The Christmas Stocking Ritual

Bright Red Pistachios and even Free Samples
Illustration by Durell Godfrey

    Of all the joys and wonders and gifts of the Yuletide season, the Christmas stocking has to be one of the best. In our family, the Christmas stocking may have been the most exciting, most anticipated ritual of the whole, entire shebang. Probably because the stockings would be laid outside our bedroom doors, free to be ripped to shreds with glee immediately upon awakening Christmas morning.

    Everything else had to wait until our parents had risen, we had been dressed up in holiday finery, and gone to church, which was interminable at St. Luke’s gymnasium in McLean, Va., circa 1964. We probably didn’t even get to our presents under the tree until 11 or 12! See how shallow and selfish I sound? That’s because these memories are making me regress.

    Seriously, the real reason our Christmas stockings were so eagerly anticipated is that it was something my brothers and I could enjoy together — with no parental supervision. To some extent, each stocking was personalized, but we all pretty much got the same stuff every year. Little bags of pistachios (the nuts tinted bright red in those days), an orange, a quarter at the bottom of the stocking, and a peppermint candy cane peeking out of the top. My brothers would get paper airplanes, perhaps some Matchbox cars. I got a tube of hand cream, a freebie from my mother’s hairdresser. We each got Silly Putty, which kept us busy for hours (belated apologies to our dog, Moses).

    Here is the coolest part about our Christmas stockings growing up. They were huge, long, massive, stretchy things that you could fit a lot of goodies into. I’m pretty sure they might have been extra long, men’s Bavarian lederhosen socks.

    Another reason I have happy Christmas stocking memories is a sentimental one.

    I had discovered my pregnancy shortly before Christmas one year, and my husband and I “announced” it to my parents by presenting them with a teeny, tiny stocking in a box. My father was flummoxed; my mother said she had already guessed because I was abstaining from wine and coffee.

    Eventually, children outgrow stockings. My mother’s best friend, Fanny, invented an ingenious alternative when her two boys had grown up. She hid 40 $1 bills (20 for each) all over her apartment for the boys to try to find upon their arrival Christmas morn. I  adopted this game for my now grown son, and he loves it. But what with inflation and all, I now hide five $20 bills. It is interesting that he still also expects a stocking and makes pretty awesome ones himself, filling mine with favorite penny candies, lavender soap — and pistachios.

    The cool thing about stockings is you can stock up on stuff all year round. Every time you get a free sample from a store, think Christmas stocking. Gift cards, nuts, candy, clementines, and a spot of money at the bottom are all appreciated. Stockings offer an opportunity to think about the receiver, be creative, and make (with luck) some economical but thoughtful choices. Some drugstores offer readymade stockings; these are for lazy people. They are mesh bags (like the kind onions are stored in) through which you can see all the junk inside.

    The legend (or myth) behind Christmas stockings is that once upon a time there was a poor old widowed farmer with three beautiful daughters. St. Nicholas knew the man was reluctant to accept charity so he tossed three bags of coins down the chimney into each of the girls’ stockings hung by the fireplace. These became their dowries, affording them husbands, and everybody lived happily ever after.

    Stockings, like life, should have a few surprises (Hey, where’d they find Atomic Fireballs and Lemon Heads?!), a few practical necessities (phew, I was about to buy a new nail clipper), and perhaps the pleasant discovery of hidden money.

    Most of all, like the season, the stocking should reflect how much you appreciate, love, and think about the recipient every other day of the year.