Guest Column: A holiday tradition that differs by house

At our house, Santa leaves fruit and nuts in the Christmas stockings.

We understand it’s because he has traveled all over the world, to places where oranges and coconuts and pecans and pomegranates grow, far away from our snowy world.

It’s our own tradition, and our way of keeping Christmas simple. Unpacking the Christmas stockings in the morning is the main event, besides being together with family and preparing and eating festive foods.

Our stockings are handmade beauties my mother-in-law knitted. My husband’s is his childhood stocking — a big, wool sock, red, green and white, with his name and Santa’s head knitted in. When we got married, she made one for me, blue and white with snowmen, and my name. As the kids arrived, they got their own stockings with their names and wintry themes — reindeer, pine trees, snowflakes.

They were made to last and if they spring a leak, I darn them. They are big enough for Santa to leave not only fruit and nuts, but small, delightful gifts — the kind elves might make in their North Pole workshops: wooden spoons, pennywhistles, wind-up toys, guitar picks, drawing pens, bird books, chocolate, tea.

The tradition of hanging stockings stems from the stories of St. Nicholas, a kindly rich man who liked to secretly help those in need. He may or may not have thrown bags of gold coins down the chimney of a poor father who needed dowry funds to marry off his three daughters, and those bags of coins may or may not have fallen into the stockings the young women had hung by the fire to dry.

Or Nick might have thrown three gold balls in through the window, which might have landed in some shoes.

Whatever. The tradition was cemented by Clement Moore in his “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” with its description of hanging the stockings and the illustrations of those big socks stuffed with dolls and toy drums. Growing up, we would read the story on Christmas Eve and, as prescribed, hang our stockings by the chimney with care. If there’s no chimney, radiators work, too. Or staircases.

This time of year, every store has what it calls “stocking stuffers” — small gifts for harried shoppers to grab on the way to the cash register. They don’t generally look Santa-approved or even elf-made, but every family has its own traditions.

My neighbor’s family always gets magazines in their Christmas stockings — a music mag for the musician, an architectural mag for the person who likes decorating. Everyone I know gets socks in their stockings; there’s something about the sock in the sock that is universal.

Pet stores sell stockings pre-filled with pet treats. For the humans in your house, you can find stockings — traditional or modern — anywhere from the L.L. Bean catalog to a big-box chain or department store. Or you can find patterns to make your own.

One year when I was small, my mom made us felt stockings — ochre-colored, with contrasting felt trees or boots or wreaths glued on.

My mom preferred spontaneity to actually spending time with a project, often starting with a good idea and losing steam in the process. So the stockings were too small and too flimsy to fit much in. After a few years they fell apart, and my next-oldest sister and I decided to take matters into our own hands.

We didn’t know how to knit, but we knew how to crochet, and we made new stockings that looked like socks and shoes. I remember one that looked like a red sneaker, and another that was a blue Mary Jane in a green Argyle sock. They were imperfect, too, but at least they were big enough to hold stocking stuffers.

We still have the Mary Jane, which years ago the kids insisted was our beagle Buddy’s stocking. Now it gets hung for our current dog, Mia. We have another stocking, a simple white and green sock, which for years has been hung for our friends Tony and Peggy, who spend most Christmases at our house.

This year, there will be a new stocking in the house, for the person who may become a member of the family in the future. I started knitting one with his eight-letter name on it, trying to emulate the spirit of my mother-in-law, who died two years ago.

Out in Colorado, there’s a new baby in the family, and there’ll be a new stocking for him. I don’t suppose his family will fill it with oranges and walnuts — that’s our tradition. His family will find their own, because traditions grow like families, one year at a time. And sometimes, one stocking at a time.

The author is a former columnist for The Daily Gazette in Schenectady. This story is published in partnership with the New York Press Association’s News To Share program.