How Silly Stocking Stuffers Became My Family’s Favourite Holiday Tradition

'Tis the season to pull the perfect prank! A heartwarming story of how a much-missed father's legacy of laughter is felt every holiday.

“Why is my stocking cold?” my mother asked nervously on Christmas morning in 1992. With a mischievous twinkle in his eye, my dad encouraged her to reach into the homemade green-and-red felt stocking on her lap. My two sisters and I crouched nearby, giddy with excitement to discover what surprise my dad had cooked up this year. My mom tentatively pulled out a plastic grocery bag that was filled with ice—and something else, something hard and about half a metre long.

Slowly, she untied the handles of the bag and let out a high-pitched shriek. “Marty! It’s a lobster!” The room erupted in squeals and laughter. My dad, sporting a giant grin, was as pleased as Christmas punch at the success of his prank. That night, alongside our traditional turkey dinner, we enjoyed a side of fresh lobster with butter sauce.

It has long been a family tradition—a challenge even—to skip the generic novelty items and instead fill each other’s stockings with something the giftee truly enjoys. Most often, this has included foodstuffs not usually associated with the holiday: a chunk of stinky blue Stilton, a handful of shiitake mushrooms, a jar of extra-tangy kosher pickles or a shrimp ring. (Seafood has been a favourite over the years, and the shock value is definitely worth risk of salmonella.)

As a joke, my brother-in-law, Shane, was once given a bag of dried mealworms. That year, the stove wasn’t working properly and our turkey wasn’t ready until almost midnight. At some point, having consumed only wine, it seemed like a good idea to open up the worms. Turns out the Cajun-spiced insects pair perfectly with chardonnay.

One year, my dad gave my mom a bunch of carrots, the feathery greens still attached, with a note that said, “Let me express my love in carats.” My mom hates carrots, so she half-heartedly thanked him and set them aside. “Read it again, Mary Anne!” he shouted. On a second look at the orange bunch, something sparkly caught her eye. My dad had slipped a diamond ring onto one of the carrot sticks. She cried, whispered, “Oh, Marty,” and then they kissed.

My dad died when I was 25. Before he passed away, we made a recording of some last words of advice that we could carry with us into adulthood. He told us to link arms with each other, to stick to some family traditions and to always keep our sense of whimsy. He also suggested putting some Brussels sprouts in Mom’s stocking (but to wait until the morning so they wouldn’t go bad). He said, “Look up, I’ll be there.”

Fifteen Christmases later, I reached my hand into my stocking and felt my fingernail dig into something fleshy. I pulled out the offending object and looked in my sister’s direction. With a giant smile she said, “Isn’t that the most perfectly shaped dragon fruit you’ve ever seen?” She was right. It was. I looked up, and somehow, just as he’d promised, I knew he was there.

Next, find out what a country Christmas was like in the 1950s.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada