For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been celebrated with a Whitman's Sampler.
In today's candy-cornucopia world, it's hard to imagine a time when candy choices were much more limited, but the 1950s and 1960s were just such an era. There was plain candy, and there was special candy. During most of the year, all you could find was plain candy--the usual assortment of candy bars, M&M's, Necco Wafers, Bonomo's Turkish Taffy, and the like that filled the candy racks at most grocery stores. Easter had candy eggs and chocolate bunnies, Valentine's had little candy hearts with cute sayings, Halloween had candy corn... and Christmas had the holy grail of candy, the Whitman's Sampler.
Every Christmas, Mom and Dad would bring home a Whitman's Sampler, and each of us would try to identify our favorites from the assortment of candies that filled each of the two layers. (And of course, there was the layer rule--you can't go to the bottom layer until every candy in the top layer has been consumed... even the Jordan almonds that absolutely no one liked, since the combination of hard nuts and a hard candy shell seemed like a sadist's idea of a treat.) Back then, Whitman made it tougher: they didn't include a legend identifying each candy, so each of became expert at identifying personal favorites by shape, chocolate color, and location in the box.
Mom soon implemented another rule: you can't pinch a piece of candy to find out what it was, and under no circumstances can you nibble a corner and then put the candy back if it was something ooky. That meant that I would occasionally have to eat a maple nougat or an orange cream on the quest for that delicious coconut. That was my one must-have piece of candy... and I was lucky, because no one else had laid claim to the coconut.
Each season, we would open the Whitman's sampler box, and each of us would have one piece of candy per day (although I suspect that Mom and Dad helped themselves to extras after we went to bed... never could prove that, because it didn't occur to me to actually count the candy). The sampler would usually run out at about the same time the year did... I don't think there was ever any Whitman's Sampler left by the time school started back at the beginning of the new year, making the return to school doubly sad.
When Susan and I got married, Mom and Dad gave us far more gifts each Christmas than they should have--but that's the way Mom and Dad were. They wanted to help everyone, and they wanted to give people things that they wanted and needed--even if they didn't know they wanted or needed them. They gave us sheets and towels every Christmas--and we still have those sheets and towels, more than a third of a century later, and they mean even more because they came from Mom and Dad.
And each year, they gave us a Whitman's Sampler. The tradition started in the Christmas of 1971, our first as a married couple. We would have never thought of buying a Whitman's Sampler for ourselves, because it was actually far more expensive proportionately than it is today. But from that point on, we always budgeted for one Whitman's Sampler each Christmas. Not for us... no, this one was for Mom and Dad, because I knew that they enjoyed it every bit as much as we did.
A few years later, Dad was diagnosed with diabetes, and he had to give up the Whitman's Samplers he had enjoyed so much. So of course we were elated when, years later, Whitman's began offering sugar-free Whitman's Samplers. I remember the surprise on Dad's face the first time we gave him one: he had no idea they existed until he tore through that gift wrap, at which point his face lit up just like it must have when he was a child.
I can't give Mom and Dad a Whitman's Sampler any longer, as much as I'd like to--but I can continue the family tradition with everyone else, doing just what I know Mom and Dad would do if they were here with us. And I think that, when each person opens his or her Whitman's Sampler on Christmas, Mom and Dad are smiling somewhere, because that once-special candy assortment is as important a part of Christmas as the tree and the lights and the music. It's the one gift that's absolutely not a surprise... but for me, it's the most important gift that I give, because it carries on a tradition that has helped to define the holiday for thirty-seven years now.
The only candy I don't eat now? The chocolate cherry cordials. Mom and Dad always claimed those...