Friday, December 27, 2013

Orange You Glad You Hung Up Your Stocking?

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, December 25, 2013, by Sara Mattinson.

If I sit quietly, for long enough, and relax, without thinking too hard...
If I picture the living room of the home we lived in when I was a child...
If I see in my mind a decorated Christmas tree and wrapped gifts under it, if the morning light is faint – but not before six o’clock, by decree of my father – if snow is falling outside the big windows in the old house...
I can be there, tiptoeing across the green carpet in a long flannel nightgown (new for Christmas Eve), peering into the living room to see if Santa had come.
What was I looking for? What would reveal to me that Santa had been there? It would be the most new and wonderful change from the night before when we draped our stockings over the back of a chair and put out a glass of milk and plate of cookies: Those once-flat stockings now thick and bulging. 
My stocking, propped up by the arm of the chair, was forest green felt with a snowman; my sister’s, on another chair, was royal blue felt with a large piece of holly. On the couch were my parents’ wool work socks, bulging as well, and this excited us too; Santa was here for Mum and Dad!
Around the stockings were the unwrapped gifts that Santa left for us. A record and a book, Fisher Price toys and a stuffed toy (a dog or Kermit the Frog) in the early days, CDs and earrings, books and clothes in later years. For my mother and father, piles of books and boxes of chocolates (Laura Secord miniatures and Turtles).
Always, always in the toe of each stocking, each sock, a huge orange.  
(For a kid, fruit in a stocking is a shocking waste of valuable space. What was Santa thinking?)
If I sit quietly, without thinking too hard, if I am relaxed and picturing that silent, pristine Christmas morning scene, I can actually FEEL the anticipation of my six-year-old self. The memory is so clear and strong, I can remember my pure childish joy in discovering that SANTA WAS HERE!
Like all good legends, the story of how the Christmas stocking came to be a tradition has several versions, having evolved over hundreds of years to reflect differences in cultures, time period and the storyteller’s prerogative to embellish and rewrite. 
The most common story, from Europe, is this one: A father had three beautiful daughters but he despaired of any of them marrying because he was too poor to provide dowries for his daughters. 
One Christmas Eve, while passing through the man’s village, St. Nicholas of Myra heard the locals discussing the uncertain future of these girls. Knowing the man would be too proud to accept a gift of money from him, St. Nicholas waited until dark then snuck to the man’s house and dropped three bags of gold coins down the chimney.
It just so happened that the daughters had washed their stockings that day and had hung them by the fireplace to dry. The bags of gold coins dropped into the stockings, one bag for each daughter. When they woke in the morning, they each found enough money to provide each of them a suitable dowry and they were all able to get married.
As word spread about the bags of coins falling down the chimney on Christmas Eve, others began hanging their stockings by the fireplace, hoping for a similar gift. 
St. Nicholas, the original secret Santa.
For North Americans, the tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace was immortalized by Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1823 poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, which we now know as “The Night Before Christmas”, in which he writes: 
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to return my family to this simpler way of giving gifts at Christmas. 
“Just stockings!” I say every November, but on December 25 there are more gifts than technically count as ‘stocking gifts’. But this year, money is tight and we also agree that truly, no one needs anything so finally my request is being taken seriously. 
“It’s the way Christmas used to be done,” my mother said to me.
My request for ‘just stockings’ resulted in an unexpected remembrance from her. For what I think is the first time, she told me about her Christmas stockings from her childhood in the 1940’s.
“We used to get a navel orange and a Red Delicious apple and a silver dollar in the toe,” she told me. “There were also a mix of nuts and little wrapped gifts. But I don’t remember what they were.”
You may think that the silver dollar represents the legend of St. Nicholas but there is a version of the saint’s story that replaces the bags of gold with gold balls. 
And that’s what the orange in the stocking represents. 

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