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And the Stockings Were Hung by the Chimney with Care



When I was a kid, I used to get so excited hanging a stocking with my name on it on our stair railing on Christmas Eve. We didn’t have a fireplace, so no mantel. When I became an adult, I used to see handmade Christmas stockings at church bazaars and at yard sales and began to buy the ones I liked the most. Now I have quite a collection. During the holidays, I hang some of them on the railing of the stairway and other locations in my house. But how did this custom get started? And are Christmas stockings good collectibles?




Before getting into the history of the Christmas stocking tradition, it’s important to put the collecting of these stockings in perspective. While people actively followed this tradition throughout the 19th century, children back then used their own stockings for the most part. At the height of the Victorian Era, specially made Christmas stockings began to appear, often made in crazy quilt designs using scraps of cloth leftover from making clothes.

But ordinary children’s stockings couldn’t hold much in the way of treats—perhaps some fruit and candies. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that larger commercially made Christmas stockings began to appear in stores. However, those with a craftier bent still made their own stockings from felt or velvet, decorated with appliques.

Though historical origins of the Christmas stocking exist, many historians believe its beginnings date back to a legend involving St. Nicholas. As he was passing through a village, he heard about a nobleman whose wife had recently died of an illness, leaving him and his three beautiful daughters in despair. Devastated by his wife's death, he squandered all his wealth and property, forcing him and his daughters to move into a lowly peasant’s cottage. His daughters, each ready to marry, couldn’t do so because he had no money to give them dowries.

St. Nicholas knew that the father would be too proud to accept money from him, so he came up with a plan to help him secretly. One night after the daughters had washed out their clothing, they hung their stockings over the fireplace to dry. That night St. Nicholas stopped by the cottage after the family had gone to bed. He peeked in the window and saw the daughters' stockings hanging by the fire. St. Nicholas reached into his pouch and felt three small sacks of gold. He threw one of them through the window, providing a dowry for the eldest girl, then provided dowries for the other two daughters in the same manner on subsequent evenings.

On the third evening, the father caught Nicholas throwing the third sack of gold, and thanked him for his generosity. In some versions of this story, Nicholas throws the sacks of gold down the chimney, and they fall into each of the daughter's stockings, hanging to dry by the fire. This is a bit implausible since the stockings would have been hanging above the fire and not anywhere near the chimney opening in the fireplace.

Another interpretation of the stocking custom says that it began in Germany where children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar cubes, near the chimney for the flying horse of a legendary figure named Odin, who would reward the children for their kindness by replacing his horse Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy.

After the adoption of Christianity in medieval times, Europeans began honoring St. Nicholas on December 6. In the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, folk traditions developed around the idea of St. Nicholas bringing treats to children on St. Nicholas's Eve. Parents told their children to leave their shoes by the fire on that evening so that the Nicholas could climb down the chimney and fill them up with fruit, nuts, and cookies. Some parents substituted stockings for shoes.

Eventually, people moved the tradition of giving gifts to children from St. Nicholas Day to Christmas. In Germany children began to hang stockings at end of their beds on Christmas Eve so that Christkindel or the Christ Child could fill them with treats as he voyaged from house to house. As Germans emigrated to America in the 19th century, they brought the stocking custom with them.

Part of the fun of collecting old and vintage Christmas stockings is in displaying them during the holidays. While most commercial stockings aren’t worth very much, collecting them is akin to collecting old Christmas balls. So as you hang your stocking on the fireplace mantel or the stairway, think of St. Nicholas.

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