If you were thinking of a suitable receptacle for Christmas gifts, it’s unlikely that an old sock would be the first thing to spring to mind.

So how come millions of children – and lots of nostalgic adults – will still hang a stocking by the fireplace or on their bedpost on December 24th, to be filled with goodies?

As with many of these Christmas customs, the origin is somewhat quirky, and linked to various legends, all with a similar theme.

One version originates from Holland, where ‘Sinterklaas’ arrives on a ship from Spain with his assistant ‘Zwarte Piet’ or Black Pete, and they travel the country – Sinterklaas riding his white steed and Zwarte Piet on a mule. Dutch children would leave treats of carrots and hay in their clogs for the horse and mule, and in return, Sinterklaas would fill the shoes with small gifts.

It’s thought that when Dutch settlers arrived in America, their Sinterklaas morphed into our more familiar Santa Claus, and the wooden clogs were replaced by socks or stockings.

Leaving stockings out at Christmas is also linked to the legend of St Nicholas – known as the gift giver. The story goes that on one occasion he sent bags of gold down a chimney at the home of a poor man who had no dowry for his unmarried daughters. The gold fell into stockings that had been hung up by the fireplace to dry. Hey, presto! We have the seeds of what’s become a magical tradition.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the hanging up of stockings by the fireplace remains one of our most enduring Christmas customs. Even in sleek modern homes with radiators and no open chimneys, Christmas stockings are still a big part of the celebrations, and left hanging from bedposts, doorknobs, windowsills, and staircases.

Of course we’ve moved on in most cases from hanging up our own smelly socks, and now there’s a whole industry devoted to producing purpose-made (and in many cases gigantic) festive stockings – from the simple and rustic to the downright glitzy.