The poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas (written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823), mentions the hanging of stockings by the chimney in the hope that St Nicholas- or Father Christmas – would visit and fill them with gifts.
“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…”
There is no one version of how placing stockings ready to be filled with presents came to be associated with Christmas, the story of how the footwear came to be hung (traditionally by the fire) is a hazy one. The most popular legend dates from the early centuries AD. It states that the original Saint Nicholas (of Myra), travelled the world to bring gifts to the poor. While on his travels he came across a small village (sometimes said to be in England), and heard tell of a family in need. An impoverished widower, devastated by the passing of his wife, was worried for the future of his three daughters. He had no money with which to pay for a dowry for any of his girls and so they had no chance of making a good marriage, and would be subject to lives of shame.
Hearing of the worried widower’s problem, St. Nicholas decided to secretly help the merchant. He knew the man was proud, and would never accept charity, so he would have to act without his knowledge. Thus, St Nicholas is said to have ridden his white horse past the merchant’s house one night and thrown three bags of gold coins down the chimney. The bags were caught in the tops of the girls’ stockings, which had been hung by the fireplace to dry. When the gold coins were discovered the next morning, the merchant and his daughters rejoiced. The young women went on to make excellent marriages and lived happily ever after.
Hearing of the widower’s good fortune, the other children of his village all hung stockings of their own; and over time to word spread.
With constant retelling, the story of how stockings came to be hung by the fire has changed. Some traditions say that children would hang their father’s wool socks up, while others hung sock-shaped bags. Then, magically, on Christmas Day children around the world would awaken to find their stockings stuffed with small gifts and sweets.
A different explanation for the hanging of footwear at Christmas comes from Holland. Dutch lore says that ‘Sinterklaas’ (St. Nicholas) arrives in Holland each year on a ship from Spain with his assistant ‘Zwarte Piet’ or Black Pete. They then travel together on a white horse and a mule from home to home. As a treat for the horse and mule, Dutch children would leave carrots and hay in their wooden clogs for them to eat. In return, Sinterklaas would fill the clogs with small gifts for the children.
When Dutch settlers immigrated to America, they took their traditions with them, and Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. It is quite possible that wooden clogs in the story eventually became stockings.
How the origin of the tradition to hang stockings by the fireplace for Father Christmas really began will probably never be known, but we will always have the stories and their variations. One thing is certain though, once again this year hundreds of thousands of stockings, sacks and pillow cases will be laid out on Christmas Eve…
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.