A Christmas stocking refers to an empty sock or sock-shaped bag that children hang on Christmas Eve in the belief that it is to be filled with presents by Santa Claus. The gifts are generally of a small nature, consisting generally of small toys, goodies like candies and fruits, coins or other such items that are often referred to as stocking stuffers or stocking fillers. The bigger gifts are wrapped in present papers and placed near the Christmas tree.
The tradition of Christmas stockings is said to have originated from the actions of a kind noble man named Nicholas, who was born in 280 AD, in Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. While still young, his wealthy parents died in an epidemic. A true follower of Jesus Christ's principles, Nicholas became a Christian priest and used all his riches to help the poor, the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life in the service of God and was made Bishop of Myra at a young age. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his kindness and generosity. A true celibate, Nicholas never married and had no children of his own. But he loved children greatly and often gave gifts to the kids of his hometown. This is why, he became known as the gift giver of Myra. A rich man, he traveled across the country helping people, giving gifts of money and other presents. However, Nicholas always gave his gifts late at night, so that his identity would remain a secret. He did not like to be seen when he gave away presents, so the children of the day were told to go to sleep quickly or he would not come! Nicholas was eventually named the patron saint of children and sailors (because of his concern for sailors and ships) and came to be known as Saint Nicholas.
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of Saint Nicholas' life and deeds. One popular account tells us of a poor peasant who lived happily in a small cottage in Patara, Saint Nicholas' hometown, with his wife and three daughters. But their happiness was short-lived when the wife suddenly died of an illness one day, leaving the poor man and his three daughters in despair. All the burden of household chores now fell upon the daughters while their father trudged on with his life with a heavy heart.
When the daughters reached a marriageable age, the poor father became even more depressed for he knew he could in no way marry them off to good men. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value - a dowry. Without a dowry, this poor man's daughters were unlikely to marry. The helpless father looked around desperately for some solution while her daughters did their own cooking, sewing and cleaning.
Meanwhile, Saint Nicholas had come to know of the poor peasant and his daughters. Knowing the financial condition of the father, the kindly saint decided to help him. But he wanted to do this secretly. So he went to the peasant's house one night with a bag of gold and waited for the family to go to bed before he could throw the bag through the open cottage window.
That night, after finishing their washing for the day, the daughters had hung their stockings by the fireplace to dry. Little did they know that their benefactor was hiding nearby, waiting for them to go to sleep. A little later, as they turned of the lamps and fell asleep, St. Nicholas tiptoed to the cottage window and peeked inside. In the light of the moon, he saw the daughters' stockings hanging close to his reach. He carefully put in his bag of gold in one of the stockings and went away as stealthily as he came.
When the father found the bag the next morning and opened it, he was ecstasic. There was enough gold in the stocking to pay for the dowry of one daughter. It seemed like a godsend to him. Who could have sent it, he wondered. With this timely gift the father was able to provide for his eldest daughter and saw that she got married to a nice groom.
On another night Saint Nicholas set off with one more bag of gold, and threw it carefully into another stocking, so that the second daughter was provided for.
When his daughters excitedly brought the bag to their father the following morning and opened it, he could not believe his eyes. With this gift the father was able to marry off his second daughter too.
But by this time, the father had grown eager to discover his mysterious benefactor, and next night he kept on the lookout. Then, for the third time Saint Nicholas came with a bag of gold upon his back and walked on to the window. The old lord at once recognized his fellow townsman. He fell on his knees before the kindly Bishop, cried out in joy and gratitude and thanked him with all his heart. With his blessings of Saint Nicholas, the poor father was able to see his three daughters get married. He lived a long and happy life thereafter.
And this is how the tradition of Christmas stockings is said to have started in the European countries. It is also believed that Santa Claus is actually an alteration of this same Saint Nicholas, Santa standing for Saint and Claus for Nicholas.
Since then children have been hanging Christmas stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting for gifts from Santa Claus. Originally, children simply used one of their everyday socks, but with time special Christmas stockings were created for this purpose. Today, Christmas stockings of a wide variety of styles and sizes can be found in gift stores across countries. There are also special Christmas stockings available in the market.
In modern culture, Christmas stockings are also a popular homemade craft. Some families design unique stockings for each family member. Many families create their own Christmas stockings stitching the name of each family member to the stocking so that Santa knows which stocking belongs to which family member.
In some countries, the contents of the Christmas stocking are the only gifts that a child receives at Christmas from Santa Claus. Western Christmas tradition dictates that a child who behaves badly during the year will not get a gift in their Christmas stocking and will receive a piece of coal instead.
In many places, the Christmas stocking is to be stuffed by a gift that will stimulate the five sensory organs. Traditional celebrations of Christmas demand that the stocking be hung on the fireplace mantel. However, since many contemporary homes do not have fireplaces, stockings are hung in almost any location.
Today, children all over the world continue the tradition of hanging Christmas stockings. Kids of all nations look forward to Christmas and when the stockings are hung, they know the most anticipated time of the year is not far behind.