A modern child would probably be disappointed by the goodies found in the Christmas stockings of the past. In the past, stocking stuffers were more like candies, nuts, and fresh oranges, all of which were considered to be a real treat at the time.
The holiday tradition may have started during the Great Depression, or war time, when many families couldn’t afford to buy holidays presents and gifted these sweet and hard-to-come-by fruits instead. And in fact, waking up on Christmas morning and finding a fresh orange in your stocking was considered a luxury.
There’s also one more piece of history we can thank for this Christmas tradition, one of the several parts that make the legend of St. Nicholas.
Nicholas, as we know, was a Bishop long before he ever was a Saint, and this story is but one of many that make up his multicolored legend.
He had heard of a family who were very poor. So poor, in fact, that the father of this family was considering selling his oldest daughter into slavery, so that he might have funds for his other children. Word of this reached Bishop Nicholas who, in the dead of a cold night, donned his red Bishop’s robes with the white fur trim, and paid an anonymous visit to the family.
When he got to the house he was able to see the stockings the children had hung by the fire to dry. All he wanted to do was to somehow give a small gift of gold, enough to prevent any children from being sold into slavery, but he had to figure out how to get into the house and he had to figure out where to leave it. He knew he couldn’t just knock on the door and hand it over, as the father had too much pride to allow that to happen. Besides, Bishop Nicholas did not want to create any obligation for the gift.
Of course, there are several versions of this story. Some say he just dropped the small bag of gold on the porch and then left. Others say it wasn’t a bag of gold at all, but, rather, a ball of gold while some stories even go so far as to suggest that Bishop Nicholas tossed the gold up over the roof line where the ball went down the chimney and landed in the stocking of the eldest child.
Regardless, he somehow left the gift and went on his way. And this is obviously one of many different versions that explains the tradition of hanging stockings over the fireplace at Christmas.
A few years later, the family’s circumstance had not changed and the father was once again known to be considering selling a child into slavery. And again, word of that reached the good Bishop who again brought an anonymous gift of gold in the dead of night. Determined to at least thank the gift bringer, the father when he faced the situation a third time caught Bishop Nicholas in the act. Nicholas tried to swear the man to secrecy but he could not contain his gratitude and he told the tale over and over again.
The orange is symbolic of the Bishop’s gold, and that is why many get an orange in the toe of their stocking on Christmas morning.