The Stockings Were Hung By the Wine Rack With Care [ 2005-12-06, 7:23 p.m. ]

My mother's great aunt Peg died when I was four but in some ways I feel like I know her as well as I know living relatives. She was my mom's favorite aunt - my great-grandmother's younger sister - and I have heard ad nauseum about how Aunt Peg never married, Aunt Peg lived in an apartment in the city, Aunt Peg was a nurse in World War II, Aunt Peg taught my mom how to knit. Every time my parents would take us into San Francisco to go shopping or to a museum, my mom would point to Coit Tower and remind us that Aunt Peg's apartment was on that hill; she would tell us how Aunt Peg would take her to Walgreen's for soup and chocolate milkshakes - the Walgreen's which is now a Gap, I believe. I've seen dresses Aunt Peg knit for my mom and at holidays we usually set the table with Aunt Peg's china and monogrammed silver. What Aunt Peg is most famous for, however, is the Christmas Stockings.

Before my mother was born Aunt Peg decided that the family should/would all have matching Christmas stockings and she picked a pattern and knit stockings for her siblings and their children, and when those children started having children, more stockings were knit. By the time I was born I have no idea how many stockings she had knit but I would estimate it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 50. The pattern she picked is red and green and off-white with some sequins and beads on it, and she made the decision to alter the pattern so that the owner's name appears in red yarn instead of green, as called for in the pattern. When I was little I thought it was BULLSHIT that my stocking was shorter than my brother's because clearly that meant I would be at a disadvantage when it came time for Santa to stuff the stockings with presents. My mom pointed out that her stocking was the smallest of all, but I really didn't see how that had anything to do with ME, since her stocking was never filled with toys anyway. I would roll my eyes and walk over to the mantle nightly, feeling around inside the stocking just in case there was either a gift left undiscovered the previous year, or one that magically appeared early. Good time management dictated that SOMEONE was bound to get their presents early, I figured.

All offspring and spouses on my mom's side of the family had a stocking made for them by Aunt Peg -- welcoming them to the family, one way or another -- until she died, just before my brother J. was born. I remember my mother receiving the phone call that her aunt had died - of pneumonia, I think - but she went to the funeral alone, and then J. was born and Christmas came a few months later and he didn't have a stocking and two years later N. was born and he didn't have a stocking either. I know my mom kept meaning to have the stockings made for them -- N's name was chosen because it would fit on the stocking -- but she didn't know anyone else who could knit the way Aunt Peg could. Finally she found a friend of a friend who would make stockings for my youngest two brothers, and the following Christmas all six stockings hung on our mantle. Except, the friend of the friend followed the pattern exactly whereas Aunt Peg had deviated, so J. and N. have bright white yarn and green names while the rest of us have red lettering and off-white yarn. Still, the set was complete. Ish.

Since then, all new stocking have been made ad hoc - the particular branch of the family tree welcoming someone new sourced their own products and produced their own stockings, sacrificing consistency for AT LEAST YOU HAVE A DAMN STOCKING. It became the question my mother would ask my brothers and I whenever we had been dating someone seriously: So, is this serious? Does he/she need a stocking...?

Stocking-worthy was our code, like Sponge-worthy but less icky (barely, because the cutesy family stuff is pretty icky).

Two years ago my husband and two brothers' girlfriends (both now fiancées) got their stockings. My own stocking has been FedEx-ed back and forth from one coast to the other in Ziploc bags several times, always under the threat of DON'T LET ANYTHING HAPPEN TO YOUR STOCKING by my mom. It is the one object which reminds me of Christmas and of family. In my family, we live by the Stocking, we die by the Stocking. (Oooh, you'd better not let that dog near your stocking, my mom warned when we adopted our puppy two years ago.)

The stockings are such a big deal in my family that I would stop in my tracks when I saw stockings in the stores. Why would anyone BUY a Christmas stocking? Didn't someone knit one for them? And what of these people who buy stockings MORE THAN ONCE?? Coordinating stockings with their decor? Buying different styles for different family members? THROWING AWAY OLD ONES IN ORDER TO MAKE ROOM FOR THE VELVET BASTARD STOCKINGS THEY SAW AT POTTERY BARN?

And the first Christmas that I spent with Kent? When I asked him where he kept his stocking, so as to pull it out of storage along with mine, thereby officially denoting the start of the holiday season? He shrugged and said, I dunno...

It turns out his "stocking" was of the fluffy red variety, from the drugstore, with his name written on it with Elmer's glue and gold glitter. And it did NOT match his family’s’, it did NOT hold any special meaning to him, it did NOT get packed lovingly away each January 1st.

I took a deep breath and decided to remain in the relationship, despite the obstacles clearly in our path. I also realized that it would be much easier to eventually give him one of OUR stockings, should the relationship progress that far, if he was not already attached to something of his own.

As we spent more and more holidays together, I discovered many other disturbing things: Kent's family has ham, not roast beef or turkey, for Christmas dinner; they have a FAKE tree; their tree-topper has been replaced MANY times and does not date back to his parents' first Christmas together; they decorate with colored lights and plastic ornaments; their stockings are left EMPTY; Santa WRAPS THEIR PRESENTS (mind-boggling, that one was); they don't prefer going to church on Christmas Eve; they serve store-bought pie as dessert and his cousins regularly show up at family holiday parties with their own cooler of Miller Lite. They DON'T pick one present to open on Christmas Eve, they DON'T wait while everyone opens their gift one by one, they DON'T wake up to artfully-stacked piles of gifts from Santa left in the same place each year so that the recipient ALWAYS knows that she should look at the right corner of the couch to see what loot she scored, they DON'T have crab for dinner on Christmas Eve and then go to church right after and point at all the cute babies in fussy dresses. They don't bake and they don't own "A Willie Nelson Christmas" and they don't think eggnog is grody.

It is harder than you might think to stand across from someone and pledge your fidelity and love, knowing full well that in his mind, Santa wraps all presents and puts them under the tree, intermingled with family gifts, to be opened all at once and with no clear delineation between what Santa brought (and can be appreciated immediately, with no "Thank You" necessary) and what your family gave you (which should be opened slowly and reverently, with "Thanks" being appropriately doled out).

I decided to give it a try anyway.

I had a moment of panic last week, in which I suddenly had no idea where our stockings were. I asked Kent, DOYOUKNOWWHERETHEYARE and he looked at me blankly. Where what are? OURSTOCKINGSYOUKNOWHOWIMPORTANTMYSTOCKINGISTOME...

We both wracked our brains for a moment, me imagining having to tell my mother that I accidentally lost/threw away/allowed to mildew/fed to the dog the stockings. I honestly had trouble catching my breath; it was the same feeling you get when you are at the airport and cannot find your I.D. anywhere or are sitting on the subway and look down to see your engagement ring missing. But right after that heart-stopping feeling usually follows the relief of finding your I.D. behind the receipts and remembering that you never put your ring on that morning. Kent said, I'm pretty sure we put them in that thing, pointing at the pie safe which houses our china and linens and miscellaneous crap.

I exhaled with relief. You know how important my stocking is to me, It's the one thing I would grab in a fire...I said.

I know, he told me.

I want yours to be important to you too, I said.

I know, he told me.

I want us to start our own traditions too, I said.

We will, he told me.

I don't want green bean casserole to be one of them, I said.

He threw his shoe at me.



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