For far longer than anyone can remember, we've been stuffing stuff in our socks. Candy, coal, hay, expensive trinkets, dollar-store finds. If it fits, chances are it's been stuffed.
But why stockings and not, say, buckets? Or pants pockets? Or shoes? Well, actually we did try shoes for while, but the formerly unadorned and underappreciated stocking eventually won the job.
There are many theories, but we're a little short on concrete answers. Here, however, are some interesting tidbits you can tuck away in your memory and savor by the fire on Christmas Eve.
The start of it all
The prevailing theory about why we started giving gifts in stockings is the stuff of folk legend. It seems that good St. Nicholas was traveling through a small village where lived a poor man with three beautiful daughters.
Like any father with a trio of lovely daughters, he was worried about their future and how they would be provided for.
Nicholas, who had yet to begin his career as a legendary gift-giver, was nonetheless a charitable man, and he wanted to help the poor father. Knowing the man would never accept a handout, he contrived a plan to help.
He waited until the family had gone to bed, then sneaked in through the chimney with three bags of gold coins, one for each daughter.
It so happened that the girls had done laundry that day and had left their stockings hanging by the fire to dry. Nicholas found them a handy container to hold his surprise gifts.
The money was discovered the next morning, and they all lived happily ever after -- but not before starting the tradition of leaving stockings by the fire in hopes of a visit by St. Nicholas.
Something in my shoe
In Scandinavian cultures, children set out shoes and boots, not socks, for their Christmas goodies. But the footwear was not left by the fire empty.
Children filled the shoes with hay, carrots or bits of sugar as treats for Sleipnir, a flying horse belonging to Odin. In return, Odin would reward the children with small gifts.
As cultures blended and Christianity spread, Odin was supplanted by St. Nicholas, and later Santa Claus, and the treats left by the children changed to cookies and milk for Santa and a carrot for the flying reindeer.
Stockings vs. trees
The New York Times published an editorial on Dec. 26, 1883, celebrating the news that fewer Christmas trees -- described as "a rootless and lifeless corpse" -- had been sold that year, and celebrating the "return" of the Christmas stocking.
The unnamed author blamed the decline in past years of stockings to the increased popularity of Christmas trees, a German tradition that took hold in this country and, despite the Times' belief that fire dangers were on their way out, never went out of fashion. While the stockings had limits, the tree provided a perfect place for leaving gifts of any size and number.
"It is true that there were reasons which had their share in temporarily banishing the Christmas stocking," the author penned. "The New England stocking, though admirably adapted for holding presents like paper cutters or knitting needles, did not have sufficient room for the ordinary Christmas presents of even an economical home.
"On the other hand," the writer continued, "the tonnage of the Western stockings -- especially that of the Chicago type -- was so great that it could not be filled except at a cost which few fathers of families could afford."
The traditional white stockings that hung lank and bland from the mantel did little to increase the popularity, scarcely able to compete with a decorated and lighted tree.
Riding to the rescue, according to the Times article, was the Smith Christmas Stocking, which came decorated and available in different colors. It was made of elastic, which permitted it to hold as much or as little as required, and contained a "watertight metallic compartment in the region of the toes for the reception of molasses candy."
Christmas was saved. Or at least the stocking was.
"Let us welcome back the stocking of our fathers -- that is to say our female ancestors," the article concluded. "The Christmas tree, dropping melted wax about the carpet, filling all nervous people with a dread of fire; banishing the juvenile delight of opening the well-filled stocking in the dim morning light, and diffusing the poison of rationalism thinly disguised as the perfume of hemlock, should have no place in our beloved land. It has had its day, and the glorious reaction in favor of the sacred stocking will sweep it away forever."