Saint Nicholas and the Prostitute Stockings

“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.”

So goes the line from the famous 19th century poem, “The Night Before Christmas”. But it is an odd custom, isn’t it? Why would anyone ever come up with the idea of filling a bunch of smelly socks with candy and gifts? I wondered. So I did some sleuthing and found out, according to legend, the origin of this custom.

Today, December 6th, marks the Feast of Saint Nicholas, and of course his evil counterpart Krampus, who tags along with him on his gift giving. While Nicholas is the “good saint” distributing gifts to children who have been virtuous, Krampus deals with the bad kids, often flogging them with a whip and carrying them away to unknown destinations. Krampus served to teach kids that they must be good all year long, or they’d be in for some SERIOUS punishment…

But back to the stockings. Many people have a tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace during the Christmas season. The belief is that Santa (or Saint Nick) will come and fill the stockings with goodies. Indeed, the “Stocking Stuffer” business is huge among retail stores, as they sell all kinds of little baubles and goodies, enticing shoppers to buy, since those stockings MUST be stuffed! Many countries in Europe have a tradition of filling children’s stockings, and also shoes, with treats on Saint Nicholas Day.

But the stuffed stockings actually have a deeper, more profound meaning. Would you believe that stuffed stockings once saved three women from a life of prostitution?

The real Saint Nicholas was Nicholas of Myra (15 March 270 – 6 December 343), also known as Nicholas of Bari. He was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor, what is now modern-day Turkey.

 Nicholas was known to do all kinds of good deeds, and there are many legends about him. But I found one particularly intriguing.

It was said in a village near Myra there lived a man with three daughters. The man had lost his fortune and was destitute. Since daughters, in those days, were somewhat of a burden, he had one goal in mind: to marry them off and get them out of the house. But alas, since they were so poor, the man had no dowry to give to his daughters. And without a dowry — well — there’d be no gain in marrying them. Hence, no decent man would ever ask for their hands.

(By the way, YES! It’s appalling! But that’s how they did things back then. Women were like cattle, to be raised and traded off, with essentially no worth except what their father could offer into the marriage bargain, usually a large dowry.)

Since there was no hope for these three daughters, the only thing to be done was that they be sent out into the world to become prostitutes. (Yeah, of course. Logical solution, right?)

The night before the girls were planning to report to the local pimp, they washed their stockings, as having clean feet would be necessary for their new profession. Since they had no modern-day dryers or laundromats, the girls hung the stockings above the hearth to help them dry. Then they went to bed, terrified about what the next day would bring.

But something happened to change the course of their lives.

Enter the good Saint Nicholas.

According to the legend, Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the window. As the bag flew through the air, some of the gold coins flipped out and landed in the stockings!

Hence began our custom of hanging stockings by the chimney in hopes that they will be filled with goodies by the benevolent Santa Klaus!

The girls woke up to find the bag of gold, and the stray coins that had fallen into their stockings. At this point they decided to reassess their decision to become street walkers…

But good old Saint Nick did not stop there! It is said on the next night he repeated the procedure, and then again on the next night, so that there were, altogether, three bags of gold for the sisters. The girls were DEFINITELY NOT reporting to the local pimp!

Since it was the 4th century, and women had very few choices, it is said that the father used the gold for the girls’ dowries, and in turn got them married off to some respectable men. And they lived happily ever after.

But I like to think that maybe the girls went into business together, opened a sock shop, made a fortune and lived happily ever after…

At any rate, what we know for sure is that Nicholas himself was a generous soul, a giver of gifts, and someone who looked out for those less fortunate than himself.

Happy Saint Nicholas Day, and may your stockings always be stuffed with good things.