Why do we hang oversized socks on our mantels on Christmas Eve? The answer involves marriage dowries, competition for with Christmas trees, and jolly old Saint Nicholas.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
– A Visit from Saint Nicholas
Many of us have fond memories of waking up on Christmas morning and unwrapping long-anticipated gifts. Just when we thought the excitement was over, we turned to our stocking, pulling one thing after another in delight—candy and small trinkets and electronic gadgets and probably some socks.
But in 1823, when Clement Clark Moore wrote his famous poem now beginning with the line “Twas the night before Christmas,” stockings were the main event, rather than being an accessory to larger or more expensive presents. At this time, stockings were typically filled with fruit, nuts, candies, wooden toys or dolls, and pennies.
The Origin of Christmas Stockings
Stockings have been a part of Christmas for at least two hundred years, but nobody knows exactly when or how the tradition started. But, they can be traced back to Saint Nicholas himself. Stockings are part of a gift-giving tradition in honor of Saint Nicholas, a generous nobleman born in 280 CE in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He was known for his love and kindness toward children. Saint Nicholas dedicated his life to Jesus Christ through giving to the poor and alleviating suffering. He became known as the “gift-giver of Myra” for dropping off anonymous gifts late at night when no one was awake. After his death, he was made the patron saint of children.
A story of Saint Nicholas’s charitable deeds called the “Three Impoverished Maidens” may explain the phenomenon of stockings. The story is of unknown origin, date, and historicity, but it was recorded in Michael the Archimandrite’s Life of Saint Nicholas.
The tale goes that a recently widowed man with three daughters was struggling to make ends meet for his family. Though once wealthy, he had lost all his money due to terrible misfortune. He worried that his meager finances would scare away potential suitors for his daughters and render the family unable to provide the customary dowry. (One version of the story says that the father was about to resort to selling his daughters into prostitution to save them all from starvation.)
Well, Saint Nicholas was traveling through town when he heard talk of the family’s financial woes. Knowing that the man would likely reject any direct charitable offerings, Saint Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through an open window. The gold coins landed in a stocking hanging up to dry by the fire. (Another version says that he slid down the chimney of the family’s house and spied some recently washed stockings drying by the fireplace. He filled one sock for each of the three daughters with gold coins and then disappeared back up the chimney.)
The daughters awoke and, with surprise, discovered the gold coins. No longer did the father fear that his daughters would end up as lonely old maids! He immediately arranged a marriage for his first daughter, with the coins as dowry. Saint Nicholas later threw a second bag of gold coins for the second daughter, and only on the third bag did the father discover his identity.
(Surely this is really a heartbreaking exposé of the harmful societal pressures placed upon young girls and the perceived lack of opportunities, fulfillment, and economic stability outside of a marital union deemed respectable in terms of its potential for social climbing.)
(Surely it was not understood that way.)
But the legend spread, and soon Saint Nicholas was known for filling stockings left by the fireplace with small gifts on Saint Nicholas Day. By the early 1800s, the stocking tradition was observed in the United States, and the charitable gifting of Saint Nicholas was incorporated into the Christmas holiday. “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” played a major role in shaping the popular image of Christmas celebrations related to Santa Claus. As the narrator observes,
“He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”
When the Christmas tree was rising in popularity in the mid-1800s, stockings fell out of favor for a time because there was more room for bigger gifts underneath the tree. In 1883, the New York Times celebrated the return of the stocking to mantels across the country in contrast to Christmas trees, which it called “dull and lifeless” corpses. Thankfully, there was room enough for both. Bigger presents were nestled under the Christmas tree, while the items placed in stockings were lesser in importance and considered secondary gifts.
During the Victorian Age, stockings were the container for most of the Christmas gifts for each family member. Toys, nuts, candy, fruit, and coins were common presents for children. Little boys might get a set of marbles or a toy pistol, and little girls might get some drawing supplies or a sewing kit. Mother might find an apron, a pincushion, and some hair pins. Father would be delighted to receive some cigars, a warm scarf, or his favorite sweets.
The Industrial Revolution revolutionized expectations regarding quality of life and the availability of material goods to all classes of society, overlapping with the rise in popularity of Christmas gifting. But during the two World Wars and the Great Depression, rationing and wartime shortages limited gifting, to say the least, and made day-to-day necessities difficult to obtain.
During the Christmas season of 1939, some political leaders discouraged extra spending on non-essential items and Christmas gifts. This directive was ignored by many citizens who bought war-themed items like mini nurse or naval uniforms for children, or the patriotic choice of war bonds and savings certificates. In England, people were encouraged to buy French goods in support of the French resistance to Germany.
As World War II progressed, people gave practical gifts like gardening supplies or soap if it could be found, or they repurposed and made gifts by hand rather than purchasing new items. Nothing could be wasted.
However, following World War II, the mass production enabled by factories that supported the war effort gave way to ever greater availability of material goods for consumers of all social classes. Gradually, Christmas became a bigger and bigger commercial holiday. In addition to gifts underneath the Christmas tree, little girls and boys might get coins, nuts, oranges, and candy like licorice or chocolate cigar in their stocking. Most Christmas gifts, including stocking stuffers, were now storebought rather than homemade. And, where once stockings were literal hosiery, they were now decorative, sock-shaped bags.
Today, children might receive their favorite candies or snacks, small toys, socks or underwear, toiletries, activity books or art supplies, and fruit—but, for some reason, no coins! (Maybe it’s because pennies buy much these days.)
Good Kids Get Oranges and Naughty Kids Get Coal, Right?
The coins may have disappeared, but let’s take a look at some of the stocking stuffers that have stayed the course of time.
Oranges. Many children receive an orange in the toe of their stocking. Another version of the Saint Nicholas story swaps the gold coins for golden balls. Oranges were placed in stockings as an approximate likeness of the golden balls, a reminder of the generosity of Saint Nick. Alternatively, in a time when the common people in many areas of Europe did not have access to fresh fruit as often, oranges were an absolute delight on Christmas day. They were a luxury for ordinary families who reserved them as a special treat.
Nuts. Whole walnuts and sometimes other nuts have long been placed in stockings as a nod to a European tradition of scattering nuts during holiday celebrations. In ancient European traditions, the fall harvest yielded nuts, and scattering the nuts during winter festivals brought good fortune and fertility for the new year. The nuts were also thought to ward off evil spirits. Christianity adopted the three-part structure of nuts (shell, skin, and kernel) as a symbol of the trinity or as the bones, skin, and soul of Christ.
Candy. Candy has changed a lot throughout the years, but what’s Christmas without candy? Simple sugar sticks, the precursor to the candy cane, have been around since the late 1800s. Yesterday’s stockings might have a sugar mouse, lemon drops, or licorice, too. Chocolate did not become a popular Christmas treat until the twentieth century, but today you might find Hershey’s candy cane kisses, Reese’s peanut butter trees, or Lindor truffles in your stocking, along with the timeless candy canes.
A lump of coal? No one knows exactly where the threat of a lump of coal came from. The real Saint Nick didn’t seem like a particularly judgmental person, but later folklore about Santa Claus suggested otherwise. Since Santa was already in the fireplace, a lump of coal may have seemed like a good option for children whose conduct was unbecoming for other gifts. Additionally, in the beloved story A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge refuses to give Bob Cratchitt, his employee, even a single lump of coal to start a fire in his freezing cold office. So, there’s the twist: refusing a lump of coal where it is needed is contrary to the spirit of Christmas!
The contents and looks of Christmas stockings may have changed, but Saint Nicholas’s legacy of giving lives on. As we take one more dive to get every last piece of candy out of the bottom of the stocking this year, maybe we can take a pause to consider how we can be more generous to those in need.
Martin, Rachael. “Why Do Naughty Children Get Coal in Their Stockings and Good Ones Get Oranges?” Metro, December 23, 2019. https://metro.co.uk/2019/12/23/why-do-naughty-children-get-coal-in-their-stockings-and-good-ones-get-oranges-11925505/.
Moore, Clement Clark. “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” Poetry Foundation. 1823. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43171/a-visit-from-st-nicholas.
Origjanska, Magda. “The Tradition of Hanging Christmas Stockings Was Introduced by St. Nicholas, the Patron of Children.” The Vintage News, December 29, 2017. https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/12/29/christmas-stockings/?chrome=1.
PrezzyBox. “Stocking Fillers Through the Ages,” October 3, 2014. https://www.prezzybox.com/blog/stocking-fillers-through-the-ages.
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Spivak, Emily. “The Legend of the Christmas Stocking.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 14, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-legend-of-the-christmas-stocking-160854441/.
Thaxton, Allyson. “Married to Money: Dowries in Regency England.” BYU Presents Pride and Prejudice, February 14, 2014. https://byuprideandprejudice.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/married-to-money-dowries-in-victorian-england/.
Wikipedia. “St. Nicholas.” Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas.