This Is Why We Hang Stockings at Christmas
We can thank St. Nick. And Odin, the Norse god of death.
It’s a central feature of any home décor during Christmastime: a series of long, decorative socks hung in front of the fireplace or some other focal point of the home, ready for tiny gifts to be deposited into on Christmas Eve. For any kid celebrating Christmas, it’s one of the most exciting traditions of a holiday already packed with fun, quirky traditions. But when did we start doing this? Why do we hang stockings and not, say, wool caps or pillow cases or burlap sacks?
The reasons date back to the 4th century, when the actual Saint Nicholas of Myra (the bishop from whom Santa Claus eventually sprouted) walked the earth, making miracles. One of the miracles attributed to him is that he intervened upon learning about a father who planned to sell his three girls into a life of sex work. Nicholas dropped off a sack of gold coins to the family on each of three consecutive nights, paying the dowry for each girl and saving them from such a fate.
Okay, so what’s that have to do with stockings? Well, some versions of the story hold that the gold was dropped down the chimney right into the girls’ stockings, which had been hung by the fire to dry.
Whether that truly was the source of the tradition, European children got into the habit of leaving their shoes outside their homes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 5), sometimes with hay inside of them to feed St. Nick’s donkey. The next morning, the kids would discover the hay had been replaced with small gifts. Over time, the shoes were moved inside, then replaced by the children’s socks. The date they were hung moved from the eve of St. Nicholas Day to Christmas Eve.
Most likely, the practice evolved in different ways across different European cultures. In her book Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men, researcher Phyllis Siefker traces the practice to Odin, the “Allfather” patriarch of the Norse pantheon, and the god of wisdom, healing, and—perhaps antithetical to the Christmas spirit—death. Siefker notes that the tradition was applied to St. Nicholas later, following the downtick of polytheism and the widespread uptick of Christianity.
How the practice came to the United States, like many elements of Santa Claus, can be traced back to Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” To be sure, the poem may not have been the very first source in the United States to introduce the idea of describing how Santa “fill’d all the stockings,” but it was by far the most popular and widely read.
As the poem was read and repeated every Christmas, the tradition spread with it, as Penne Restad points out in her book, Christmas in America: A History. Elizabeth Cady Stanton recalled how she stuck her stocking “on a broomstick, laid across two chairs in front of the fireplace,” while Charlotte Gilman described the numerous stocking in her home, which “would have stimulated a manyfactureer [sic] to see the rows of stockings, of all sizes and hues, that were hung in the capacious corners of the Elms, to receive the tribute of St. Nicholas.”
Mothers were soon specially designing stockings—larger, more elaborate ones usually with each child’s name—and then manufacturers did indeed follow suit, with “a variety of stocking especially designed for the reception of Christmas gifts,” as the New York Times described in 1883. As the burgeoning mass media covered the popularity of the custom, more and more Americans followed suit (or, rather, stocking) and the footwear became as familiar a symbol of Christmas as jolly St. Nick himself. And for more secret history about the practice, This Is Why We Put Oranges in Stockings on Christmas.
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