Stocking Stuffers: A Wee Bit of History

Trey Ratcliff)
Christmas Stockings (Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff)

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

~~ Clement C. Moore, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”

As the Christmas countdown begins in earnest and you must (must you?) still buy more gifts for more people (and with less time and less money to do so), consider giving ready-made food gifts. That special food gift may be no further away than the local grocery store. Stuffed into a stocking (no need to wrap these gifts), ready-made food gifts make the last days before Christmas relatively hassle-free for the harried shopper.

And you will be part a part of history, too.

Stuffing stockings at Christmas is a custom that has apparently been around for a long time.

Sicko Atze van Dijk)
Dutch Wooden Shoes (Photo credit: Sicko Atze van Dijk)

The custom may actually have its beginnings in pre-Christian times, taking the form of food offerings to the pantheon of gods. Some authorities say the medieval Germans began the custom by encouraging children to place their boots outside the door on Christmas Eve, in hopes that the Christkind would leave gifts. In Holland, Dutch children put wooden shoes outside for the same purpose. In Italy, as well, children left their shoes outside for La Bufana to leave gifts. And in the United States and England, hanging up stockings apparently was a widely followed custom, but not until Washington Irving wrote the Knickerbocker History of New York in 1809 was there any written referral to this custom. At first, Christmas stockings in America were just that: everyday long woolen stockings that were worn as soon as all the goodies tumbled out. Of course, there might not always be goodies. A lump of coal might be there just as easily as candy.

By the end of the nineteenth century, especially after the publication in 1822 of C. Clements Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” bright red felt stockings, some pre-filled, began to hit the markets around Christmastime. Today, we still see stylized stockings, some still pre-filled, for sale.  Also on offer are gift baskets, most full of stale crackers and crumbly cookies that no one really likes, stuff that the gift recipient usually throws out.

Hollin Elizabeth)
Christmas Sockings (Photo credit: Hollin Elizabeth)

Interestingly, the Christmas stocking appears to have been a deeply ingrained custom, usurped by the German Christmas tree. The following clip from The New York Times, December 26, 1883, reveals a good many fascinating facts and opinions about the changes in American Christmas customs:

The extent to which, of late years, the Christmas tree has superseded the Christmas stocking has been seriously lamented by persons of artistic and devout tastes. The stocking was for so many years associated with Christmas without seemed inappropriately and insufficiently celebrated. The German Christmas tree — a rootless and lifeless corpse — was never worthy of the day, and no one can say how far the spirit of rationalism with begins with the denial of Santa Claus, the supernatural filler of stockings, and ends with the denial of all things supernatural, has been fostered by the German Christmas trees, which have been so widely adopted in this country.

Very interesting how things change, no? The U.S. White House displayed a Christmas tree annually beginning in 1889, during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison. And still does.

So the poor Christmas stocking seems just that, a penniless relation, an afterthought, and a thing of commerce.

But, truthfully, you will find it so much more fun to stuff the stockings yourself. And you will save money, too.

What stuff to stuff into it once you have found the perfect stocking for the perfect person?

Angela Leese)
Mustards (Photo credit: Angela Leese)

Food is the logical choice, but what food!  Let your imagination go wild as you search the grocery shelves. Buy things that the stocking recipient would never buy for himself/herself. How about jars of herbs and spices for the adventurous cook?  Fancy mustards and special dried sausages for the hot dog lover?  Why not!? Include a whole world of flavors: chutneys, jams, pepper jelly, gourmet cheeses, extra virgin olive oil (worth its weight in gold), cashews, fancy chocolate candies, tinned Danish butter cookies, caviar, a variety of olives, foie gras for the liver lover, and pickles of every sort.

Non-food food-related items appropriate for the stocking include miniature cookbooks, gift certificates for restaurant meals, specialized cooking equipment like citrus zesters and cucumber corers, or a subscription to a food magazine.

Make up an ice cream sundae stocking, with all the fixings for a sundae (except the ice cream, of course).  Or create a cook’s stocking and include all the spices and sauces for cooking certain ethnic cuisines, as in the following “recipe” for the Chinese cook stocking.

If all else fails, and you really can’t come up with the perfect stuffed stocking, just leave a lump of coal. It’s easy, it’s cheap, and it might even be deserved!

Marcel Van der Horst)
Chinese Groceries (Photo credit: Marcel Van der Horst)


Soy sauce

Oyster sauce

Hot bean paste

Five-spice powder

Fresh ginger

Sesame oil

Szechwan peppercorns

Cleaver (well-wrapped!)

Bamboo shoots

Transparent Chinese vermicelli

Salted black beans

Chili oil

Chinese rice wine

Dried black mushrooms

Chinese rice vinegar


1. Put all ingredients into stocking.

2. Hang the stocking by the chimney with care.

3. Next morning, watch eyes sparkle when stocking is opened.

Thomas Nast's Santa
Thomas Nast's Santa

Merry Christmas! (Or whatever holiday you celebrate!)

© 2008 C. Bertelsen

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