By Andrew Hind for The Sideroads
Ornaments sparkle on green branches, bushy wreaths hang from doors, and big bows dress up garlands. Everywhere you look, there's the sparkle of silver and gold making spirits bright. And there, hanging upon the mantle just as they have been for centuries, are stockings with trim of white, bringing a nostalgic glow to adult faces and expectant smiles to little ones.
Hanging stockings on the fireplace mantle is as much a part of the Christmas celebration as having the beautifully decorated tree. Though in modern times the stocking is most often used as a place to put smaller presents that might normally get lost under the tree, it's role throughout history has been as varied as the many legends associated with its origins.
Some say that the Christmas stocking was introduced to North America by the Dutch. As early as the 16th century, children in Holland would leave their wooden clogs by the hearth filled with straw to feed the reindeer team pulling Sinterklaas' present-filled sleigh. In addition, a treat for Sinterklaas himself was left in the house near the fire. In return for the children's generosity, St. Nick would leave treats in their clogs. Later the clogs would become stockings, and Saint would become "Santa Claus".
Kids the world over have grown up being told that if they were not good around Christmas time, Santa will fill their stocking with coal. This leads us into the other theory about the origins of the Christmas stocking.
The story goes like this:
There was once a kind but impoverished nobleman whose wife sadly had died of an illness, leaving the humble man to care for three daughters on his own. After losing all his money in various mislaid schemes, the nobleman and his girls had no choice but to move to a peasant's cottage. Later, when it came time for his daughters to marry, the nobleman began to despair became he had no money for their dowries. It seemed the girls were doomed to remain spinsters.
One night, after the three girls had washed their meager belongings, they decided to hang their stockings over the fireplace to dry. Later that evening, Saint Nicholas, knowing of the father's sadness, stopped by the cottage after the family had gone to bed. He peeked in the window and saw the girls' stocking hanging by the fire.
Inspiration stuck Saint Nicholas. He took three small bags of gold from his pouch and threw them carefully, one by one, down the chimney into the stockings below. The next morning when the daughters awoke, they found their stockings contained enough gold to provide handsome dowries and ensure they were well-married. The nobleman was able to see his daughters wed, and he lived a long and happy life.
From this tale came the tradition of setting out a stocking or shoe for St. Nick to fill with treats and presents. Stockings haven't always been left by the fire. In fact, in most cultures they were left at the foot of the bed, by the door, or near the nativity scene. It wasn't until Clement Moore's 1821 poem A Visit from St. Nick (now best known as The Night Before Christmas) popularized the idea that Santa came and went via the chimney that stockings began to almost universally be hung from the hearth.
After a time the Christmas tree assumed the stocking's role as the place to find the presents. In many families the two have long co-existed, with small presents and candies being put in the stockStory ing and larger gifts under the tree. In others, stockings have taken on a solely decorative role.
"I love The Night before Christmas. Even though my kids are older; we still read it on Christmas Eve. It's a quiet time when I look around my home with a grateful heart and take in all the beauty the season has to offer. But unlike the story, my stockings are not always hung by the chimney," explains Fabia MacNair, owner of Styling Spaces, a Georgetown home staging, interior arrangement, and styling company. Stockings are an easy and inexpensive way to conjure up the Christmas spirit. Their use is limited only by your imagination.
"Try the backs of chairs, stair railings, empty walls, and on front doors instead of, or to embellish a wreath," suggests MacNair. "Of course they still look classic and beautiful hung by the fireplace so consider this little trick: to keep your mantel less cluttered or if you have many stockings, you can hang them from a small curtain rod. Use two stocking hangers to suspend a "stocking rod" across the mantel. If you have a rustic wooden mantel you can use simple screw-in hooks under the mantel to suspend the rod from."
There are a variety of stocking holders sold in stores today which makes it easier to hang stockings in non-traditional places you wouldn't have thought, including below window sills, window rods, or even the casing of a large double door opening. Sometimes people decorate Christmas trees with nothing in the way of ornamentation except for lights and stockings. And don't overlook the possibility of bringing stockings outside, to hang off outdoor railings or even from trees, perhaps with greenery bursting forth from within.
Of course, the traditional hearth is still the most popular place to hang stockings. Unfortunately, not everyone has a fireplace. There is a solution: purchase a mantelshelf from a renovation centre and put it on the wall for the duration of the holiday season. "Whether you make your own Christmas stocking or purchase one, personalize or embellish it in some way to make it unique," recommends MacNair.
Ruth Wilson, owner of Emerald Isle Home Décor in Georgetown, agrees that stockings should be personalized. To her, they are a symbol of Christmas' power of nostalgia, and are forever linked with the imagery of a child's joyful face on Christmas morning. As such, she has some recommendations for making stockings a warm holiday tradition.
"I love the idea of an advent stocking that a child adds his or her own personal touches to each day. They might add pom-poms, ribbons and bows, stickers, and so forth as they count down towards Christmas Day," she says. "It's a way of making stockings interactive and more than just a simple decoration."
"Another idea would be to have a child write a warm note each day leading up to Christmas. It could be something they enjoyed that day, a Christmas memory, something they're looking forward to...it could be anything. Then, come Christmas morning the parents have the joy of reading these little notes," Wilson explains. Stockings are a prominent part of the holiday season. Be
creative when decorating with them. Remember, stockings weren't always hung by the chimney with care.