History of Christmas Stockings: A Legendary Tale

Updated June 8, 2021
Christmas stocking hung on the mantle

Every winter, millions of people hang stockings from their fireplace mantels, focusing more on making sure each stocking is perfectly placed than on the legend that this tradition arose from. While the exact origins of the story is still debated, cultures from around the world continue to take part in this charming tradition each year, filling colorful, decorated stockings with small trinkets, toys, baubles, and candies.

The Legend of How Christmas Stockings Started

The origin of the Christmas stocking involves a folkloric tale of a kindly Saint Nicholas and a despondent family. This folklore tells the story of a nobleman whose wife had died, leaving him penniless and the sole parent to their three daughters. Left with no money for a dowry (which was an integral part of finding advantageous marriage suitors at the time), the nobleman was concerned for his children's opportunity to marry well. Without a sizable dowry, no one of equal wealth and status would be interested in coupling with them, and with nothing to inherit, they would be left destitute. Hearing of this father's dilemma, Saint Nicholas came to their family home and filled the girls' stockings, which were hanging above the fireplace to dry, with solid gold spheres so that they would be able to marry after all. Versions of this quaint tale have been circulating for decades, each featuring their own twist, but regardless of the specificities, this story has continued to fuel Christmas decorating for hundreds of years.

The Stocking Crosses the Atlantic

As with many other holiday traditions, the custom of hanging Christmas stockings didn't cross the Atlantic until the 19th century. In 1823, Clement Clark Moore wrote the poem The Night Before Christmas and the stocking is mentioned twice; once at the beginning, "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."

Literary and artistic evidence from the period shows that the custom was spreading across the United States during this period; famous illustrator Thomas Nast's work, Christmas 1863, has three large panels featuring the type of holiday celebrations that were occurring during the period . The panel entitled "Morning" depicts children opening presents and retrieving stockings which are hung above the fireplace. Writer George Webster also published a book entitled Santa Claus and His Works in 1869 with his illustrations being completed by Nast. Within his story, stockings were continually mentioned as a way for Santa to deliver presents to good children.

Christmas stocking on Clothesline

Stockings Make Their Way Onto Mantles Everywhere

Despite the apparent popularity and history of Christmas stockings in various cultures, a 1883 New York Times article entitled "The Christmas Stocking" gives the impression that the stocking tradition was somewhat stunted with the introduction (and massive popularity) of another Christmas tradition - the Christmas tree.

The article gives us a unique look into the contemporary trends of the period, in which stockings were apparently experiencing quite the revival. Prior to mass market manufacturing and the establishment of product standards, many people across the United States faced difficulty in determining the right size of stocking to use; some were too large to fully fill up while others were too small to fit the goods people had purchased for their loved ones. Yet, the introduction of the elastic Smith Stocking created a standard within the stocking industry. In addition, the later shift towards using highly decorated stockings made the oversized sock an integral Christmas decoration in American homes.

Mom helps daughter reach Christmas stocking

Stockings continued to hold prominence throughout the 20th century, becoming imbued with a sense of the Christmas spirit. Today, the stocking remains a central figure in many American homes during the holiday season, as both a festive decoration and a vehicle for dispensing small presents. Personalized Christmas stockings are especially popular, as they clearly identify stocking owners for Santa, with children getting the chance to customize their stockings in the exact way that they want.

Christmas Stockings Bring Childish Delight

Hanging a Christmas stocking is a common practice all over the world, both for those who celebrate the Christmas holiday and for those who just enjoy the season's aesthetic. Although traditions might vary from person to person, one thing has remained constant throughout the stocking's history - there's always a child's delighted face at the other end of a Christmas stocking once they see the fantastic stuffers placed inside by Father Christmas himself.

History of Christmas Stockings: A Legendary Tale