On the 10th day of Christmas, my true love queried me: “Why do we hang stockings from the mantle for Santa at Christmas?”
No doubt you have noticed that Christmas stockings are much like everything else associated with the holiday these days . . . an expression of individuality. What was once a humble piece of hosiery meant to keep the leg warm is now almost a fashion statement. Well, the times may have changed but the basic idea behind the Christmas stocking—a reward for good behavior throughout the year—remains the same.
Fact is, this custom appears to date to the legend of a widowed nobleman with three daughters, who after losing his wealth by a series of useless inventions, was forced to move his family into a peasant’s cottage, where the daughters did all their own housework. When they grew old enough to marry, their father became depressed because they had no dowry, leaving them spinsters.
Then one night, after the girls had washed out their clothing and hung their stockings by the fire to dry, St. Nicholas, knowing the family’s circumstances and the father’s despair, stopped by the house. The inhabitants had all gone to bed, but St. Nicholas saw the stockings and, struck by inspiration, threw three bags of gold down the chimney to land in them, one for each daughter. The next morning, the girls discovered that they now had enough gold for a dowry. Each one married and their father lived a long and happy life. As word spread of the family’s good fortune, other villagers soon began hanging their own stockings by the fire in the hope that St. Nicholas would favor them as well.
Another version holds that the custom came to America from the Dutch tradition of children leaving their wooden shoes by the hearth, stuffed with straw for Sinterklass’s reindeer. A treat was also left for Sinterklass, who would in return leave treats for the children. Countries observing the shoe tradition include France, Italy, and Hungary, while in Puerto Rico children put small boxes of greens and flowers under their beds for the camels of the Three Kings.
But what about that odd practice of leaving a lump of coal in a naughty child’s stocking? Is it for real? Seems to me just leaving a stocking empty would send a sufficient message.
While versions vary, essentially this can be traced back to the Sicilian witch “La Befana,” who at the time of Christ’s birth was asked by the Magi for directions to the infant’s manger. La Befana didn’t know where the child was, but gave them shelter for the night. The next morning they were already gone when she awoke, and though she wanted to join them, she did not know how to find them. To this day, she flies on a broomstick around the world, searching for the infant Jesus, and on the night of January 5 (the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas), she slides down chimneys, leaving gifts and candy for good children and coal for bad.
My take: Whether it’s shoes or stockings or something in between at your house, here’s hoping that if Santa Claus—or La Befana—deems you coal-worthy this year, it takes the form described in the recipe below.
Recipe for Christmas Coal Candy
- 1 egg white
- 1.5 cups powdered sugar, divided, plus a little extra might be needed for thickening
- 3 cups granulated sugar
- 1.5 – 2 tsp. black gel food coloring
- 1.5 tsp. lemon juice
- 1/4 cup water
Whisk one cup powdered sugar with the remaining ingredients in a medium bowl. Whisk in the remaining half-cup of powdered sugar. The mixture should be very stiff. Pick up some of the batter and allow it to fall back into the bowl. It should cling to the whisk when you pick up the batter and fall in thick heavy pieces back into the bowl. If it doesn’t, add small amounts of powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached. Set aside.
Line an 8×8 or similar size pan with parchment paper and set aside. Combine water and sugar in a large non-stick saucepan. Stir and mash mixture with a spatula until the consistency of wet sand. Insert a candy thermometer and cook until it reaches 260º.
Add black egg white/powdered sugar mix to the pan and stir (do not whisk). The mixture may foam. When thoroughly mixed, pour into the prepared pan and allow it to stand until hardened. Break into pieces to eat.