The Interesting Origin of the Christmas Stocking Tradition

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Last Updated on November 28, 2022

There’s nothing that puts the finishing touches on your glittering holiday decor quite like hanging those big, beautiful Christmas stockings over the fireplace.

But have you ever stopped long enough to wonder why we have such a peculiar ritual? Like, what is the origin of the Christmas stocking tradition? Is hanging oversized socks over a fire… normal?

Well, today we’re going to answer those questions and more on the interesting origins of the Christmas stocking. From their legendary beginnings (it’s quite literally a legend), to their modern adaptations: read on for more about this fascinating Christmas tradition!

The Legend of the Christmas Stocking

The best place to start is the very beginning, right? Right. So. Once upon a time… 

Just kidding.

This legend has developed many, many variations and twists over the centuries, but most of the major details remain the same. It tells the story of a widowed nobleman who was also the father of three, lovely young daughters. After the his wife passed, the nobleman fell into difficult times financially and subsequently began to worry about how his situation would affect his girls’ future.

Since they lived during an era when dowries were a requirement, the nobleman knew that his poor finances meant his daughters would never receive offers of marriage, nor would they receive any inheritance once he passed away. In short, his beautiful girls would be destitute.

During the Christmas season, Saint Nicholas was passing through the nobleman’s village and heard the townsfolk speaking of his distressing situation. Moved by the story, Saint Nicholas snuck into the nobleman’s home in the middle of the night and placed a solid gold sphere in the toe of each of the girl’s stockings, which happened to be drying by the fire.

With this anonymous surprise gift the girls’ situation was resolved and they were able to marry. Such a touching, sweet story, huh?

Related: Personalized Christmas Stockings for the Whole Family

The “Christmas” Stocking and St. Nicholas Day

Though the legend of the first “Christmas Stockings” quickly spread and started to establish itself as a staple family tradition, you might be surprised to hear that it originally wasn’t associated with Christmas. Like, at all. 

Stockings were originally used to celebrate St. Nicholas Day (celebrated on December 6th), not Christmas. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that stockings began to appear in writings and illustrations in conjunction with Christmas. 

The Christmas Stocking Tradition

traditional christmas stockings

Original Christmas Stockings

Original Christmas stockings were just that: small, very much worn, everyday stockings usually made out of wool or cotton. Because of their small size, the gifts placed inside were usually very humble.

Different varieties of nuts, dried fruits, fresh fruits (citrus was especially prized), trinkets and hand made toys were the most common.

Over time, of course, stocking gifts have changed. What do we put into stockings these days? Here are some ideas:

Why Do We Hang Stockings?

We hang stockings because, well, it’s tradition! While most of us aren’t hanging our stockings by the fire to dry (if you are, kudos to you), we still hang them to remind us of simpler times and the humble origins of the tradition. 

And because they just look so cute and cozy hung over the hearth, don’t they?

Related: 15 Meaningful Christmas Traditions for Your Family

Christmas Trees Went… Extinct?

At one point in history, Christmas trees nearly became obsolete—in favor of Christmas stockings! This was partly due to the tree’s Germanic origins and the growing hostilities during the world war eras, as well as a reluctance to place a “dead, decapitated young tree” in the midst of the home. 

Because of this rapid decline in Christmas tree popularity, Christmas stockings got the limelight for a good long while! 

Shops and homemakers came out with all sorts of new and improved stockings, designed specifically for maximum gift capacity. Patterns and colors and shapes abounded, offering families more options than ever before.

Christmas Stockings Around the World

Christmas Stockings Around the World

While stockings were extremely popular in parts of Europe and America and remain so today, there are many other traditions similar to stockings that are used with the same or similar intent.

Let’s take a look at them:

Iceland: Children leave their shoes in the window sill for “Olasveiners” or mythical elves to leave treasures in them. This takes place over a thirteen day period, and the elves fill the shoes each night.

France: In France, children leave their shoes in front of the fireplace with either carrots or apples in them as a treat for Pierre Noel’s donkey. In turn they receive toys and small gifts in them the next morning.

Kenya: Children hang bags either from the doorpost or handle, and family members come by on Christmas or Boxing Day to fill it.

Ecuador: In Ecuador, children write letters to St. Nick or “Papa Noel” that include a list of gifts that they wish for. They then leave the letters in their shoes near the front door, and awake the next morning to various gifts and treasures.

Hong Kong: Children hang muslin stockings in hopes that Dun Che Lao Ren or “Old Man Christmas” will fill them with toys. 

India: Small, woven baskets are left out and filled overnight with fruits and sweets. They represent good times and health for the years to come.

Related: 101 Christmas Activities That Everyone Loves

The Christmas Stocking in Modern Culture

Even if someone isn’t familiar with the history of the Christmas stocking tradition, it is still one of the most easily recognizable symbols of the holiday. 

These days, Christmas stockings come in more shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns than you can shake a stick at. Big ones, small ones, stockings for your pets, knitted stockings, burlap stockings, even eco-friendly stockings! 

There is just something so magical and timeless about this tradition that has cemented itself into holiday culture. It’s been around for over two centuries, and we really don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon. 

Here’s to two more centuries of stocking surprises and happy children on Christmas morning!

Read Next: Christmas Planning: How to Win the Holidays

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