Ever since I first heard about them in English class, the idea of Christmas stockings has left me a little bemused. Especially since our English teacher was unable to explain the why and wherefore of this apparently ancient custom. But since I've moved to England, things have become a little clearer.
Christmas stockings - from oversized socks to purpose-built constructions the size of a snow boot - are hung at the end of each child's bed (or on the mantle by the fireplace) on the evening before Christmas.
On his way to deliver the presents, Santa Claus will fill the stockings with small gifts and toys, an orange, an apple and some chocolate.
In the old days, stockings were home-made, with each family member having their very own stocking. Some were knitted from leftover wool. Others were carefully sown and decorated with buttons and ribbons. Needlepoint Christmas stockings could have been fashioned to demonstrate a girl's embroidery skills.
I love both cross-stitch and needlepoint and I'm totally bowled out by the wide selection of stocking kits that's available in the US! Needlepoint kits, cross-stitch kits, or these rather wonderful felt Christmas stockings... and the designs are stunning. If you love needlework and want something totally home-made and unique ... check these out.
And if home-made is beyond you? No problem.
Knitted Christmas Stockings, chunky and colourful, can be found in the shops from late October. The many different colours, sizes and designs suit simply every type of Christmas and give just as much pleasure.
It's my guess that the custom of hanging Christmas stockings came to England during the 19th century, when Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's husband) taught the English how to enjoy Christmas again.
In Germany, we celebrate the feast day of St Nicholaus on December 6th. And on the night before children all over the country polish their shoes and carefully place them outside their doors. In the morning - provided they've been good - they will find the shoes filled with an orange, chocolate or a small toy.
It's possible that the polished shoes of this old German ritual changed into the colourful, embroidered stockings used in England today.
But it's equally possible that the custom evolved simply because one day Santa Claus dropped some gold coins as he came down the chimney. Instead of falling into the grate, they landed in a stocking that had been hung to dry by the fireside.
Since that day, children have hung their stockings by the fire in the hope of catching an extra small present. And also since that day, the term stocking fillers has come to mean a small item, guaranteed to bring pleasure.
In fact, selecting small presents - stocking fillers - is one of the things I most enjoy in the run-up to Christmas. Much more than large, expensive presents, these small items show your regard for the person for whom you're choosing them. You can pick up a few useful stocking stuffer ideas here.
Or check out the following pages for more Christmas ideas: