"Christmas Stocking" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Happy holidays and welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re delving into the Christmas stocking for some etymological treats!

Before we get to the stockings, let’s start with the word Christmas. The first part is easy, obviously coming from Christ meaning ‘anointed’, coming from a root that means ‘to rub’, that also gives us grime, grisly, and cream, so think about that as you eat the cream-filled chocolate you got in your Christmas stocking. By the way, the abbreviation Xmas is not a modern barbarism or “an attempt to take the Christ out of Christmas”, but in fact goes back to the 16th century. The X is actually the Greek letter chi, the first letter of Christos, and was used as an abbreviation for the name. The -mas part of Christmas obviously refers to the mass, the church service. It probably comes from the Latin phrase Ite, missa est at the end of the service meaning “go, it is sent” or in other words “go, you are dismissed”.

As for stocking, it’s surprisingly much more recent than the Old English derived sock. Stocking comes about in the 16th century from a humorous comparison to the stocks, the old punishment device that restrains the legs. So we’ve only just begun and we already have grim humour and grimy, grisly cognates, but this gives us a clue as to what we’ll find when we look under the sugar coating of the Christmas stocking and its treats.

So why do we have Christmas stockings? Well the answer to this is tied up with one of the historical traditions that leads to our modern idea of Santa Claus, that of St Nicholas. Nicholas, whose name in Greek means “victory of the people” and is therefore cognate, appropriately enough for a legendary figure with an affinity for footwear, with the sports equipment company Nike (named after the Greek goddess of victory), was a bishop in the town of Myra in what is now Turkey in the 4th century. Myra, by the way, was named after myrrh, a kind of resin used as incense, which you’ll probably remember as one of the gifts, along with gold and frankincense, that the three wise men or Magi gave to Christ when he was born. We don’t have a lot of reliable historical information about St Nicholas’s life, but there are numerous legends. Perhaps the most famous is the story about the stockings. You see, Nicholas was the son of wealthy parents, and when he inherited the money, being so pious he decided to distribute it in charitable ways, but always secretly. One of his neighbours had fallen upon hard times, and since he didn’t have the money for dowries for his three beautiful daughters, he was going to be forced to sell them into prostitution. But Nicholas came to the rescue by throwing three bags of gold on three nights in the windows of the young women for their dowries. According to one version of the story one of the bags of gold landed in the stocking that one of the daughters had washed and hung to dry, thus apparently starting the stocking tradition, though this is likely a later rationalization. In any case, in Nicholas’s iconography the Saint is often depicted with three balls of gold representing the three bags.

One of the less legendary, more historical details about St Nicholas’s life is that he was present at the Council of Nicaea, which was importantly concerned with the nature of Christ and his relation to God the Father, essentially decreeing that the two, along with the Holy Spirit, were on equal footing, a holy Trinity. Apparently he got so pissed offat one attendee who denied this principal, believing that Christ was subordinate to God the Father, one Arius of Arian Heresy fame, that Nicholas hit Arius in the face. So not so much Silent Night as violent night. Apparently Ol’ St Nick was a bit of a badass.

There are also numerous miracle stories associated with Nicholas. Several of them are nautical — he is meant to have miraculously saved sailors who either fell from the mast of the ship or fell overboard, and in one story he drove the ship of his would-be kidnapper back to his home port. One famous and rather grisly story tells of how he brought back to life three boys who had been killed, cut up, and pickled by a wicked innkeeper or butcher who then tried to serve the meat to Nicholas. Ew!

As a result of these many legends, Nicholas became the patron saint of many groups. In the protection of those young boys, for instance, we can see him as the patron saint of children. And from the story of the three daughters he’s considered the patron saint of those in financial difficulty, and by extension of pawnbrokers, because he gave the daughters money. Indeed the three balls of Saint Nicholas’s iconography are also the symbol of pawnbrokers, which you’ll see in many pawnshop signs (though the symbol also seems to be connected to the Medici, a prominent banking family in Florence during the Italian renaissance, and with Lombard banking in northern Italy). All this financial difficulty and pawnbroking might bring to mind the story “The Gift of the Magi”, not the biblical tale but the short story by O. Henry that alludes to it, in which a young couple short of money for Christmas presents for each other sells their most precious items, the wife her long beautiful hair and the husband his pocket watch, buying respectively a watch chain and fancy hair combs for each other. It’s a moral and tear-jerking story about the true nature of giving, celebrating their love for each other. Getting back to Nicholas, he’s also the patron saint of sailors and merchants, because of all those nautical miracles. But his role as patron saint of merchants may seem appropriate given the increasing commercialization of Christmas, I suppose the opposite of the message of that O. Henry story.

And finally, Nicholas is the patron saint of repentant thieves. Interesting in light of what happened to Nicholas himself. He was initially interred in Myra as you might expect, but some 700 years later things changed. In the year 1087, wanting a religious attraction to bring tourist pilgrims and their money into town, a group of merchants in the southern Italian city of Bari hatched a plan to steal the bones of St Nicholas. The story goes almost like a heist film. There was a rival group from Venice who had the same idea, so the race was on to see whose ship made it from Italy to Myra first. After duping the monks who tended the shrine of Nicholas, the merchants from Bari made off with the bones and hightailed it back to Italy where their plan successfully turned their town into a major economic centre. So perhaps Nicholas should have been the patron saint of UNrepentant thieves. Either way, it certainly reminds us again of the commercialization of Christmas, as those 11th century merchants of Bari essentially set up the first shopping mall Santa’s grotto.

Unsurprisingly then, Nicholas is also the patron saint of Bari. Actually he’s the patron saint of quite a number of other places as well, including Russia, Greece, Aberdeen, Galway, Liverpool, and perhaps most importantly Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where St Nicholas became particularly popular. Most importantly because of what happened next. The tradition developed in the Netherlands of leaving out one’s shoe or boot (not stocking you’ll note) to receive a gift from Nicholas, who became know there as Sinterklaas (from Sint Nicolaas), with food in it for his horse named Amerigo. In the 16th century, the Netherlands came under the control of Catholic Spain, so Sinterklaas was thought to live most of the year in Spain, and when he came to the Netherlands he brought with him a moorish sidekick who was known as Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter. His role is to threaten children who haven’t been good with punishment, either by carrying them off or by leaving a switch so the disobedient child can be caned, grimly appropriate given the origin of the word stocking as a punishment. In recent years, by the way, the figure of Black Peter has been criticized as racist since he is portrayed by people in black-face make up. This is sometimes sugar coated by explaining it away as him simply being covered in soot from coming down the chimney, but it seems pretty clear that this figure comes from the early modern representations of Spanish moors.

In any case, all of this is associated not with Christmas but with St Nicholas’s feast day, which is close, but not that close on December the 6th. And while the veneration of saints was de rigueur in Catholic areas, it wasn’t so popular with the Protestants, who thought of it all as popish idolatry. The Protestants weren’t even all that fond of Christmas and tried to suppress it. In an effort to shift attention away from the saint at least, in protestant areas the gift giver was shifted from Nicholas to Kriss Kringle or in German Christkindl meaning “Christ child”. In other words they tried to put the Christ back in Christmas, and properly speaking, or at least etymologically speaking, the name Kriss Kringle should refer not to Santa but to Jesus.

But in spite of all the puritanical suppression, Saint Nicholas held on, and surprisingly became the big deal he is today in the rather puritanical United States, founded as it was by all those puritan pilgrims, in particular in New York. You see New York had been founded by the Dutch and was originally called New Amsterdam. The theory goes that old Amsterdam’s affiliation with Nicholas was somehow preserved there, though the historical evidence is admittedly thin. Be that as it may, New Yorker John Pintard was a big fan of Saint Nicholas, and did everything he could to propagate the tradition. He tried to have Nicholas adopted as New York’s patron saint, and as founder of the New-York Historical Society, had him adopted as that institution’s patron saint. He even celebrated Saint Nicholas’s Day with his children in the old fashioned way. All of this Nicholas mania on his part apparently seemed a bit silly to his pal and fellow Historical Society member Washington Irving, America’s great satirical writer. Irving wrote a satirical history of New York and included in it much detail about St Nicholas celebrations as a joke about Pintard and the Historical Society, and this book became a big hit. He even made fun of a picture from one of Pintard’s pamphlets about Nicholas which had the traditional boots by the fire looking a bit more like stockings and transformed the tradition into hanging stockings for Nicholas’s visit. So we may have the tradition of the Christmas stocking because of a 19th century joke. And by the time Clement Clark Moore, another member of the historical society, wrote his “A Visit from St Nicholas”, more famously known by its first line “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”, we have St Nick arrive, now on Christmas Eve rather than St Nicholas Eve, to put treats in the “stockings hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there”.

So much for the Christmas stockings themselves, but what about the contents of those stockings, the sweet treats within? Well perhaps the most famous and iconic stocking stuffer is the candy cane. The legend goes that the candy cane was invented in the 1670s by the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral who was annoyed by all the noise the children made while visiting the creche scene. Well, better a candy caning than the actual caning Black Peter had in store for disobedient children. Supposedly various elements of the confection had religious symbolism, such as the crooked cane shape representing the biblical shepherd’s or the bishop’s crosier (like that of St Nicholas), or flipped the other way the letter J for Jesus, and the red and white colours, clearly Christmas colours, the blood and purity of Christ respectively. Unfortunately there’s little historical evidence for any of this, with no mention of the popular Christmas confection earlier than the 19th century. However, appropriately enough a machine for automatically making the curved shape was invented by a Catholic seminary student, Gregory Harding Keller who spent his summers off working in a candy factory, which he patented as the Keller Machine. As for the name candy cane, it too only goes back to the 19th century, though the words candy and cane are particularly ancient, perhaps thus making up for the rather fuzzy historical evidence for the candy cane itself. Both words interestingly are traceable back to non-Indo-European roots, candy coming from an Indian proto-Dravidian root, passing through Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and French on its way, and cane, through French, Latin, Greek, and Assyrian, all the way from language isolate Sumerian, from a root which also gives us words such as canal, canister, cannon, canyon, and channel.

Another sweet treat indelibly associated with Christmas is the sugar plum, visions of which danced in the heads of the children in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, and I’ll bet you’re already hearing in your head Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker at the mere mention of them. But what actually are they? Well here’s where the literal sugar coating comes in, but they’re surprisingly not sugar coated plums, but instead sugar coated seeds or nuts. They’re probably called plums just because they resemble them in shape and size, but historically they never contained plums or fruit of any kind. The process of sugar coating layer by layer was so laborious and difficult that they were a real luxury item, so much so that the term was soon used figuratively to refer to something pleasing or desirable, especially when given as a bribe. In fact, this figurative sense is actually attested in writing long before the literal sense as a confection. So I guess we could say that those candy canes given as bribes to silence children were actually sugar plums! Etymologically speaking, plum is pretty straight forward, coming from Greek proumnon of the same meaning, possibly borrowed from another language of Asia Minor such as Phrygian. We get the word twice in English, once through the Latinate side as prune and again through the Germanic branch, where pr- became pl-, as plum. Makes sense, no? As for sugar, the word comes into English, via Persian, Arabic, Latin, and French, ultimately from the Sanskrit root sharkara originally meaning the less appetizing sounding “gravel or grit”. I guess the sugar coating got sugar coated itself!

Another favourite in the stocking are treats made from the almond-based marzipan. The origins of both the confection and the word itself are debated and uncertain. The folk etymology is that the word corresponds to Latin marci panis meaning “Mark’s bread” or martius panis meaning “March bread” — indeed the earlier form of the word in English was marchpane until it was reborrowed from the German as marzipan. One modern theory about the word is that it comes from Arabic mawthaban meaning literally “king who sits still”. The word, Latinized as matapanus, was applied to Venetian coins, also known as the Venetian grossi, with a picture of Christ enthroned on them, which were kept in ornate boxes which then also came to be referred to by the same word, and later when the coin was out of circulation and the boxes were used to hold confections, those received the name.  Well it does seem a bit of a stretch, but the Christ connection would certainly make marzipan appropriate for Christmas. Another theory is that the word comes from a Burmese port named Martaban, which was famous for its export of fancy glazed jars containing sweets or preserves, and again the word transferred from the container to the contents. The patron saint of merchants might prefer this theory.

Speaking of Christmassy bread-related folk etymologies, the bread in gingerbread isn’t actually bread. The word gingerbread comes from Old French gingebras meaning “gingered” or “preserved ginger”, with the -bras ending eventually being replaced by folk etymology with -bread. The word ginger itself has a long history twisting through such languages as Latin and Greek, back to a Sanskrit roots, if you’ll pardon the pun, meaning “horn” and “body” in reference to the shape of the spicy root, though this may in fact be yet another folk etymology, with the word coming into Sanskrit from a Dravidian root. Gingerbread seems to have made its appearance in Europe in the 11th century, imported from the Middle East by the crusaders. The first recorded instance of the gingerbread being shaped into figures is often claimed to be in the 16th century when Queen Elizabeth I had figures of her guests made out of gingerbread. There’s also a story of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in the 15th century using gingerbread likenesses of himself to bolster public opinion of him. The folktale of the gingerbread man who runs away from a series of pursuers first appears in print in an 1875 issue of a children’s magazine called, coincidentally enough, St Nicholas Magazine. The other Christmassy tradition relating to gingerbread is the gingerbread house, which may have its origins in the “Hansel and Gretel” folktale recorded by the Brothers Grimm.

Of course no Christmas stocking would be complete with out some chocolate in it, and you probably know chocolate comes from Mesoamerica, as does the word, coming into English through Spanish, though the exact root is unknown. One possibility is that it comes from Aztec Nahuatl roots meaning “bitter water”, or the first element may come from the Yucatec Mayan word meaning “hot”, so “hot water”. Either way, it’s clear that originally chocolate was something you drink, and solid chocolate wasn’t a thing until the 19th century, so in fact that’s the earliest you’d find it in your Christmas stocking.

And finally we come to that sweet orange nestled in the toe of the stocking, whether it’s a mandarin, a satsuma, a tangerine, or a clementine. Mandarin surprisingly isn’t a Mandarin word or any Chinese word at all, though it was used to refer to Chinese officials, and thence the language they spoke. It comes into English via the Portuguese, who picked it up from Malay, ultimately from Sanskrit mantrin meaning “counselor”. This word is derived from Sanskrit mantra meaning “counsel” from man meaning “think” ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root that also gives us mind. The word was applied to the fruit because it was reminiscent of the yellow robes worn by the mandarins. Satsuma and tangerine are both toponyms reflecting where the fruits were imported from, Satsuma province, Japan and Tangire, Morocco respectively. The word tangerine was originally applied as an adjective to anything from Tangire, such as a person from the town. The name of the city was said to have come from Tingis the daughter of the Greek god Atlas, but probably comes from a Semitic root meaning “harbour”. And as for clementine, well it’s an eponym, after the French missionary Clement Rodier who first bred the fruit in Algeria. But although the fruit itself comes from far afield, its symbolism in the stocking takes us back to that first story of Nicholas, as it’s sometimes held to represent those same gold balls that were old St Nick’s anonymous present to those three daughters in Myra.

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