The early nineteenth-century poem by Clement C. Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” describes an old Christmas custom concerning stockings. The poem’s narrator notes that his children’s stockings “were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that ST. NICHOLAS soon would be there.” Many American homes today present a similar scene on Christmas Eve. Children leave stockings near the fireplace expecting that SANTA CLAUS will come and fill them with candy and toys during the night.
Some writers trace the roots of this stocking custom back to an ancient legend concerning St. Nicholas (see also ST. NICHOLAS’S DAY). The legend tells of an anonymous act of kindness performed by the saint. Nicholas knew of a man who had three daughters of marriageable age for whom he could not afford dowries. Since the girls could not get married without dowries, their father was considering selling them into prostitution. One evening Nicholas came by their house and threw a small sack of GOLD through the window, thereby providing a dowry for the eldest girl. He donated dowries for the other two girls in the same manner. On the evening of the last gift, the man raced outside, caught Nicholas in the act, and thanked him for his generosity. In some versions of this story, Nicholas throws the sack of gold down the chimney and it lands in one of the daughter’s stockings, which had been hung there to dry.
In medieval times people across EUROPE celebrated St. Nicholas’s Day on December 6. In a number of northern European countries, folk traditions developed around the idea of St. Nicholas bringing treats to children on St. Nicholas’s Eve. Adults instructed children to leave their SHOES by the fire that evening so that the saint could pop down the chimney and fill them up with fruit, nuts, and cookies. In some parts of Europe families substituted stockings for shoes.
Eventually, the tradition of giving GIFTS to children began to gravitate towards Christmas. In GERMANY children began to hang stockings by the end of their beds on Christmas Eve so that the Christ Child (see CHRISTKINDEL) could fill them with treats as she voyaged from house to house. This stocking custom migrated to the United States, ENGLAND, FRANCE, and ITALY during the nineteenth century (see also CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA). In the twentieth century Santa Claus overpowered both the Christ Child and the saint, emerging as the dominant winter holiday gift giver. Some believe that the stockings children hang up today ultimately hark back to St. Nicholas’s good deed. These days, however, Santa, not the saint, is expected to perform this Christmas miracle.