Clement Clarke Moore put foot warmers in the third line of his famous Christmas story.
“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there,” Moore wrote in his 1823 yuletide classic, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
Children are still following Moore’s advice. Every Christmas Eve, stockings are hung near the chimney. After true believers go to bed, the stockings are filled with toys, candies and fruits.
Jim Morrison, historian and curator at the National Christmas Center Museum in Paradise, Pa., said the stocking tradition continues. It has always been associated with St. Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop in Myra, now part of modern Turkey.
“The stories I’ve read talk about Nicholas and say his parents had been wealthy. They died and left him an inheritance,” Morrison said.
Other stories say Nicholas joined the church, and took a special interest in the poor.
“One story was about a poor farmer with three daughters,” Morrison said. “When each one found a suitor, they found a bag of coins in the house. When the third one found her coins, the tradition said the farmer stayed up and caught Nicholas in the middle of the night, throwing the coins into the house.”
“He asked the farmer not to tell anyone,” Morrison said. “That’s why Santa comes unseen in the middle of the night.”
Different countries celebrated their own versions of Nicholas’ generosity. In Holland, children would find coins in their shoes during the Christmas season. In Germany, Morrison said, a plate on a household table would be filled with goodies for children on Christmas morning.
The story about Nicholas spread, and people low on funds often would fill stockings with small presents for their kids. “It could be something homemade or some food that was put in the stocking,” Morrison said.
In the 2003 book, “Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas,” author Ace Collins said Clement Moore’s mention of Christmas stockings began a sensation. During the first hundred years after the poem was first published — in the Troy newspaper the Sentinel — all Christmas Day gifts for children were found in stockings hung by the fireplace. Near the mantle was the natural place to hang garments in poorer families; clothes were in short supply, were washed each night and dried overnight for use the next day.
“Soon children sensed that the size of their foot determined the generosity of the old man from the North Pole and began to hang larger and larger socks by the fireplace,” Collins wrote. “With the invention of electricity and the toy trains that followed, a child’s Christmas dreams could no longer be held by a simple sock.”
Stockings were still hung each year.
“My mother was born in 1896 and she would hang up her stocking. She told me it was one of her real stockings,” Morrison said. “There would be an orange and a penny and maybe something that was homemade like a handkerchief. One year, she received a little bisque doll.”
Stockings changed during the mid-1900s — children no longer had to raid their sock drawers every Dec. 24. Large stockings became must-buys in department stores and helped decorate the house.
“You would buy them in the five and ten stores,” Morrison said. “They were felt with pictures on them. In the 1940s and ’50s, they had mesh bags with little trinkets and cheap toys inside them. You would buy the whole thing prepared and just put it up.”
April Masini, who writes the Internet’s “Ask April” advice column, said stockings have their places in 21st Century Christmas celebrations.
“What most folks will find in their stockings are gift cards and edible treats,” Masini said. “The reason you’ll find so many gift cards in stockings is because opening a big box with shiny wrapping paper and a perfect bow, only to find a gift card inside, is going to be a letdown. The gift card is thoughtful, but doesn’t require that much thought.”
Looking inside stockings, Masini said, might be the first actions people take Christmas morning.
“The gift cards in the stockings are going to be nice warm up gifts, like the band you’ve never really heard of that comes on before The Rolling Stones, but if that’s all you get, you’ll be disappointed.”
Masini added that stockings are also great places to stash small things. They can also be a place to get creative.
“Stockings are also a great place for a small box of chocolates or a fancy chocolate bar, some Swedish fish candies or homemade cookies in a little gift bag,” she said. “If the stocking owner is a college student or grown-up with a kitchen, skipping the Starbucks gift card for some actual coffee that’s a little fancier than what you’d normally buy yourself is a nice treat, as is homemade granola or some other specialty foods that are small in stature.”
Kids can still be impressed by old-fashioned thinking in 2012 stocking stuffings.
“If you’ve got kids who are under the age of 10,” Masini said, “riff on the tradition of money by actually going to the bank or a coin store and giving them silver dollars or some other type of valuable coin.”
Some gift companies include new looks at the old tradition. The Lands’ End clothing company offers needlepoint wool stockings that are monogrammed with names of family members. And designer Tamar Springer’s holiday collection includes a bright red musical Christmas stocking that plays the yuletide song “Santa Baby.” Springer has dibs on the song — her father, composer Philip Springer, co-wrote “Santa Baby” with Joan Javits in 1953.
Morrison understands the new, ornate take on the stockings.
“They’re just part of the Christmas tradition, as the tree is part of the tradition,” he said.