Socks, weddings and the beauty of a good gift

I’ve been thinking about gifts lately. Not metaphysical gifts – I mean the gifts that people wrap and give to you on with varying degrees of enthusiasm and inventiveness. It was my birthday two weeks ago, and I didn’t receive a single gift, which is just the way I like it. It’s not that I don’t believe in gifts – gifts in their pure form can be a beautiful expression of your regard for someone, a declaration of well you know them or that you think about them when they’re not around. Gifts can create a shared universe between people, but none of that has anything to do with the obligatory gift on a birthday or a wedding.

Last Friday was my wedding anniversary. My wedding day was splendid, one of those bright warm windless April days when you need a white paper parasol in the sunshine and there is so much love around that you almost forget how fat you feel in this suit, until you see a photo. One of the things that made me most proud when I looked around a room thrumming with assorted loved ones was that not a single person there had been forced to pay a tax on their friendship. There was certainly no wedding registry – perhaps the foulest and most cynical of our culture’s terrible inventions – and on the invitation, along with “No social media”, it clearly said: “No gifts”. Enough to ask people to give up half their Saturday and put on uncomfortable shoes, without demanding some sort of feudal tribute as well.

I have always been very happy with that decision, but this week I heard about another solution that seems to me even more ingenious. When my friend Sarah was married she wrote on her invitation: “Gifts: one pair of socks”.

Now seriously, have you ever heard a better idea? It’s not a bother or a burden to buy a person a pair of socks, and socks, as every child won’t tell you but right-thinking adults will, are excellent gifts. When you’re a grown-up, putting on the right pair of socks can make your day. I have lucky pairs of socks and casual pairs; I have walking socks and public speaking socks and when something bad happens and I’m wearing a pair of socks I throw those false friends away. Socks are decorative and they’re practical and they foster good feelings and when you put them on you remember where they came from – what better gift to receive from someone who loves you?

Also, in uniformity people can more easily express their personalities. My friend received expensive socks and joke socks and homemade socks and socks with secret messages. One friend donated her own freshly laundered pair of lucky socks. One chronically insecure couple stitched their own names onto the socks they gave.

Also, for the thrifty-minded like me, consider that if everyone at your wedding gives you a pair of socks, you’re set up with socks for life! You’ll have socks galore. You can wear them in rotation, or you can wear, say ten pairs until they wear out (or turn unlucky), and then bring out the next wave of reinforcements from the sock vault.

“But what if you forget and see a friend while wearing a pair of socks given by someone else?” I fretted. “Won’t they mind? And what if you’re going to a social event that will contain more than one former wedding guest?”

“Socks are a gift of joy,” replied Alex. “They are not an arena for niggardliness and mean-spiritedness. If people are going to be proprietary about a pair of socks, they shouldn’t have been at my wedding in the first place.”

There are other kinds of good gifts. My pal David went to Thailand with his pal Jen, and they took a day-trip on Captain Tu’s Pleasure Boat to a distant picturesque island. The day was hot, the boat was small and bumpy, they had sunstroke and dropped a cellphone overboard. Captain Tu was an alcoholic midget who wore a pirate’s hat and never put a shirt on. It was a terrible day, and at the end of it they were shown a small slightly chipped side-plate with a commemorative photograph of the two of them sticky-taped in the middle, and another picture of Captain Tu sticky-taped on the back.

They bought the plate, of course, and whenever one of them has a birthday, the other person wraps the plate and gives it to them as a birthday gift. Their birthdays are just about six months apart, so for half of the year, each is a holder of Captain Tu’s Commemorative Plate. It’s a living gift, one that remembers the past and stretches into the future. “We have to stay friends,” says David, “just so that neither is stuck with that plate.”

Gifts that multiply beauty in the world are never dutiful gifts. After the second world war the Dutch wanted to thank the Canadians for their help in liberating the Netherlands, and also for hosting the Dutch Royal Family in Ottawa during the war, and for such smaller and so even more thoughtful courtesies as declaring a hospital ward to be temporarily international territory, so that when Princess Margriet was born in 1943, she wasn’t the first Dutch royal to be born with foreign citizenship. Did the Dutch have to give the Canadians a gift to say thanks? Of course not – just look at the French. What have the French ever given any of the former Allies except bad service and venereal disease?

Every year without fail since 1945 the Dutch give the people of Canada 20 000 tulip bulbs. They even bred a tulip to look like the Canadian flag. Every year in Ottawa there’s a Tulip Festival and every April, in just about every public park in Canada, after the cold white winter, tulips from halfway across the world unfurl in warmth and colour and love.

Times, 19 April 2018