Susan Vaughan here. I posted this a couple of years ago, but got such good response I couldn’t resist a repeat.
Christmas customs around the world differ in strange and bizarre ways. In the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain, we’re familiar with the tradition of hanging stockings for Santa to fill. In many other places, footwear also plays a role, but usually not stockings.
Before going to bed, children in France put their shoes by the fireplace. They hope that Père Noel will put small gifts inside. France’s Santa also hangs small toys, nuts, and fruits on the tree. In Holland, children fill their shoes with hay and a carrot for the horse of Sintirklass, while Hungarian children shine their shoes before putting them near the door or a windowsill.
In Italy, children leave their shoes out the night before Epiphany, January 5, for La Befana the good witch to fill with treats and gifts. The custom appears to date from when children wore wooden peasant shoes but not why or how it began.
Iceland has many traditions for celebrating the holiday. I won’t go into the history, but nowadays thirteen Santa Clauses, called jólasveinar, or “Yuletide Lads,” come to each town bearing gifts, candy, and mischief. The first jólasveinn arrives thirteen days before Christmas and then the others follow, one each day. A special custom is for children to set a shoe in the window from December 12 until Christmas Eve. If they have been good, one of the “Santas” leaves a gift, but bad children receive not a lump of coal but a potato. After Christmas, the Yuletide Lads leave as they arrived, one each day, making the Icelandic Christmas season last twenty-six days.
The Czech Republic has a wealth of Christmas customs and superstitions, but none for filling children’s shoes or stockings. Instead, I found Christmas customs that offer marriage hope to girls in the family. On Christmas Day, an unmarried girl can stand with her back to the door and throw a shoe over her shoulder. If the shoe lands with the toe pointing to the door, she will be married within the year.
Because eighty percent of the population in the Philippines is Christian, Christmas is huge there. For centuries, the bearers of gifts for children have been not Santa but the Three Kings. Brightly polished shoes and clean socks are left on windowsills, for the Kings to fill with gifts as they pass by on their way to Bethlehem. Some children leave straw or dry grass for the camels; if these are gone in the morning, the camels must have been very hungry. Epiphany, the “Feast of the Three Kings,” marks the end of the Christmas celebration.
A very different kind of footwear is prominent in another warm country, Venezuela. In the capital city, Caracas, before young children go to bed on Christmas Eve, they tie one end of a string to their big toe, leaving the other end outside their bedroom window. On Christmas morning, streets are closed off to cars until 8 a.m. for people to roller skate to the early morning mass, and the custom is to tug on any strings still hanging from windows. Ouch. That one could be painful.
I’ll leave you with wishes for a Happy Holiday and with questions for which I do not have answers. I imagine the tradition of filling shoes and stockings with treats and small gifts spread around the world with Christianity, but how did this custom start? Why do shoes and stockings play such a prominent role in Christmas celebrations?