Most families celebrating Christmas will be familiar with Christmas stockings. Generally hung either above the fireplace, by the Christmas tree or at the end of a child's bed, they're traditionally filled with small gifts or candy from Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
While there are no written records of the origin of the Christmas stocking, there are a number of legends associated with it. Here are just a few.
The European theory
Some say that traditionally in Europe, children would place their boots, filled with straw, carrots or sugar, near the chimney to feed Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir. Odin would reward the children by replacing Sleipner's food with gifts or treats. Later this German-Belgian tradition was merged with that of the Netherlands, and became associated with Saint Nicholas.
The Dutch theory
One legend tells of a kind nobleman whose wife had died of an illness, leaving the widower and his three daughters in despair. With no money, the nobleman was unable to get his daughter's married, and had grave concerns for their future.
One night, Saint Nicholas was passing through the village when he overheard villagers talking about the nobleman and his daughters. Wanting to help the family, he secretly visited their home that night.
Before going to bed, the daughters had washed out their clothing and hung their stockings over the fireplace to dry. Noticing the stockings as he peeked through the window, Saint Nicholas was struck by inspiration. He took three small bags of gold from his pouch and threw them carefully, one by one, down the chimney and into the stockings.
When the daughters awoke the next morning, they were overjoyed to discover enough gold for them to be married. The nobleman was then able to see his three daughters married, and they all lived long and happy lives.
This story is said to have led to the custom of children hanging stockings out on Christmas Eve, hoping for gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes in the story, the bags of gold are replaced with gold balls - which is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are the symbol of Saint Nicholas.
Today, most families practice their own versions of the tradition. Some fill their stockings with small gifts, some fill them with candy or fruit. But for many children, waking to see their Christmas stockings filled with gifts is one of the most magical parts of Christmas morning - and that's the best reason to continue this special tradition!