The Strange History of the Christmas Stocking

Like many traditions, the Christmas stocking is a blend from myth, legend and history. The mysterious part of the Christmas stocking tradition seem to be more from mythology than one might suspect. The effort here is not to cloud the whole tradition of a stocking hung by the hearth filled with goodies by Santa Claus, but rather to provide some depth of appreciation as to how old the tradition is and shed an interesting light on the man who fills that stocking in mid-winter. Most people think that the tradition of Santa Claus and stockings by the fireplace began traces back to the story of Saint Nicholas. Though that is the largely accepted story historically, the story itself may begin in mythology.

There are many historians and mythologists who say that the hanging of the stockings by the fire in December, and an older man who appears from nowhere to fill those stockings, goes back much further than Saint Nicholas. It is not unheard of that the early Christian Church would co-opt or mimic the traditions of other cultures in order to allow their missionaries to spread the gospel in pagan lands (the process is called Syncretism). The tradition of stocking by the fire and Santa Claus may have begun in the distant past where myth and history meet.

odin santa

This picture of Odin the Wanderer (1896 by Georg von Rosen) sure does seem to look suspiciously like Santa, eh?

It Started With Odin

The Norse culture of Scandinavia did not embrace Christianity until the end of the first millennium. When Viking raids on the monasteries of northern Europe met with little resistance, the Norse took it as proof that the Christian god was no match for their own deities.

One of the Norse gods, Odin, enjoyed particular popularity. Although many may think of Odin as the god of war, that is only a small part of his mythology. One translation of the word ‘Odin’ is ‘shaman-warrior’. Odin also represented wisdom, poetry and magic and he was a hunter and often wandered among humanity. He was often depicted as a large man with a long white beard. Odin rode an eight legged horse capable of making great leaps and traveling great distances called Sleipnir. Children were often told heroic tales of Odin and Sleipnir. Enchanted by tales of Odin and his flying horse, children filled their boots with straw and sugar for Sleipnir. The boots were left by the hearth, where Odin could warm himself before continuing his journey. Odin repaid their thoughtfulness by leaving treats and small wooden toys behind.

Around Christmas time you will hear the word Yule as in yule log or yule time greetings. The word Yule actually pre-dates Christianity. Yule was actually a pagan religious festival held in mid-winter. In the Yule time the mythology says that Odin flew through the sky riding Sleipnir. As Christianization began taking hold in Scandinavia, Yule and Christmas began being celebrated together.

So, we have a large Noric-looking man with a long white beard who lives in a very cold, white land who flies through the sky in December, mid-winter, and who leaves treats in the shoes and socks of children hung by the fire … Who does this description remind you of? Odin is not the first name to come to mind.

So, where does Saint Nicholas (he who would become Santa Claus) and his leaving gifts in stocking come from? Glad you ask …

A New Story of the Christmas Stocking by the Hearth Begins

After years of raiding the northern coast of Europe, the Norse began wintering in the Seine valley. They invaded Normandy, expelled the French and took over their castles. They married the daughters of the former castle lords and began to adopt their Christian ways, including the celebration of Christmas. It was here that the former Vikings heard of a tradition similar to the one involving Odin: the story of St. Nicholas.

In the fourth century, the future Saint Nicholas was a bishop in what is now Turkey. As the son of a wealthy family, Nicholas inherited a great deal of money, which he used to better the lives of the needy. According to legend, he overheard some townspeople discussing the fate of a family with three marriageable daughters. The family was extremely poor, and with no dowry to offer, the father despaired over what would become of his girls. Nicholas waited until dark, then made his way to the family’s home and tossed gold coins through the open window. Whether by accident or design, the coins landed near stockings the daughters had hung near the hearth to dry. At least one of the coins is said to have slipped into a stocking. When the family awoke, they found that the anonymous visitor had left enough money to provide each girl with a dowry.

Over the centuries, the stories of Odin and St. Nicholas merged. Sleipnir the eight legged horse became eight flying reindeer. The unmarried daughters were replaced by younger children, both rich and poor, who left food offerings just as the Norse children had. In some countries, wooden shoes were set out receive the gifts. In other countries, stockings were hung.

Santa and the Christmas Stocking Come to America

Curiously, the stocking tradition does not seem to have become common in Britain until the 1870s. It arrived in America much earlier, probably with the Dutch of New Amsterdam, whose children were accustomed to setting out their wooden shoes at Yuletide. As early as 1809, Washington Irving mentions hanging a stocking on the chimney. In 1815, the famous Night Before Christmas poem notes that "the stockings were hung by the chimney with care," implying that it was a commonplace and widely practiced tradition even at that early date. By 1900 the modern concept of Santa and stockings by the fire begins to take shape and become an icon to a nation.

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Even during the darkest days of the Great Depression, when pockets were empty and gifts were few, stockings were filled with candy, nuts and small trinkets. The habit of putting an orange in each stocking dates back to this era, when an orange in the middle of winter was a luxury that only a magical visitor from far away could supply. The custom of hanging Christmas stockings is as popular as it’s ever been, even in places where fireplaces are rare.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the origins of the Christmas Stockings hung by the fire. What matters is the happiness it brings and the sharing it inspires. May your Christmas stocking always contain joy.

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Odin Mythology
Odin is Santa
Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men
History of the Christmas Stocking