When you’re a kid hoping to find a new bike or Nintendo under the tree on Christmas morn, nothing disappoints like opening a pair of socks instead. Wrapping paper does little to disguise this looming letdown: The instant you pick up a small, flat, squishy gift, you know in your heart that Santa has once again dropped the ball. “Why does he bring me socks every year?!” I used to scream, internally. “Is he even reading my lists?!!”
But—like many other millennials to reach the ripe old age of regularly watching Jeopardy! while making dinner, and having realized somewhere along the way that Santa is just how we trick kids into behaving well for most of December—I now feel just the opposite. I actually want socks for Christmas. I love socks. Socks are the ultimate holiday present.
How does this transformation occur? The journey to sock acceptance (and later, sock affection) begins with a single step up the ladder of maturity. To see why socks make such a great gift, we must first understand that a gift is not always what we merely desire but just as often what we need. Socks are practical. Allowing an exception for your Hawaiian honeymoon, you’re unlikely to pass a week in this life without wearing a pair. Run, walk, hike the Appalachian trail, or attend a business conference, and you better be wearing socks. They absorb foot sweat and prevent blisters. That’s good shit.
In childhood, you want presents you can play with. Socks don’t meet that criterion, but they do quietly support you in a range of playtime activities. They also follow a principle that becomes paramount in the more complicated world of adult gift-giving: Buy your loved ones something they are unlikely to buy for themselves. In practice, this can mean giving them an expensive luxury item they’d feel guilty about splurging on, though it can also apply to quotidian necessity. When it’s time to get myself a new batch of socks, I put off the purchase for months, out of apathy or annoyance at spending my hard-earned cash on something as “boring” as cotton sheaths for my lowest extremities. It’s a delight, then, to find them in my stocking — which is, in itself, an excellent sock.
The origins of the Christmas stocking are tangled in myth, yet today it makes perfect sense as a metaphor of generosity, which in turn helps to explain the primacy of the sock as symbol — for it is not the sock that brings us joy but what we find within. Socks keep our toes warm and cozy on the darkest, coldest days of the year. Meanwhile, the brighter and goofier patterns wrap us in a wholesome cheer. New socks remind us that the finest pleasures are really quite simple. Tramping in from the snow, pulling off your boots, putting on fresh socks, and toasting your soles in front of a roaring fire is about as pleasant as it gets for a human being, no matter what century you live(d) in. Like the stocking, the sock is meant to be full, stuffed, stretched to the limit with life — or limb.
To recognize how much socks secretly mean to us, we need only consider our agony at their absence. When we lose one doing laundry, or don’t have any clean sets left. When we notice the beginning of a hole at the heel, or the gradual slackening of the elastic ankle band. When we totally forget to pack any for a long trip. Take away socks and we are no more than the calloused nomads who wandered the harsh terrains of prehistory.
For all these reasons, we must hold up socks as the platonic ideal of a gift in times of mutual goodwill: cheap, universal, and never out of stock at Target. It is telling that, in Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed new film Lady Bird, when a lean Christmas rolls around and only socks are exchanged, nobody in the family complains — though everything else up to that point has been cause for argument. Even as an ordinary, underwhelming piece of clothing, socks represent the lasting comfort of hearth and home, essentially unchanged since antiquity. I will receive mine proudly, with thanks and excitement, whether they feature red-nosed reindeer or North Pole elves. Maybe they’ll get a special shout-out in my Instagram story. And then, of course, I will slide around on the kitchen floor in them.