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TARYN GEE/The Globe and Mail

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

My old red ribbed tights, always called leotards (Hurdle family lexicon), made a stocking for my grandmother the year she came to live with us after her husband died.

She was remote in her grief. Come Christmas morning, Mom and Dad had fashioned a super-stocking on a stand: It was almost as tall as her, bulging with treats and topped by a Santa face made out of a Frisbee. She couldn't stop smiling, chortling and slapping her thighs in disbelief.

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It was a joyous Christmas.

Those leotards, more rusty or orange than festive crimson, have become my fallback stocking, though both my mother and I have sewn special ones for other family members. Over the years we've cut back on gift-giving; neither my sister nor I has children, so the annual gathering is of ever-older adults.

What a shock it was one year when my sister phoned me, frantic, the morning of Christmas Eve to tell me that Mom and Dad weren't giving stockings to each other. Grossly underprepared, she and I rushed about for items to stuff stockings for them ourselves. The resulting stockings were beautiful on the outside, but held a motley assortment: chocolate bells, yes, but also yams and tins of minced ham stealthily removed from their own pantry. Our offerings were wrapped in coloured comics from the newspaper.

Because our parents were not expecting stockings, anything was a gift. Or so we tried to convince ourselves. But the writing was on the wall.

I started asking about other people's stocking habits. Rose Marie at work said she alternated years because of the expense. One year her adult daughters would get stockings, the next year her sons would. Some people gave up stockings after their children turned a certain age, or went off to university, or married – the grandchildren then got the stockings. I saw that what I had come to expect and consider normal was really a privilege, something I should have long ago outgrown.

Soon after (was it the yams?), Mr. and Mrs. Hurdle-Claus reduced the number of stocking gifts to us big kids, making me so woebegone that my sister took it upon herself to fill mine.

With the new regime came the recently rediscovered leotard, filled to an obscenely obese size. This sounds more altruistic and materially generous than it was. The many gifts were beautifully wrapped – no one can do better hospital corners or go through more rolls of Scotch tape than my sister. But they were appalling junk (or rather junque with sentimental value): nostalgic objects salvaged from our childhoods, the debris of Christmases past, freebies from the intervening year, and vulgar joke gifts.

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We've continued to give each other stockings ever since.

A baby doll we both dislike gets gifted back and forth: One year I made tree decorations out of its dismembered body parts; another, my sister dressed it in handkerchiefs I had given her previously, her name Wanda magic-markered ungraciously across them, along with "Snot Rag" and "Blow here" (she despises the habit of hankies that I've adopted from my in-laws).

Elegant Wanda works in health, so there's a Depends diaper, once fashioned into a beribboned Christmas bonnet, most recently crafted into a purse. There's a geriatric bra made from tube socks, a "charm" (pet ID tag) saying "Tuna Breath," a "Jane" – so no female needs to be caught short when a toilet is not nearby. It made a good reindeer body the next year.

The tacky crafts are mixed with mini-bottles of hotel shampoo and useless gadgets – toe warmers, a miniature whisk (if Barbie deigned to cook an omelette it would be useful), a used-teabag holder, a lump of clay designed to keep brown sugar from going hard.

Wanda takes showers, not baths, so she gives me all the bombes and bubbles she receives throughout the year. For me, prune-skinned from my air-jet tub, these are lovely (not joke) gifts. As for the two jars of Vaseline she got through a promo, I'm not so sure.

I wonder what wicked malevolence/sisterly love is coursing through her veins right now as she crafts the contents of my stocking tights.

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My "gifts" for her are without a special stocking. I look at the strange array before me: the cheesy innards of last year's Hurdle Christmas crackers; a turquoise hand mirror with a girl's face complete with yellow yarn plaits (beloved by one of us decades ago). I pick up silver bows, the Depends diaper and an exacto knife. I plug in the hot glue gun, then stop. Instead, I rifle through my drawers for an old pair of pantyhose, the perfect receptacle for sisterly love, to create the gift that keeps on giving. Near-orange with runs – perfect.

The rest of the family finds our ritual silly and immature, but Wanda and I will laugh maniacally as I pull yet another lump from leg one and then leg two of the tights I wore as a pre-teen, and which brought Grammy, now six years dead, back to herself one Christmas.

Just try to take my "leotard stocking" away from me, a 55-year-old Virginia who still believes. It's my year to get back the ugly baby doll – in what form only my cackling sister knows.

Crystal Hurdle lives in North Vancouver.

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