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History in the holidays: The evolution of Christmas stockings

Empty stockings hung on a fireplace on Christmas Eve. Stock image1 / 2
Christmas decorations of the room: fireplace, green chair, tree. Stock image2 / 2

FARGO — "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care..."

Thanks to Clement Moore, those words and that image is seared into everyone's mind.

It makes sense that Moore wrote about chimneys, fireplaces and stockings; he was an only child of Rev. Benjamin Moore (not the paint store magnate; that Benjamin Moore lived a century later) and Charity Clarke Moore, and the family lived in New York City in the late 1700s. They were devoutly religious, according to The Poetry Foundation, and Moore followed his father's footsteps by becoming highly educated; he developed a talent for writing and published translations, a historical biography and poetry.

His famous poem was originally published anonymously under the title "A Visit from St. Nicholas" in the 1820s, but it wasn't until 1844 when Moore was finally credited as the poem's author.

The origin

But where did the idea of hanging socks on a fireplace mantel come from?

Like so many traditions, the origin of the Christmas stocking is somewhat vague. Most lore points to a story depicting a poor father lamenting that he'd never be able to afford dowries for his three daughters, condemning them to a lifetime of spinsterhood.

St. Nicholas (on whom the modern Santa Claus is allegedly based) happened to overhear the story and clandestinely made his way down the family's chimney to leave several gold coins in the daughters' socks, which were freshly laundered and hanging by the fire to dry, according to Smithsonian.com.

Another version exists that says gold balls were left in the socks, which evolved into the tradition of leaving delectable oranges in stockings (because solid gold balls are hard to come by these days).

A lesser-known explanation for how stockings came to be associated with Christmas involves the chief god Odin from Norse mythology. Allegedly, children would leave their sugar- or carrot-filled boots out for Odin's flying horse Sleipnir to enjoy during the pagan Yule celebration (typically held around the winter solstice on Dec. 21), and Odin would reward the thoughtful kids with gifts and candy, according to Norwegianamerican.com.

Legend has it that Odin's trek across the sky inspired the modern Santa Claus who also flies through the night, now with eight reindeer.

Guess how many legs Odin's mystical white horse had? Eight.

Cultural variations

Part of what makes Christmas so special for so many people is the traditions associated with the annual holiday. Different countries have traditions all their own, often steeped in rich history.

In Holland, children don't put out Christmas stockings, but they do leave their shoes by the fireplace or on a windowsill on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6). They hope Sinterklaas (the Dutch figure based on the historical St. Nicholas) will pay a visit and leave some presents in the shoes.

In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas rides a white horse (like Odin did) and children often leave carrots or straw out for his riding companion.

In Puerto Rico, Three Kings' Day is celebrated on Jan. 6 by children putting boxes of grass for the kings' camels to eat.

The Italian version of Santa Claus is Babbo Natale, but an accompanying tradition involves a witch named La Befana who declined to join the wise men on their journey to find Jesus, according to Italialiving.com. She regretted the decision and set out to bring gifts to the Christ child, but never found him, so she gave those gifts to other children. Today, kids still leave out shoes or stockings hoping La Befana will fill them on Jan. 5, Epiphany eve.

No fireplace?

When the Christmas stocking tradition originated and as it evolved through the years, the primary mode for heating any size home was a wood-burning brick fireplace, so naturally that's where the items would be hung (not to mention that fireplaces were typically located in a central spot within a home).

It would be another 60 years after Moore penned his famous line before low-cost cast iron radiators would make central heating and coal burning possible, according to the website Sustainable Dwelling.

However, the trend of fireplaces in new homes has been steadily decreasing since its peak in 1991; the real estate website Trulia analyzed home listings on its site from January 2011 and June 2013 and found that fewer than .5 of every 1,000 homes built in the 2010s had a fireplace.

So what if your home doesn't have a fireplace, or you're looking for a new place to hang stockings as your children await their happy treasures?

Here are a few ideas:

• Easy: Display the stockings on a shelf, stair railing, end table, windowsill, drawer pulls or even a curtain rod (either also holding curtains or independently hung on the wall).

• Eclectic: Use antlers, a branch, coat hanger or accordian drying hack as the hanging apparatus.

• DIY: Draw a fireplace using chalk (or chalk paint) or build one using scrap wood. Other crafty ideas involve creating your own vintage skis or a sled on which the stockings can hang.

Danielle Teigen

Danielle Teigen is from South Dakota, but she headed north to attend North Dakota State University where she earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and management communication. She worked for Forum Communications first in 2007 as an intern and part-time reporter. Later, she served as editor for two local magazines before switching gears for marketing and public relations roles for an engineering firm and the chamber of commerce.  She returned to Forum Communications in May 2015 as a digital content manager and is currently the Deputy Editor.  She is originally from Turton, S.D., and is the author of "Hidden History of Fargo".

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