leave gifts. Children that were bad over the year are given potatoes.
Hong Kong and China: Though Christmas is not traditionally celebrated in these countries, those that do celebrate hang muslin stockings up and wait for Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) to fill them.
Puerto Rico: In Puerto Rico, children put cut grass in a shoeboxes underneath their beds on the night before Three Kings day (January 6th) for the three wise men’s camels. The next day, they find a small toy in the box instead.
Modern Stocking Traditions
Today, Christmas stockings vary in style from family to family. It’s very common now to get personalized stockings, with initials or names embroidered into the fabric.
Some families choose a rustic style, with burlap and plaid, while others go with shiny silver or gold. Traditional Christmas imagery is also popular sewn onto stockings—snowmen, Santa Claus, candy canes, Christmas mangers, gingerbread men, and red and green colors.
Pet stockings are becoming more and more popular as well. Pet-loving families purchase fish-shaped stockings for cats and bone-shaped stockings for dogs and fill them with the animal’s favorite treats and toys!