Like all good legends, the story of the Christmas stocking has many versions. The original story has evolved to allow for differences in culture, time period, and good old fashioned story-telling. So it's hard to pin down exactly how the Christmas stocking tradition started, but too much exactness isn't any fun, anyway. And certainly not in the spirit of Christmas. So here's our favorite version of the story:
Once there was a father with three beautiful daughters. Although the daughters were kind and strong, the father despaired of them ever making good marriages, because he didn't have enough money to pay their dowries.
One day, St. Nicholas of Myra was passing through their village and heard the locals discussing the plight of these poor girls. St Nicholas knew the father would be too proud to accept an outright gift. So he waited till dark, snuck to the man's house, and dropped three bags of gold coins down the chimney.
The daughters had spent the evening washing clothes, and had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry. The gold coins dropped into the stockings, one bag for each daughter. In the morning, they awoke to find enough money to make them each a generous dowry, and all married well and happily.
As word of St. Nicholas' generosity spread, others began to hang their stockings by the fireplace, hoping for a similar gift.
There is plenty of debate about when American kids started hanging their stockings by the fire on Christmas Eve. Some give credit for the idea to Thomas Nast, who drew stockings on the mantelpiece in his 1886 illustrations for a George Webster story called "Santa Claus and His Works." But while Nast did create the popular modern image of Santa Claus as a white-bearded, red-suited, boot-wearing jolly man, he cannot be responsible for the stocking tradition. That's because Clement Clark Moore's famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was written 64 years earlier. And as every Christmas buff knows, that poem includes the following immortal lines:
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
Like most American customs, the Christmas stocking probably came across the ocean with generations of immigrants. Perhaps some Catholics knew the legend of St. Nicholas. Perhaps some Dutch transformed their tradition of putting out clogs full of straw for Santa's reindeer. Italian children brought the idea of putting out their shoes for La Bufana, the good witch. And in classic American tradition, all these legends and customs mixed together (along with a few home-grown ideas) and before long the Christmas Stocking became an essential part of how we celebrate Christmas.