The Legend of Saint Nicholas
According to legend, St. Nicholas (a priest, then bishop, who was reputed to be generous to the poor) heard of a man who had three daughters but not enough money for their dowries. Wishing to bestow an anonymous gift, St. Nicholas threw gold down the man’s chimney, which landed in the stockings of the daughters, washed and drying on the mantel.
For this reason, many people today still put a tangerine or orange in the toe of a Christmas stocking. It represents the lump of gold.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers, as well as children. If you see a symbol of three golden balls on a pawn shop sign, you now know they represent the three lumps of gold the saint bestowed on the daughters of legend.
The dreaded lump of coal
How about the lump of coal? Well, you can imagine what a big deal it was to receive gifts in the old days. It didn’t happen every day. Children had a big incentive to behave themselves, so their benefactor would bring them a surprise on St. Nicholas Day. What happened if they didn’t? They knew they would receive sticks, switches (to symbolize a thrashing) salt or lumps of coal to make the stocking look as if something was in it, bu not contain any small toys or gifts. Sometimes, there was another, more frightening figure to bestow the presents or punishments on naughty children. Coal was commonly used in later centuries, as it was handy. Today, of course, coal is usually placed in the stocking as a gag gift.
Although I remember hanging one of my real socks on Christmas Eve, nowadays, it’s more common to see a stocking that is shaped like a Santa Claus boot, and some adults also put up stockings. The humble sock has transformed into a decorative piece that can cost $50 or more.
Does your family hang stockings on Christmas Eve? What are your traditions?