Every year, it's the same story. Jim Durfee thinks he has his Christmas shopping conquered -- all the blockbuster gifts wrapped and waiting -- until he remembers one last unavoidable, imagination-straining challenge: what to put in the Christmas stockings.

This is what drives a person to spend $119 on an array of silver socks, Snoopy Pez dispensers and windup chattering teeth. Some call it the final tyranny of holiday gift-giving -- the amassing of great quantities of useless trinkets at a cost that often exceeds that of a major present. Others see it as a nonnegotiable part of the Christmas experience.

"Hey, it's fun," said Durfee, a Silver Spring resident shopping for stocking stuffers yesterday at Chocolate Moose in downtown Washington. He said he does not mind the additional pressure and expense. "My daughter always gets a Pez dispenser -- and she's 20."

It used to be a lot simpler -- an orange, a candy cane, a yo-yo. Christmas stockings, "hung by the chimney with care," according to "A Visit From St. Nicholas," were intended originally as barometers of past behavior -- goodies for the nice girls and boys, a lump of coal for all the others. But now, the contents of a stocking can say as much about the giver as the recipient.

Mark Roush, for example, takes a lot of pains with his selections. In the past, he said, he has included a piece of fine jewelry, once even "a house key."

Yesterday, he held in his hands a pair of dark socks embroidered with martini glasses "for a really good friend."

"I like to save the stockings for the last," said Roush, an executive at a D.C. staffing firm. "Then I know what gifts I have, and I can complement them with the stockings. If I have plenty of big gifts, I go cheapo on the stockings. Some years, I spend as little as $10 or $15. Other years, I spend a whole lot more."

Shoppers often lose sight of the cost of filling up a stocking, how all those designer chocolates and nose-shaped pencil sharpeners can add up. "People come in here for one little thing and walk out with a big bag. We ring it up and it's $150 and they go, 'What, for stockings?' " said Beth Lehnert, manager at Chocolate Moose. "I think they just lose control. They go, 'This is cute. Let's get three of these and four of those.' "

There are other considerations. In her years of holiday shopping, Beth Goulart has learned that sex matters.

"Stockings for men are tough," said Goulart, a National Geographic editor who was shopping for a boyfriend's stocking. So far, she had Japanese facial tissues and chocolate mosaics. "The things you get have to be useful -- they can't be froufrou. For girls, it's easier: You can fill up the stockings with hair ties, cosmetics, stickers. Women never outgrow that stuff."

Wray Blanton said she views stocking-stuffer shopping as an extension of the larger "treasure hunt" of Christmas shopping -- which, in her case, begins in the summertime.

"Let's see, I just bought a hat and a pillbox for a stocking, and I'm looking at a scarf I'll probably come back and get later," said Blanton, 81, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., resident who was shopping with her daughter at Proper Toppers in downtown Washington. "I'm never finished, and I start in July. I tell everybody I have more than 80 years of experience at this."

Pauline Leach, 85, has her stocking stuffing down to a science. She has six piles on an unused bed in her Wheaton home -- small gifts for her two sons, two daughters-in-law and two grandchildren. "I do toothpaste, a toothbrush, Scotch tape, a book of stamps, Band-Aids, candy, a little envelope with money . . . " she said during a shopping break at Wheaton Mall. "They look forward to it. I wasn't going to do it one year, and my daughter-in-law said, 'Oh no, Mother, you can't stop this now.' "

Beth Goulart shops for stocking stuffers at Chocolate Moose on M Street NW. "Stockings for men are tough. The things you get have to be useful -- they can't be froufrou," she said.