Though many of us hang our stockings with care around Christmas without thinking twice about the tradition, it’s hard to imagine why we would ever start asking Santa to fill our stinky socks with treats. What inspired such an odd practice?
Unfortunately, there’s no official record of how it happened. One of the most popular origin stories involves a widowed father and his three daughters. The family was having trouble making ends meet and the father worried that, without proper dowries, no one would marry his daughters. St. Nicholas happened to be wandering through town sometime near Christmas and heard the story of the family’s plight. He came down the chimney to see if he could quietly help them, and noticed stockings hanging up to dry. The generous saint dug into his pockets for gold coins and proceeded to fill the stockings with the bounty.
Speaking of jolly old St. Nick, there’s also the possibility that the stocking-filling is a variation on the old tradition of putting shoes out for St. Nicholas’s feast day on December 6. Children in many cultures leave their shoes out on December 5, sometimes with a bit of hay in them for St. Nick’s donkey. If they’re lucky, the hay will have been replaced with treats or gold coins when they wake up the morning. Getting gifts in a sock doesn’t seem all that different from getting a gift in your shoes, does it?
Regardless of what started the tradition, people seem to have realized the need to use a decorative stocking in place of an actual sock pretty early on. In 1883, The New York Times wrote that,
“In the days of the unobtrusive white stocking, no one could pretend that the stocking itself was graceful or attractive object when hanging limp and empty from the foot of the bedstead. Now ... even the empty stocking may be a thing of beauty, and its owner can display it with confidence both at the Christmas season and on purely secular occasions.”
As attractive as they are, consider it somewhat of a Christmas miracle that the year-round stocking never took off.