Tuesday 22 December 2015

The Stockings Were Hung . . .

Most blogs this week have great Christmas themes, from pictures of decorated trees of the past to names of ancestors some family historians would like to have as guests for dinner, to ideas about getting all that information from family members assembled together to celebrate the season.

OK, I won’t disappoint. This one is about Christmas stockings, hung with care in hopes of. . . (with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore).

In the hundreds of photographs in my dozens of family albums, I thought I had many pictures of stockings hung on a fireplace or a reasonable facsimile from past Christmases. I was wrong. There were many trees, all decked out, most with presents scattered under them following Santa’s visits and before children got to them. But there were only a few showing stockings. The earliest I could find – 1974 and 1975 – were taken after all three of our children had arrived. The stockings were pretty basic models to start with but they got more elaborate as the years went on.


By 1983 we all had personalized stockings made by my wife, Linda, each with bright Christmas-print fabrics.


When our children were married, Linda made additional stockings for the new members of the family.


I was curious, as many others are, about how this tradition got started. I don’t recall ever looking into the history before. It never seemed to be important. Only the happy faces of children (and many adults) when they came upon them Christmas morning was what counted. So, like all modern researchers, I looked it up on the Internet.

A 2012 article written by Emily Spivak for the Smithsonian caught my attention, highlighting the story and showing pictures of stockings going back many decades. She related the common story about the origin as being St. Nicolas (the Bishop of Myra at the time) sneaking into the home of a widower with three daughters and putting gold coins in their stockings, which had been hung by the fireplace to dry. The gift meant they then had the wherewithal to attract husbands. I know dowries used to be important but were men so shallow back then that they needed their brides to bring a little cash with them? 

Anyway, versions of this story have been told for generations now. If it is even close to the truth, then the beginning of Christmas stockings would have begun early in the 4th century, in a little village in what is now Turkey – long before there were genealogists.

There are many side stories about other traditions concerning what was or is put into stockings, too:

·         Oranges are, or were common gifts (Don’t you remember getting those juicy little Mandarin treats?). One explanation is that they are supposedly symbols of St. Nicholas as they are gold in colour.
·         Some regions use boots or shoes instead of stockings. Prior to the introduction of Christianity, Germanic children, celebrating the Yuletide period, would apparently fill them with carrots, straw or sugar for the flying horse of the Norse god, Odin. Odin in return would return the favour by leaving gifts or candy. This old, white-bearded god may have been the model for the Santa Clause we know. The horse’s name was Sleipnir, and it had eight legs!
·         A story grew up in Western Culture that bad children would be given coal in their stockings. There are no reports of it actually happening as it is a cruel thing to do and not, in any way, fitting for Christmas. Perhaps the idea was just used as an enticement to children to be good, just as we tell them today that Santa Claus is always watching to see who is naughty or nice. Or maybe it comes from the use of an Italian candy called Carbone Dolce, which looks like coal. You can find a recipe to make it yourself here.

There is an interesting article from the New York Times published in 1883 about how in the 19th century the Christmas Stocking had been supplanted by the use of the Christmas Tree – “a rootless and lifeless corpse” according to the editorial writer. The article celebrated the introduction of a new type of decorated stocking, much more in keeping with the holiday season.

Hanging Christmas stockings is a neat tradition to observe now. You don’t have to belong to any particular religion or have any specific familial origin to enjoy it and bring smiles to all family members. They are decorative as well as fun things. You can find hundreds of ideas online now about how to fill a stocking (Is that really necessary?) or what to put in them (Again, this is not rocket science!).

Linda, has made many stockings over the years – for our children, for brothers and sisters, for nieces and nephews and for friends, some of which are shown above. In 2007 our whole family was invited to spend the holiday with our son and daughter-in-law in Florida. While there we were also going to spend some time at Disney World. So she made a stocking for everyone who was going to be there, all with a Disney Theme – 17 of them! They are works of art as well as useful repositories for gifts. Don’t you think?


Our children still have and hang theirs each Christmas. Grandma’s stockings have become favourite additions to their seasonal décor and maybe will be family memorabilia one day, too. 

These will be filled by Santa when he makes his stop in Vancouver, Canada.

 These four are now waiting for Santa to arrive in Beijing, China.

We still have ours, now hanging on the fireplace of our new condo. I am not sure Santa will have time to come here this year, though, especially with no kids around! We’ll enjoy the season in other ways. And yes, mine is that loveable character Grumpy!

To all of my readers here, please have a very . . .

And to all a good night!

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program in England, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is the Editor of Relatively Speaking, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Genealogical Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.