If you’re a fan of the classic holiday poem “The Night Before Christmas,” you’ve probably wondered why people bother hanging socks by a chimney—or anywhere else in their homes—during the holidays.
The answer lies in a holiday staple: gifts.
The legend of the stock full of goodies goes back to the bishop of Myra, the archetype of Saint Nicholas and present-day Santa Claus, according to Bruce Forbes, professor emeritus of religious studies. At Morningside University and author of “Christmas: A Candid History”.
“Saint Nicholas, who was Bishop of Myra … he was supposed to be the only child of a wealthy family,” Forbes said, dedicated himself to donating all of his money before his death.
A 15th-century Italian altar statue shows a bishop throwing balls of gold through a window to help a poor father provide dowries for his three daughters who will be forced into lifelong servitude.
A variation on the story now includes traditional holiday socks, according to Forbes.
“Another myth is that there were three girls who were washing their socks, and hung them on a shelf to dry.”
Forbes said the bishop dropped golden gifts down the chimney on three different occasions that happened to fall into stockings.
“And then the father is so grateful that he’s kind of lying on hold because he wants to thank this anonymous benefactor, and then St. Nicholas grabs when he gets the third bag and wants to tell everyone. ‘No, you can’t tell them,'” said St. Nicholas. All credit goes to God,” Forbes said. “What this does is relay the entire Santa story and read it back in St. Nicholas.”
In 1954, William Porter Kelly wrote in his book The Story of a Visitation from St. Nicholas that from “this legendary incident, the custom grew for the older members of the family to secretly put gifts in shoes, stockings, or any kind of clothing. The bowl for the children they found in the morning The next day, they were all too willing to give credit to Saint Nicholas.”
But the Christmas tradition of stuffed stockings, whether hung over a roaring fire, by the railing or elsewhere, spread in the 1823 poem “Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which was later known as “The Night Before Christmas” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Emily Spivack writes for Smithsonian Magazine that filling the stocking with an orange – a 19th-century Christmas tradition – may be a tribute to the old Saint Nick. Tropical fruits represent golden gifts from the saint, and oranges were a rare treat in the 19th century.
“Oranges became a luxury for families with modest incomes who kept them as a gift for their children,” said journalist Dominique Foville in his book “The Little Christmas Book.”
Forbes said the association between gifts and socks is why the tradition has persisted into modern times.
“One of the things that has become more important for many of us are gifts. And you have, in a sense, two delivery cars present according to the Christmas tradition. One is in the stockings and the other is at the base of the Christmas tree,” Forbes said.
Stocking is also one of many traditions that reflect a cultural rather than a religious holiday.
“A cultural Christmas is really a mid-winter festival in the middle of winter when things thin out,” Forbes said. “Last year… there was all this talk of people putting up their Christmas decorations early because in the midst of COVID, everyone wanted to lift their spirits in some way.
“There is a whole theme of generosity, which is that you don’t have to be religious to like it,” he added. “So I think the reason you get these things that aren’t all religious is because we have a cultural Christmas, we have a Christian Christmas. And they both exist simultaneously. Some of us do one, some of us do the other. A lot of us do both.”
Connect with Chelsey Cox on Twitter @therealco.