Search This Blog

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Origin of Hanging Stockings at Christmas

The origin of hanging stockings by the fire for Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, to fill is difficult to pinpoint. Like so many traditions, the true origin can be traced back to more than one source, all based on folklore and legend with so many variations, we may never know how it all really started. But there are some fun stories.

Possibly as far back as the Third Century A.D., there was a happy family whose father was either a nobleman or a merchant, depending on who tells the story. Anyway, the mother of this family died, leaving the father so distraught that he absentmindedly made some poor investments which ultimately led to the family's ruin. The family had to leave their comfortable home and move to a humble cottage where his three daughters (have you noticed three seems to be a preferred number for stories?) took over all the cooking, cleaning, laundry, and other household chores. The father worried his daughters would never marry well without a dowry to offer a new husband. This painted a bleak picture of their futures.

Into this sad tales steps a kindly bishop named Nicholas. He had a particular sympathy for the downtrodden and a pure love toward children. Nicholas had been traveling, teaching people about God and bringing hope, and sometimes gifts of food or money, to those who needed them. Nicholas stumbled upon the plight of this man and his daughters and was moved by compassion. According to some accounts, Nicholas waited until the family slept, slipped down the chimney, and placed a bag of coins on the fireplace mantle. As Nicholas climbed back up the chimney, the bag of coins tipped over, rolled off the mantle and fell into one of the stockings that the daughters had left along with other laundry drying by the fireplace. In the morning, when the family arose, they found the bag of coins. They rejoiced, for now they had enough money for the eldest daughter's dowry. She promised to marry a good man and take care of her father in his old age.

Duringt this time, Nicholas covertly peeked into the window. When he saw the joy and hope he'd brought to the family, he returned the following night, bringing another bag of coins. This second bag of coins provided a dowry for the second daughter.

The third night, the father, suspecting their unknown benefactor would return again, waited up for him. When Nicholas arrived with the third bag of coins, the father fell down at the feet of the bishop and thanked him for his generosity. This bishop later became sainted for this and many other acts of charity. We know him today as Saint Nicholas.

Some accounts say Nicholas came in through the door instead of down the chimney; others say he tossed the coins in through the window, either with accurate enough aim for the coins to land in one of the hanging stockings, or with bad enough aim that they fell off the mantle, which was his original target, and into a stocking. The stories also vary in that some claim he visited the family only once and others that he came three times. It is also suggested that the bag of coins was actually a large golden ball. This may have prompted the custom of children getting oranges in their stockings, in remembrance of that golden ball, or perhaps of the ball-shaped bag of coins.

In Norse folklore, a god named Odin, who rode a mighty horse named Sleipnir, visited children's houses on Christmas Eve. If the children left their boots filled with hay, sugar, or carrots for Sleipnir, Odin left candy and gifts for the children to thank them.

The Dutch have a similar tradition. As far back as 16th Century Holland, Sinterklaas arrived by ship and rode a white horse (or a reindeer, again depending on who you believe). The children left a treat for him near the hearth and placed their shoes called clogs by the fireplace filled with hay and carrots for his horse (or reindeer). Sinterklaas left treats in the children's shoes.

Eventually, legends and customs merged, changing the custom of hanging stockings instead of boots or shoes.

In the famous poem " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" the Christmas stocking is mentioned twice. Near the very beginning of the poem, it says, “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care” and, again, near the end: “He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, And filled all the stockings then turned with a jerk."

So this Christmas, when you hang your stockings, spare a thought for a kindly bishop who helped those in need.

In my short Christmas story, there aren't stockings or gifts under a tree, but two lovers torn apart by war and heartache, get the best gift ever...a second chance.

A CHRISTMAS REUNION, the Gift of a Second Chance, pictured to the left, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Wild Rose Press, and everywhere digital books are sold.

Or, if you're in the mood for a collection of short historical stories, all by different authors including yours truly, and which take place during the winter (some take place during Christmas), try A TIMELESS ROMANCE ANTHOLOGY: Winter Collection pictured to the right. In my short romantic tale,  A Winter’s Knight  a young lady’s fascination with a murdering earl and his dark castle lands her in the heart of an ancient and terrible  secret.  It  will  take  more  than a Christmas kiss underneath the mistletoe to break the curse and find a happily ever after.This collection is available in both print and ebook on Amazon.

No comments: