Legends, folklore and fairytales, we love them all. And by “we”, we are referring to all people around the world. Customs and traditions were passed down verbally and by song and storytelling, before our ancestors ever considered a written language. So it’s only natural that after a thousand years or so, (give or take a century or two), the story could have morphed just a tad. But does that truly matter? Not at all, since these are stories, legends and myths, who knows who told them for the first time? And we know that history changes based on who is telling it. So we’ll just sit back, perhaps with a steaming cup of wassail, (or hot chocolate, whatever you prefer) and take pleasure in the many variations of the history of the stocking stuffer.
Some say that the tradition of hanging stockings with the anticipation of socks filled with gifts may have begun in pre-Christian times with the ancient custom of offering food to the gods.
St. Nicholas, whose story and legend eventually evolved into today’s Santa Claus was a Bishop who lived in what is today Turkey, during the fourth century. He was very wealthy as well as generous and had a reputation for protecting and helping the poor. One variation of the famous Christmas stocking story is as follows: The Bishop heard about a widower in his parish who had three daughters. The family was too poor to provide dowries for the daughters which meant none of them could ever marry and they would become destitute. Upon hearing of the family’s situation, Bishop Nicholas visited the widower’s home one night and without being seen, dropped a bag of coins down the chimney. The bag opened and the coins fell into each of the daughter’s stockings which were drying by the mantle.
The next morning the daughters found the money in their stockings and were overjoyed. They now could marry and their father would no longer have to worry about them.
In medieval Germany the story begins with an ancient custom of encouraging children to place their boots outside the door on Christmas Eve, when the Christkindwould leave small gifts for the children. A similar tradition was practiced in Holland in which the Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes outside the door filled with straw. The straw was a tasty gift for Santa’s horse to be able to enjoy a snack. The wooden shoes were then filled with gifts.
In Italy, a variation of the St. Nicholas Christmas story has been passed down through the time of the Romans. A good witch, called “La Befana” flies from house to house on her old broomstick and delivers gifts to the good girls and boys, placing the treats in their stockings. She is considered a kindly old woman with white hair, a shawl and a broomstick. She travels throughout Italy on her broomstick, with the exception of Venice, where, naturally, she uses a gondola.
In celebration of the legend, male gondoliers of Venice dress up as “La Befana” the good witch of the Epiphany, which is celebrated on January 6th. Kitted out in long dress, shawl, white wig, and broomstick, these intrepid, festive souls race their gondolas down the Grand Canal in tribute to the beloved ancient legend.
Victorian era Swedish Santa delivering his gifts on foot, without the luxury of flying reindeer, or gondolas. Based on location around the globe, Santa takes many different modes of transportation, but the outcome of his visit is always the same. Gifts, treats and presents in stockings, happy children the following morning.
Contemporary stockings hung on the mantle are a Christmas staple and a handy place for additional gifts along with those placed under the tree. We couldn’t think about Christmas without them.
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