We always intended that Christmas stockings would last just as long as our daughter's belief in Santa Claus. Once she told us in that patronising tone that she knew - of course she knew - that the sack-bearing, chimney-fixated man in the red suit was a fiction we would cut out the pile of little extras and invest all in a single large gift (or at least a smaller, more costly selection).

It was going to be a relief, too, because my well meaning sister-in-law who lives in Sweden had provided a stocking that looked like it would fit Rubeus Hagrid, and keeping it full was no cheap undertaking.

So, how I came to be filling the monster last year with nail-polish, hair-dye, lipstick and earrings, I'm not quite sure, except that every time I said "No more" her face would come over all tragic and lip-quivery, and I was left wth the feeling that beside me, Scrooge was the epitome of the Christmas spirit. If I didn't have to spend my nights jauntering round the country with educational ghosts, that expression said, then there was no justice in the world.

This year, however, I was not to be thwarted. In the previous twelve months, the next generation had left school (and briefly, home) and spent more time declaring her right to be adult, independent and unfettered than she had actually doing anything productive with her new adult, independent and unfettered life - or so it looked from my, admittedly jaundiced, perspective. That being the case, I reasoned, she had no excuse for demanding anything so childish as a Christmas stocking. Let her unleash the lip on me, let her face fall, let tears sparkle on her lashes, I was adamant.

Besides, this year we were traveling 12000 miles to spend Christmas with my parents in England, and the only stockings I was concerned with were the compression type that are supposed to combat deep vein thrombosis.

We have finally farewelled the stocking for good, just like I've been trying to for years.

So why do I feel bereft?

My family is not one that could be called Christian by even a large leap of faith, Christmas however, has always been a very important time of the year. The fact that it has no deep religious meaning to any of us yet we celebrate it without fail, always seems to annoy and inflame those who bandy on about how commercial it is and how people forget the 'real' reason. But to me it's about other things, it's about spending time at home together with family - the kind of time that never seems to be available during the rest of the year. About giving to people, thinking about those that you know and love and how exciting it feels to find something to buy for them that you know they'll really like. About the excitement of Christmas morning, just dying to know what that bizarrely shaped present under the tree is.

Christmas holds nothing but fond memories for me, I love everything about it, and that of course includes the stocking! About a week before Christmas we would all gather around the chimney in the lounge and put our letters on the mantelpiece for Father Christmas to come and collect. Then we'd hang up our stockings and get completely over-excited. Eventually Christmas morning would arrive and everyone ran into the room to see what had been left behind. The night before we always put out a bowl of milk and 9 carrots for the reindeer and a mince-pie and tea for Father Christmas. In the morning everything was always nibbled on, and sometimes there were little reindeer footprints on the floor - yes, now I know it was just my dad sprinkling flour through a stencil, but that doesn't make it any less special. Father Christmas always left a letter for us as well, saying how big we were all getting and thanks for the letters and pie.

It was only then, after all of the discoveries, that we'd sit down to open what was in our stocking. Okay, so it was the highlight, but it was the inclusion of everything that made it so important, not just the gifts. Stockings are for fun, it's the small things you know they wouldn't normally buy for themselves. Their favorite chocolates, or um.... chocolate body paint (depending on age), something little that you see always catches their eye in a store window - one can go to a second-hand book store and find the most amazing book that they've always wanted to read for half the price of a movie ticket. It's the thought that counts, never has a truer word been spoken.

So - although it was inevitable - it was a sad day Christmas 2002, when I sat there and all I could think was that 'this is the last time I'll be doing any of this.' I knew I was leaving home that January, and as exciting as it was, it was these occasions that made me so sad. So when Christmas came around this year and I got a phone call from my mother to say that they were unpacking all the Christmas things again and they had my stocking and, did I want it? What a question!

I went racing off to fetch it and when I arrived back at my boyfriend's house all excited he couldn't quite see what the fuss was about. I asked him, surely he must have had a stocking when he was small - apparently not. So I immediately took him off to a sewing shop and chose some lovely Christmas material and made him a stocking, there was nothing else for it. I told him all the stories and The Night Before Christmas we hung up our stockings by the stairs. It was totally different than with my family, but it felt so wonderful to be carrying on a tradition that felt so important to me and made him smile. I hope to be filling up stockings and opening them on Christmas morning until the day I die - what is life without that fun of make believe?

And so this Christmas, for the first time in my life, it was I who awoke in the middle of the night and snuck out of bed to fill up a stocking with all the things I'd found for someone I love. And to my delight, I saw that mine was full too - so it goes to show - Father Christmas still knows where you live, even when you leave home.

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