This Is Why We Hang Christmas Stockings, According to History & Legend

Here's how the festive tradition of hanging Christmas stockings came to be!

Christmas stockings are a central feature of holiday home décor. The festive accessories are hung in front of the fireplace—"by the chimney with care," if you will—waiting to be stuffed with small gifts on Christmas Eve. But did you know the classic Christmas custom actually dates back to the 4th century? That's when St. Nicholas of Myra (the bishop who spawned the Santa Claus we know and love today) walked the earth, making miracles happen. According to one legend, St. Nicholas helped a father who couldn't afford dowries for his three daughters. He tossed bags of gold through their window, where they landed in stockings that had been left by the fire to dry. Whether that's truly the source of the tradition of hanging stockings on Christmas is up for debate.

But here's another theory that still dates back 700 years, when Dutch children started stuffing their clogs with hay and carrots. They'd leave the shoes outside their homes on the eve of Sinterklaas Day (Dec. 6), believing that Santa would take the treats for his reindeer and replace the goodies with coins or small gifts for them to discover the next morning, according to Smithsonian. Over time, the shoes were moved inside, then replaced by the children's socks—and the date they were hung changed as well, from the eve of St. Nicholas Day to Christmas Eve.

The American idea of stuffing Christmas stockings started with Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"). Moore famously wrote that "the stockings were hung by the chimney with care / In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there." He also mentioned how the jolly figure "fill'd all the stockings; then turn'd with a jerk/And laying his finger aside of his nose/And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose."

As the poem was read and repeated every Christmas in homes across the country, the tradition of hanging stockings spread with it, Penne Restad points out in her 1996 book, Christmas in America: A History. Mothers soon began customizing stockings—larger, more elaborate ones usually with each child's name—and manufacturers followed suit with "a variety of stocking especially designed for the reception of Christmas gifts," according to an 1883 article in The New York Times. It wasn't long before the footwear became as familiar a Christmas symbol as jolly old St. Nick himself

Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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