Christmas stockings and ‘stocking fillers‘ are now a traditional part of Christmas. A quick consultation with those two noisy colleagues Drs Google and Wikipedia will tell you that this tradition had its origin in the story of St Nicholas, initially secretly, providing three bags of gold as dowries for the three daughters of a poor man. However. The venerable Professor OED says that the term ‘Christmas stocking‘ meaning ‘a long sock or similar item hung up, especially by children, on Christmas Eve to be filled with presents‘ found its way into English only in 1853 as the title of a book and wasn’t even included in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1884-1928). There was an earlier usage that meant ‘a stocking bought or given at Christmas‘ which dates back as far as the 16th century. Numerous newspaper articles from the 1880s on state that the tradition of hanging stockings had arrived in Britain and her colonies from Belgium. Dr Google would beg to differ, suggesting that Belgian children put out their shoes to be filled with Christmas goodies.
It has been suggested that it was during the Victorian period that gift giving came to overshadow the religious celebration that is the reason for Christmas’s existence. The increase in prosperity for many at the middle levels of society as a result of industrialization meant that they had money to buy the relatively cheaply produced goods that were also a result of industrialization. The change in emphasis was recognized at the time. The editor of the Hobart Mercury wrote in 1867,
‘Everybody knows that Christmas is no longer observed as a christian festival, but as a great annual holiday. And who is bold enough to protest against this? If any did, it would be against the general sense of the community, no less here, than in the mother country.‘ (26 Dec. 1867, p.2)
So it wasn’t just us heathenish colonials.
For many children at the lower levels of society there were few, if any, gifts. If there were, the gifts were basic and often of the sort found in the traditional Christmas stocking – fruit such as apples or oranges (a nod towards the the gold in St Nicholas’s bags), nuts, lollies, small basic toys.
Stockings for the children of those with means appear to have been stuffed to overflowing.
‘It is also advisable to remember that many small gifts may be fitted into a stocking … The delight of drawing forth a large number of small parcels, one by one, and of unwrapping each in turn, far exceeds that experienced when two or three only form the contents, although these last may be of a more costly nature. The small packets may consist of dolls, dolls furniture etc., beads, thimble, pencils, penholder, needle-case, paint-box, crayons, doll’s clothes, penknife, fruit knife, all these and many others being suitable for girls ; while soldiers, cannon, knives, paints, compasses, reins, whistles, telescopes, small mechanical toys, musical boxes, will invariably please boys. … The odd spaces in these stockings may be filled with two or three pretty biscuits, chocolate animals, a rosy apple and a bon bon or two, or packets of foreign stamps.’
The Western Champion and General Advertiser (Barcaldine, Qld.) 23 Dec 1906 p.4
Christmas stockings were never part of my Christmas experience as a child, nor that of my husband. We both grew up in rural towns in different parts of Victoria in the 1960s. I have wondered if this was partly because many of our family traditions were transported (not in the criminals sense – all my convicts are English) out of Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s and my forebears were of the class with little money to throw around. This article by Irish historian Dr Marian McGarry on Christmas Day in rural Ireland suggests that hanging stockings for Santa to fill was something that was only happening by the early 20th century. I have read elsewhere that it was traditional in Ireland to leave mince pies and perhaps a glass of Guinness for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer. For us it was dry biscuits (Salada quarters) with cheese and sliced tomato and a bottle of beer, a glass beside it and carrots for the reindeer. In the morning, the biscuits were gone except for a few crumbs, only the tops of the carrots left, and the bottle completely empty. Geography does transform traditions and I suspect that this one takes different forms right around the world. It is interesting too that, although Australia is quite early on Santa’s Christmas rounds, he has already worked up quite a thirst.
In my search for information on Christmas stockings, I found this snippet too good not to be shared. It is from the OED release notes of March 2020 by Matthew Bladen. Along with Christmas stocking, Christmas Cracker was also omitted from the first edition of the OED.
‘The original Christmas cracker (recorded around 1817, but apparently practised forty or more years earlier) was a rather alarming practical joke played by blacksmiths’ assistants on each other: a gun barrel was filled with water, stopped up, and placed on the fire, where it would eventually produce a sound like a firework when the water turned to steam and violently escaped. I can’t imagine this going down well at a traditional Christmas dinner…‘
So. I wish you all a splendid break from the pressures of life to be celebrated in the ways that mean most to you.
Here are a handful of bits and pieces to fill up this virtual Christmas stocking.
My daughter’s best ever gingerbread recipe.
‘This recipe seems to be able to handle any cock-up I throw at it. It is apparently possible that any mistake you can conceivably make will still render these biscuits surprisingly delicious. You could probably substitute snail poison for ginger and it’d be totally fine.
I have included every possible variation I can remember making. You’ll see, ALL STEPS ARE ARBITRARY AND SUPERFLUOUS…‘
In the absence of Christmas crackers here are a few jokes.
– How does Jack Frost get to work?
– What kind of lighting did Noah use for the ark?
– What does Santa suffer from if he gets stuck in a chimney?
Claustrophobia … Read on if you dare.