(This piece was published in the Christian Science Monitor’s Home Forum section, December 3, 2004. Thought it was appropriate for today’s entry, before Christmas. Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!)
My Christmas stockings have followed me around the world. No matter what teaching position I’ve held overseas, my mother always mailed mine early enough so that I’d be able to adhere to our family’s Christmas day tradition of opening stockings before breakfast.
I consider the opening of my Christmas stocking a sacred holiday tradition. Never would I open my stocking before Christmas. But I have learned that breaking a tradition can sometimes be more meaningful than keeping one
My first overseas teaching position was at the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) in Kyoto, Japan. Aside from teaching English classes, I assisted the staff with various YWCA programs, including all the holiday events crowded into December. Yet it was the ladies’ Christmas luncheon which would require the most preparation on my part. I’d been invited to be the guest speaker and introduce American Christmas customs to the guests. This was quite a task, considering most of the women attending were not Christians nor familiar with even the most common Yuletide traditions of my country. With this thought in mind, I began planning how best to give the ladies an understanding of Christmas in a mere 20-minute presentation.
A few days before the luncheon, my first overseas Christmas stocking from my mother made a timely arrival. It was beautifully made from old quilt pieces sewn together by a local seamstress she had commissioned just for this occasion. The goodies inside threatened to burst the seams and I anticipated the coming of Christmas morning when I could finally be able to see what wonderful things my mother had stuffed inside.
It logically followed that my Christmas stocking make an appearance in the YWCA program. Seeing such a traditional American holiday itemwas bound to impress the Japanese ladies, and having a genuine one to show would make my presentation all the more memorable.
On the day of the luncheon, over 100 YWCA members filled the small hall. After a light meal, I was introduced to begin the program. One by one, I brought out various Christmas items to show the women seated around me. When I sensed everyone was at an emotional high, I dramatically pulled out my Christmas stocking.
The reaction was just as I had hoped. Delighted exclamations filled the room. Everyone was taken by the beauty and uniqueness of the holiday stocking my mother had sent from America. But what fascinated them the most was my explanation of stuffing the stocking and then opening it on Christmas morning.
When my program ended, I thanked the ladies for their invitation, wished them a Merry Christmas and sat down. A strange silence followed. No one clapped. No one spoke. No one moved. People were obviously waiting for something, but what?
Kawabata-san, the YWCA director, quickly approached the platform.
“Connie did a wonderful program for us today,” she announced. “I think we all learned many things, but maybe now she will show us what is in the Christmas sock?”
Kawabata-san smiled. The ladies brightened. I panicked.
My reluctance signaled one of the Americans in the group to come to my rescue. She proposed I leave the room, allow her to open my stocking for everyone to see and then give her time to repack it again before I returned.
It was a brilliant solution.
Kawabata-san escorted me outside of the room where I stood by the door, awaiting permission to rejoin the group. Inside, I heard comments in Japanese arise as my stocking’s contents were revealed.
“What a good mother!”
When I re-entered the room, I was relieved to see my stocking was exactly as I had left it, but I noticed a change in the ladies now facing me. They realized that the Christmas stocking itself was not the remarkable thing they had at first imagined. All those knick-knacks crammed inside did not warrant much fuss or attention. It was the love that went into the preparation of the stocking that made the tradition so meaningful, and it was this understanding which had been passed on to them that day.
My overseas Christmas stocking has never since made another public appearance, but if my students in China were ever to ask me to share with them its contents, I would do so without hesitation. My Christmas traditions are very important to me, but some traditions, I have found, can be just asmeaningful being broken as being kept.
May your stockings be full, your hearts glad and your holiday gatherings blessed.