A Month of Christmas: The Stocking

Canada – Warm and Cozy Christmas Stocking (2018) self-adhesive booklet single

One of the very few objects from my childhood that I managed to keep (until I moved to Thailand, that is) was a beautiful stocking knitted by one of my grandmothers not long after my little sister was born. Now, I don’t even have a photograph of this stocking (although it seems to make an appearance in a home movie from the time I was around three or four years old). One of the images in this article actually has a stocking very close to the design of my childhood one. When I saw the designs of this year’s Christmas stamps from Canada, they reminded me of the hats and mittens of my childhood but, most of all I knew I would be blogging about stockings just as soon as my order arrived here in Thailand. Oddly enough, you can actually purchase mittens, scarves and knitted hats in the local equivalent to America’s K-Mart.

A Christmas stocking is an empty sock or sock-shaped bag that is hung on Saint Nicholas Day or Christmas Eve so that Saint Nicholas (or the related figures of Santa Claus and Father Christmas) can fill it with small toys, candy, fruit, coins or other small gifts when he arrives. These small items are often referred to as stocking stuffers or stocking fillers. When I was growing up, my stocking almost always contained a few plastic soldiers, a Matchbox car, perhaps a rolled-up comic book, and candy canes amongst other long-since-forgotten items. Returning home for Christmas each year, my sister and I would usually find lottery tickets in our stockings; I won five dollars once. These were always the first gifts we opened on Christmas morning, before passing out wrapped presents from under the tree.

The middle two stockings in this photo bear designs very similar to the stocking my Grandmother knitted for me when I was three or four years old. Photo taken on October 17, 2010.

The tradition of the Christmas stocking is thought to originate from the life of Saint Nicholas. In some Christmas stories, the contents of the Christmas stocking are the only toys the child receives at Christmas from Santa Claus; in other stories (and in tradition), some presents are also wrapped up in wrapping paper and placed under the Christmas tree. Tradition in Western culture threatens that a child who behaves badly during the year will receive only a piece or pile of coal in their stocking. Some people even put their Christmas stocking by their bedposts so Santa Claus can fill it by the bed while they sleep.

While there are no written records of the origin of the Christmas stocking, there are popular legends that attempt to tell the history of this Christmas tradition. One such legend has several variations, but the following is a good example, as related in The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler (2000):

Very long ago, there lived a poor man and his three very beautiful daughters. He had no money to get his daughters married, and he was worried what would happen to them after his death. Saint Nicholas was passing through when he heard the villagers talking about the girls. St. Nicholas wanted to help, but knew that the old man wouldn’t accept charity. He decided to help in secret. After dark he threw three bags of gold through an open window, one landed in a stocking. When the girls and their father woke up the next morning they found the bags of gold and were, of course, overjoyed. The girls were able to get married and live happily ever after. Other versions of the story say that Saint Nicholas threw the three bags of gold directly into the stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry.

Stuffed stockings following a visit by Saint Nicholas.

This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for Saint Nicholas. And so, Saint Nicholas is a gift-bringer. This is also the origin of three gold balls being used as a symbol for pawnbrokers.

A tradition that began in a European country originally, children simply used one of their everyday socks, but eventually special Christmas stockings were created for this purpose. These stockings are traditionally used on Saint Nicholas Day although in the early 1800s, they also came to be used on Christmas Eve.

Stockings hanging on the mantle over a fireplace.

An unsubstantiated claim is that the Christmas stocking custom derived from the Germanic/Scandinavian figure Odin. According to Phyllis Siefker in Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (2006), children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw, or sugar, near the chimney for Odin’s flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir’s food with gifts or candy. This practice, Siefker claims, survived in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization. This claim is doubtful as there are no records of stocking filling practices related to Odin until there is a merging of Saint Nicholas with Odin. St. Nicholas had an earlier merging with the Grandmother cult in Bari, Italy where the grandmother would put gifts in stockings. This merged Saint Nicholas would later travel north and merge with the Odin cults.

Today, stores carry a large variety of styles and sizes of Christmas stockings, and Christmas stockings are also a popular homemade craft. Many families create their own Christmas stockings with each family member’s name applied to the stocking so that Santa will know which stocking belongs to which family member.

Canada – Warm and Cozy Christmas (2018) first day cover
Canada – Warm and Cozy Stocking (2018) self-adhesive booklet of 12

Canada Post released Christmas stamps in four different designs on November 2, 2018, under the title “Warm and Cozy” with the one religious and three secular designs all depicting the craft of knitting. Designed by Montréal-based Paprika and illustrated by Daniel Robitaille, the religious stamp employs the simple but rich symbolism of traditional folk art to revitalize the essential elements of the Nativity on a Permanent stamp paying the domestic rate while the secular stamps — denominated for domestic, U.S. and international postage rates — display colurful folk-art inspired depictions of traditional cold-weather wear. The mitten and knitted cap (known in Canada as a toque) stamps were issued in booklets of six stamps each while the stocking (actually Christmas socks) and Nativity stamps were released in booklets of twelve stamps each. All of these were printed by Colour Innovations using offset lithography in five colors with the stamps self-adhesive. Canada Post also sold large uncut production sheets made up of actual booklets before being cut for sale. Finally, a PVA-gun souvenir sheet containing one each of the three secular stamps was released. There was no mention of the perforation gauge in the press release and I didn’t order one of these (remedying that now…).

Flag of Canada, adopted February 21, 1965

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