Christmas is a time for giving, so it’s not surprising that the connection between coins and Christmas has a very long history. The tradition of giving presents at Christmas began with the Three Magi bringing Jesus Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.
Over the years it became common practice to give money at Yuletide. Landowners would present hardworking and loyal staff with a Christmas ‘Box’, the origin of the name ‘Boxing Day’. Even today we often offer tradesmen (and women) a small sum for their services throughout the year.
Stir-up-Sunday, the next before Advent, is the traditional day to make the Christmas pudding. Traditionally, a silver sixpence was stirred in to the mix, to bring the finder wealth and good luck in the year to come. In the past it was usual for every member of the household to give the pudding a stir and make a wish. Some families have used the same Christmas sixpence for as long as they can remember!
The tradition of Christmas stockings also began with coins. There are countless versions of the story, but this one is delightful, and starts with St. Nicholas. A 4th Century Greek saint, he was also rich as his wealthy parents had died when he was young.
He loved giving gifts to those less fortunate, preferably in secret, and heard about a local nobleman who had lost both his wife and his money, and had moved into a peasants’ cottage with his three daughters, all of marriageable age. In those days, a girl needed a dowry to offer the groom’s parents, and this poor family had barely enough to eat.
St. Nicholas knew they were too proud to accept charity. On spotting that the girls had hung their stockings to dry on the chimney ledge St Nicolas decided to climb down the chimney and put a bag of silver coins into the oldest girl’s stocking. On the next visit he placed coins into the second daughter’s stocking. The third time, the grateful father hid in the room and caught St. Nicholas in the act.
Although St. Nicholas begged him to keep it a secret, word soon got out, and everyone started to hang their stockings, hoping for a visit from St. Nicholas. Of course, his generosity meant that all three daughters could marry which, perhaps, may have led to another long-held tradition that, at first sight, has nothing to do with Christmas at all...