snowman

Holiday stocking stuffers

26 November 2013

Thanksgiving and the start of Hanukah have only fallen on the same day once before, in 1888, and the two dates may not coincide again until the year 79811. Since Hanukah has been around for some 2200 years, and Thanksgiving only 150, safe to say this is the only time Jewish families in America will be inconvenienced like this again.

Incidentally, in 1888, Thanksgiving-Hanukah was on November 29, a convergence that would not happen today. Then, Thanksgiving was defined as the last Thursday of November.

By today’s fourth-Thursday definition, the only date that can work for a combined Thanksgiving-Hanukah is November 28. And here we are to enjoy it.

All that to say, it’s time for some serious holiday shopping already. Hanukah is upon us, and Christmas is a week closer to Thanksgiving than it was last year.

The last several years, my job as Santa’s helper in Ohio has been stuffing stockings for the 13 kids in my in-law family. For my own kids, stockings are pretty basic – little edibles, functional items like socks or underwear, one or two fun trinkets.

But Grandma has special stockings, expertly knitted by her sister Sue and personalized with the names of each child, child-in-law or grandchild, and opening those stockings is a Christmas Day tradition at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. My elf job is to fill those treasured stockings.

Each year I try to curate a collection of playful, amusing or thought-provoking items that are also small, inexpensive and fun for kids aged 4 to 21. Add a little candy or gum to the mix, and it’s a happy Christmas Day for the baker’s dozen of cousins.

fake piercing rings

Fake piercing rings, $4.50 for eight stainless steel rings

Some years we’ve had fake mustaches or noses, but this year I am already laughing about the fake piercing rings I found. I can’t decide whether to have the kids sport nose and lip piercings for the adults’ reaction, or vice versa. Either way it’s going to make for some memorable Christmas photos.

geyser tube

Geyser Tube or Geyser Tube with caps, $7

You don’t need special equipment to make a geyser out of Mentos candy and soda, but this will handle the candy drop and direct the spray to impressive effect. There’s the regular set as well one with three caps for different effects. Apparently Diet Coke creates the biggest eruption (so remember not to eat Mentos when you’re drinking Diet Coke).

tornado tube

Tornado Tube, $4

Another amusing science activity, this simple plastic piece connects two 2-liter plastic soda bottles into a contraption that can swirl water into a tornado-like vortex. More great science fun for kids, plus a useful second life for those soda bottles left from holiday entertaining.

energy stick

Energy Stick, $8

A cool demonstration of conductivity, this clear tube lights up and makes sounds when a circuit is completed – this can be one child holding both ends of the tube, or a whole ring of people holding hands, connecting one end of the tube to the other. A stimulating activity for a group of kids, I see the cousins having great fun with this one.

buddy beagle

Buddy Beagle, $2

Another take on the classic Wooly Willy or Hairdo Harriet, this fun-with-magnets toy lets you decorate Buddy Beagle with hair, glasses or other accessories that you draw with metal shavings. I think we might have to have a Christmas Day contest to see who comes up with the most tricked-out beagle.

hand boiler

Hand Boiler, $3

I’m all about science this year – this is a really cool toy demonstrating energy transfer. The liquid in the tube has a boiling point so low that the heat of your hand brings the liquid to a boil, creating vapor that pushes the liquid up the tube. When you let go, the liquid cools and settles down again.

small-world-ball

Small World Ball, $3

Globes are usually a display item, so it’s novel and somewhat subversive for kids to have a globe-ball they can actually hold in their hands and throw around. The geographical detail on this little guy is surprisingly good, and it’s a satisfyingly squishy ball to grab and toss too.

peppermint chinese yoyo

Peppermint Stick Chinese Yo-yo, $0.29

These things drive me insane – I’m always threatening to throw them away if someone doesn’t roll it up and put it away RIGHT NOW. But the kids do have fun with them, trying to tag each other or seeing whose can reach the farthest. The entertainment will be worth the low cost, and I won’t be sad if and when they are loved beyond repair.

marvel thumb wrestlers

Marvel Super Heroes Thumb Wrestlers, set of 8, $12 including shipping

Falling squarely into the silly category, I’m hoping these plastic thumb covers resurrect the lost pastime of thumb wrestling for the electronics generation. After the inevitable initial swapping session, I’m looking forward to seeing the kids mano a mano, knocking the heads of these graphic superheroes.

floating-ball-trick

Floating Ball Game, $4

I don’t know how well this works – two styrofoam balls and a wooden tube with a hole – but I am a sucker for self-powered entertainment. These are the kind of toys (like another imitation retro toy, the spark wheel) better bought at a store so that you can return them if they are duds. World Market has a good selection, as does Diddams for my Bay Area peeps.

piano horn

Piano Horn, $7

Maybe because I’m comically unmusical, but I love musical toys for kids. This piano horn gets some knocks for durability, but when it works it’s supposed to be very fun with great sound. I’ve seen this one at World Market too – test it out and hang on to your receipt.

Stocking stuffer sources

I love Amazon, but I find the pricing on small items like stocking stuffers is often not the best. My favorite online sources for stocking stuffers are Land of Nod, which puts out an excellent collection every year with flat-rate shipping, and Office Playground, which usually has a few gems too.

For in-person shopping, World Market does a good job stocking interesting, well-priced small items. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Diddams has a pretty good selection, and for my Midwestern friends, Meijer is a surprisingly good source too.

Cheaper by the dozen

If you need trinkets in volume, Oriental Trading is the place. I’m guessing most of you don’t do stockings by the dozen, but I like these items for holiday party favors or class gifts:

  • Back scratcher, $6 per dozen – It’s funny to see back scratchers sticking out of stockings, and it’s a laugh to watch the kids trying them out. Fifty cents well spent.
  • Jacob’s ladder, $15 per dozen – These are another of my all-time favorites: colorful, wooden, mystifyingly simple construction. And fun to play with too.
  • Snowball flying disks, $10 per dozen – Soft frisbees with silly faces.
  • Plush Christmas mice, $20 per dozen – Cute little mice with elf hats and scarves.
  • Nativity finger puppets, 4 sets of 6 figures for $6.50 – My mother-in-law will love these: three kings, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus.
  • Glitter sticky mittens, $8 for 72 – Another short-lived toy that the kids always like, this sticky and stretchy toy can be used to pull paper or other light targets.
  • Holiday punch balls, $5 per dozen – Kids always seem to get more fun out of these than you’d expect out of what’s essentially a balloon hooked to a big rubber band.
  • Snowmen pens, $10 per dozen – Last year’s Magic 8 ball pens ($7 per dozen) continue to amuse, but these colorful snowmen pens are cheerfully seasonal.

I’m worn out! But my stocking stuffers are all ordered and shipped to my lovely mother-in-law. And it’s still November.

But don’t think I’m one of those people, because I’m not…the rest of my life is barely-contained chaos. But stocking stuffers for 13 really stresses me out – sources do dry up as Christmas gets closer, and I need time to ship them to Ohio, lest I have to carry them in my luggage and risk blowing my cover. So I find it necessary for my sanity to get them out of the way early.

The good news is that hopefully you can benefit from my legwork. I have more gift ideas to come, but this is enough for one monster post. I hope to find the time to get the rest out to you shortly. But first, Thanksgiving – a blissfully gift-free day.

No time to share much Thanksgiving cooking this year (still scrambling to turn that hole in the ground into a finished house), but at the end of my last post I have a full list of my Thanksgiving-ish recipes. I think more than food this year I’m excited to breathe in some spiced cranberry tea and relax with my family.

Enjoy your turkey day, and happy Hanukah! I am ever thankful for YOU, taking the time to read and visit with me here.

And in case you need more gift ideas…

Holiday gift ideas from past years

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