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Christmas Tales: Stockings Hung by the Chimney and a Father’s Dire Choice

With stockings hung by the chimney with care, it’s time to wait for St. Nick to be there. The tradition of hanging stockings on Christmas Eve might have originated in the 1st century when a monk named Nicholas was believed to have dropped gold into a poor girl’s stocking for her dowry. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care …” It’s a line from Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Stockings hung by the chimney (or elsewhere) are a Christmas staple.

But from where did this tradition originate? Who would have thought of hanging stockings by the chimney in anticipation of someone filling it with gifts?

According to one story, it started with a father facing a major dilemma. As was common practice in what is now Turkey during the early 1st century, the father provided a dowry for his daughter when she was wed. This particular father had three daughters and was extremely poor.

No dowries meant no husbands. And no husbands meant his daughters faced a life of continued poverty.

The man began to think of ways to raise dowries for his daughters. At the time, his only hope seemed to be selling one of his girls, possibly his eldest, into slavery. By doing so, he would raise enough money for his other two daughters’ dowries.

Even in a time when slavery was accepted, the father wrestled with the decision. While it would mean better lives for two of his daughters, it would be a brutal existence for the third.

At the time, the daughters must have known what their father was considering, and it couldn’t have been easy for them. A heavy feeling assuredly hung over the family and home.

The father, described as a devoted Christian, prayed over the choice.

In the end, he decided a life of poverty was better than one of slavery.

During this time, a monk named Nicholas often frequented the area (see related story about how Santa Claus came to be). He was from a wealthy family and in the habit of distributing that wealth anonymously to those in need. In this way, the recipients would give thanks to God for the gifts, food, or money rather than to him.

While making his way through the village one day, he heard the man’s prayer.

That night, Nicholas stole up to the father’s house and placed gold coins in the eldest girl’s stockings, which were hanging by the fireplace to dry. The next morning, when the daughters were pulling down their stockings, the girl discovered the coins.

The father thanked God for the gold, which meant he now had a dowry for his oldest daughter. As the story goes, she was able to find a good husband who could provide and care for her, lifting her out of a life of poverty.

Then, over the years, as each daughter reached the age of marriage, gold coins appeared in their stockings.

While nobody could say for sure that it was Nicholas who put the coins in the stockings or left other gifts during his travels, some noted that these things always appeared after he had made his way through the village.

Over the years, people began hanging stockings “in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”

Today, many people still hang Christmas stockings. One tradition is to put oranges in the stockings to symbolize the gold that Nicholas placed in those first stockings more than 1,600 years ago.

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