NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Looking for your big gift on Christmas morning, but nothing's under the tree? Check the stocking.

As big-ticket items get smaller and small-item holiday spending swells like overstuffed hosiery, the stocking has gone from secondary item hung by the chimney with care to center stage on Christmas morning. With


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putting overall holiday spending at $28.4 billion, or 12% more than the same time last year, the stocking once reserved for candy canes and gag gifts could be hanging much heavier with pint-sized presents from


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Barnes & Noble

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and others this year.

"If you look at the last 15 to 20 years, the most popular holiday gifts have shrunk," says Amy Sewell, lifestyle expert for

Shop With Style

. "You have iPods, iPads, Kindles, Nooks, electronic games and gift cards; the things that are in the most popular gift categories are things that fit nicely into the stocking."

While there's no definitive source for stocking-specific sales, a quick look at consumer spending suggests some Americans will need a bigger sock. According to the

National Retail Federation

, Americans spent $23.6 billion on gift cards during the 2009 holiday season. That averages out to $139.91 spent per shopper on 3.5 gift cards worth $39.80 each. Though that's down from $147.33 per person the year before, 57% of foundation responders asked for gift cards this season, while 53% of those surveyed in the

American Express

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Spending and Savings Tracker said they planned to give them.

That $140 is a nice haul for a sock, but it's more significant when stuffed in with a $139 Kindle e-reader, a $170 Nintendo DSi XL hand-held game console or $829 64-gigabyte 3G iPad.

"For some people it's maybe a matter of buying a $50 gift card instead of a $100 gift card," Sewell says. "I love giving and love receiving gift cards, but it's important to think about the stores people actually shop at."

That gift card-big gift combo isn't a stretch, either, especially as more of people's favorite stores began carrying their coveted toys this year.


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J.C. Penney

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broke from convention and added camcorders, GPS and navigation systems, MP3 players, e-readers and other compact electronics to their holiday caches to compete with


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Best Buy

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. It's a smart play, as American Express' Spending and Saving Tracker found that while respondents planned to spend an average of $710 on gifts this holiday season, 20% were looking to shell out $316 on electronics alone.

This isn't to say that candy, knick-knacks and other items are on the wane as other stuff squeezes them from stockings. Low-end stores such as

Dollar General

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, for example, thrive on simple stocking stuffers, with same-store sales jumping 7.4% last holiday season. For Sewell and others, however, presentation has become as important as what items are packed in.

If you want to give a stocking worth feeling jolly about, filling from the toe up is a great way to give even the most scant stockings a rounded, replete look. This can be accomplished as easily and cheaply as putting an orange in the toe, which Sewell traces back to symbols of the original St. Nicholas, but also to Depression-era Christmases when oranges were a treat not taken for granted. Sewell also advises keeping the recipient's interests in mind and treating the stocking like a gift basket or other package -- with a Kindle accompanied by bookstore gift cards, a

Regal Cinemas


gift certificate packaged with popcorn and candy or game tickets stuffed in with a team cap or other related tchotchkes.

"Whenever you're looking at gift giving, I think presentation is almost as important as the gift itself, because you really want people to know you put thought into it," Sewell says. "A stocking is a great way to present a great gift."

The stocking itself can matter just as much as the stuff inside it. In the absence of a family heirloom, personalized needlepoint stockings from L.L. Bean,



Land's End, Orvis and even Wal-Mart can give stuffers of all sizes a snug home for the holidays. Of course, a standard red felt stocking can do the job just as well, so long as it's the

right size


"My husband and I only do stockings for each other and don't even wrap gifts to put under the tree," Sewell says. "Years ago, my mother decided 'Hey, let's all do stockings,' but then she got carried away and bought me this gigantic stocking that I could have fit into."

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post,, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.