Tis the day before Christmas and there are some last-minute traditions to observe in my house – one of which is safety-pinning a stocking to my wooden mantelpiece. Unable to escape the folklorist in me, watching the red and gold over-sized sock hanging above my electric fire puts me in mind of another custom: the concealed shoe.
The hanging of a stocking is remarkably similar to the custom of putting a shoe into the fireplace or up the chimneybreast – only this has the opposite effect. Instead of deterring the demons and witches who threatened to enter via the chimney, the stockings are displayed to welcome what is essentially another supernatural being: Santa Claus.
“Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound” wrote Clement Clarke Moore in his poem of 1823, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ (better known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’). This shows that by the 19th century it was a well-established tradition that Saint Nicholas -like so many other supernatural entities – gained access to the house through the chimney. The below painting by Jan Steen, ‘The Feast of Saint Nicholas’, painted in the 1660s – which shows members of the party looking up the chimneybreast in expectation – demonstrates that in the Netherlands, at least, it was a tradition established even earlier.
It’s no surprise that Saint Nicholas would enter through the chimney; being the only permanent open access into the house, it was considered the most vulnerable – hence why so many concealed items are found up there, such as this Victorian child’s shoe found up the chimneybreast of a 17th-century farmhouse in Ilkley, Yorkshire:
The most prominent theory is that the shoe was placed in the chimneybreast to act as decoy to the evil forces which might enter through the chimney. Mistaking the shoe for its wearer (see the blog post on the metonymical connection between the shoe and its wearer) the evil force attacks the shoe instead and becomes trapped inside it.
The stocking over the fireplace, however, isn’t there for trapping unwanted malevolent forces. It’s there to hold presents. But what’s interesting is that shoes were historically used as well as stockings for this custom- a tradition which possibly stems from the Scandinavian custom of children leaving out their boots filled with food for Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. In return, Odin would replace Sleipnir’s food with gifts for the children. Why the shoe? Probably because of its ability to act as a container, much like the stocking, and because most people, no matter how poor they were, would have had some form of footwear to utilise in the custom.
So I hang my stocking over my fireplace, content in the knowledge that there’s a wealth of history and folkloric belief behind my actions – and hoping, like anyone else, that I’ll find it filled with sweets tomorrow morning.