My Christmas stockings have followed me around the world. No matter what teaching post I have held overseas, Mom always mails mine early so that I am 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 tradition. Never would I open it before Christmas, and never would I do so in the presence of others. But I've learned that breaking a tradition can sometimes be just as meaningful as keeping one.
My first overseas teaching post was at the YWCA in Kyoto, Japan. Aside from teaching English classes, I assisted the staff with programs. This included all the holiday events crowded into December. The ladies' Christmas luncheon required the most preparation on my part.
I had been invited to be the guest speaker and introduce American Christmas customs to the guests. Most of the women attending were not Christians, nor were they familiar with even the most common Yuletide traditions of my country. With this in mind, I began planning my 20-minute presentation.
A few days before the luncheon, my first overseas Christmas stocking from Mom arrived. 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'd finally be able to see what wonderful things Mom had stuffed inside.
It logically followed that my Christmas stocking make an appearance in the YWCA program. Seeing such a traditional American holiday item was 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, more than 100 YWCA members filled the small hall. After a light meal, I was introduced to begin the program. One by one, I brought out holiday 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 Christmas 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, then give her time to repack it again before I returned. Brilliant!
Kawabata-san escorted me out of the room where I stood by the door, awaiting permission to rejoin the group. Inside, I heard comments arise as my stocking's contents were revealed.
"What a good mother!"
When I reentered 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 overstuffed stocking was not what made this custom so significant. All those knickknacks inside did not warrant much 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 stocking hasn't made another public appearance, but if my students here in China were to ask me to share with them its contents, I'd do so without hesitation. My Christmas traditions are very important to me, but some traditions, I now know, can be just as meaningful when they're broken as when they're kept.