Everyone knows the lines from Clement C. Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” first published in 1823: “‘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, / In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” The poem’s third line begs the question: so why do children hang stockings by the chimney?
The tradition is based on an old legend of unknown origin and date that preceded Moore’s poems by many centuries. ” Based in Holland, Michigan, the St. Nicholas Center promotes the legacy of the true St. Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop of Asia Minor, and the patron saint of children; the website features a popular version of the tale, known as “The Story of the Dowries” or “Three Impoverished Maidens”:
“There was a man, once rich, who had fallen on hard times [he lost his wife after a long illness]. Now poor, he had three daughters of an age to be married. In those days a young woman’s family had to have something of value, a dowry, to offer prospective bridegrooms. The larger the dowry, the better the chance a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery, or worse. [Since the St. Nicholas Center is aimed at families, the use of “or worse” is a euphemism for prostitution — not a subject you want linked with a Christmas tale.]
Word of the family’s misfortune reached Nicholas, who had the wealth inherited from his parents. Coming in secret by night, he tossed a bag of gold into the house. It sailed in through an open window, landing in a stocking left before the fire to dry. What joy in the morning when the gold was discovered! The first daughter soon wed.
Not long after, another bag of gold again appeared mysteriously. The second daughter was married. The father, now very anxious to know who the secret benefactor was, kept watch during the night.
A third bag of gold landed inside the house and the watchful father leaped up and caught the fleeing donor. “Ah, Nicholas, it is you!” cried the father, “You have saved my daughters from certain disaster.”
Nicholas, embarrassed, and not wishing to be known, begged the man to keep his identity secret. “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers for deliverance.”
This legend led to the tradition of children hanging their socks — but not necessarily with care — to await Santa to fill them with gifts and treats, assuming they haven’t been too naughty. It didn’t take too long for kiddies to appreciate the correlation between size of sock and number of gifts: larger socks meant more presents. Around the late 1800s, the everyday sock was replaced by larger, custom handcrafted stockings festooned with colorful decorations and children’s names. Fortunately, unlike ugly Christmas sweaters, the Christmas stocking is a decoration and is never worn (even though that would make for a very interesting family holiday photos). Before Moore’s poem popularized the chimney as the site for hanging stockings, many children hung their socks on bedposts, at the foot of their beds, or near a window. In some cultures, children hang pillowcases or put out their shoes.
For further reading: Why are Red and Green Associated with Christmas?
Who Invented the First Christmas Card?
Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Story
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trivia
Mall Santas by the Numbers
The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Price Index: 2016
For further reading: The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler (2000)