You may recognize the above quote as a line from the children’s story, ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, one of the most beloved and popular tales of the Western Christmas tradition. The story has become so well-known and ubiquitous that it is often credited as the reason the tradition of hanging a Christmas stocking catapulted to popularity. While ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas is an early and important link between folklore and the modern practice of Christmas in the English speaking world, the legend and tradition of Christmas stockings existed before then and are based in the folklore of St. Nicholas himself.
According to folklore, St. Nicholas dropped gold coins down the chimney of an impoverished family, and they happened to land in stockings that had been hung by the fire to dry. This is also where the tradition of an orange being placed in a stocking seems to have originated – the orange representing the gold coins that St. Nicholas bestowed upon the family.
The first Christmas stockings would have been regular, everyday socks filled with small tokens of the holiday. As the tradition and celebration of Christmas grew in ornamentation and size, so too, did the stocking.
The 1879 print by Thomas Nast shows St. Nicholas in an unadorned stocking, not unlike a plain one that would have been worn regularly at the time.
By the mid-to-late 1800s, stockings were an essential part of Christmas decoration and tradition. According to an 1883 New York Times article, “the stocking was for so many years so closely associated with Christmas that Christmas without stockings seemed inappropriately and insufficiently celebrated.”
By the late 19th century, Christmas-specific and themed stockings were being marketed and sold. As early as 1888, lithograph-printed cotton patterns that had to be cut and sewn at home were available for purchase and by the early 20th century fully stitched and ready-to-hang stockings could readily be bought.
The collection at Tatter Blue Library houses not only books, but a range of objects that relate to cloth and the handmade. The collection includes tools, notions, garments, buttons, and art, among other historical objects. I turned to the collection in search of historical references and more information about about stockings.
Instead of designing an ornamentally themed stocking in the contemporary style, I took inspiration from a knitted stocking in our collection. This beige stocking with beaded inlay is part of a baby’s outfit from Vienna, c. 1800-1815. It is delicately and finely knit, with tiny, perfectly placed glass beads that create a simple yet impactful design. You can read more historical and physical information about the set in our library database.
Just as children in the early 19th century would have done, we imagine this knitted baby stocking hanging from the mantle, ready for a (small) orange to adorn its toe box.
Tatter’s reimagined stocking is made using hand-spun, organic cotton denim from 11.11 and blue Cosmo Sashiko thread that coordinates with its selvedge. The embroidered design is based off the original beading of the baby stockings, and the whole stocking has been lovingly hand stitched, ready to be filled with yummy chocolates and textile treats.