As a family we hang stockings on our staircase banister because we do not have a fireplace. Ours are filled with small, wrapped gifts, candy and (now that we have teenage girls) makeup and perfume. Our children look forward to opening their stocking gifts later in the day on Christmas Day, almost a second round of gifts. I always try to tuck a little surprise or two in there just to keep them guessing.
"Yet another version of the story of Saint Nicholas lies the origin of the tradition of washing the stockings on the night before Christmas and hanging them up on the window sill or near the hearth, in readiness to receive gifts from Santa. It is said to happen 17 centuries ago in Turkey. Here the Bishop of Myra, Nicholas was known all over for his benevolence and love for children. He used to distribute gifts secretly to children on Christmas Eve as a surprise for them. While he was passing a house he heard a father and his daughters lamenting their poverty and how they were unable to be married because they could not provide dowry that was prevalent in those days.
Overcome with pity and sympathy, Nicholas observed the woolen stockings of the girls that they had put on the windowsill to dry and secretly placed enough gold pieces in each to provide dowry for the girls. Another variations of the custom of hanging out stockings for Santa Claus (popular name for Saint Nicholas) are putting hay and carrots in their shoes by Dutch children for the horse of their dear Sinterklass who is their patron saint and brings them presents. Swedish children wait for a kindly gnome called the Tomte instead of Santa on Christmas. This gnome is believed to live under the floorboards. In some parts of France, Mexico and Spain, children wait for the Three Kings to fill their shoes with presents.
However, children of north French pray that Pere Fouettard or Father Spanker would not visit them as he is reputed to punish and spank children, if they are naughty and bad. La Befana is another version of Santa that visits the Italian children and gives them gifts albeit on Epiphany or 6th of January. Agios Vasilis, the Saint of Letters visit the Greek children living in plains but those living in the mountains are taken care of by the tiny elves who bring the desired gifts to the good little children. The tradition of giving gifts reminds us that Jesus himself was a gift to the world and the gifts that he received when he was born."
Source: World of Christmas