The Sock Burning

A unique holiday tradition brings this Cary family together — and conveniently declutters their laundry pile, too.
Words and photograph by Laura Wall

Many moons ago, I was on a work trip, staying at the W Hotel in Chicago. I went down to the lobby for breakfast and noticed an impeccably dressed man sitting across from me: handsome with dark wavy hair, elegantly sipping a cappuccino in a tailored navy suit. And when he crossed his legs, he exposed pinstriped socks with a large red heart on his ankle.

So cool, I thought. It was then that I decided that my own husband, Steven, should retire his boring, basic business socks and introduce funky socks into his work wardrobe. He was completely game. At the time, finding crazy socks in the men’s department proved to be a challenge. So Steven embraced wearing funky women’s socks. He’s confident like that.

Steven went all in: socks with bananas, Weimaraners, cheeseburgers, old trucks, fish and chili peppers. Word spread and soon family and friends started adding to his sock collection (it is hard to find presents for a grown man). Needless to say, Steven now has a lot of socks.

Then our kids came along. Their feet grew from 0-3 months to adult size in the blink of an eye. Socks came and went. We are currently at a stage where we can all wear almost the same size socks — and there seem to be millions of them. In addition to the above-mentioned fashion statement socks, we have “no-see-ums,” “shortys” (for fashion sneakers), ankle socks, compression socks for travel, and short and long moisture-wicking socks for sports.

We have wool socks for camping; long, cushy socks for boots; and extra-long, fold-over socks for Wellies. We save prestained socks for yard work and have an entire box of Christmas socks we break out for the holidays.

Socks, I’ve decided, are like rabbits: They multiply quickly. And while they are initially cute and fun, they soon become sort of tiresome and overwhelming. Socks have become a real chore for me. Like matching the bottom and top of Tupperware, it’s impossible to find sock mates. When I’m doing laundry, I’m always so happy to find a pair! I quickly roll them together into a tight ball and place them next to my perfect stack of folded clothes. (After working retail for years in high school, I can wash and fold anything so that it looks like it is brand new. I’m proud of that.)

The socks that don’t have a pair go into a bin in the laundry room. Perhaps it’s a false hope that one day the missing sock will appear in my dryer and find its way home.

About five years ago, we were visiting my brother and his wife in Annapolis, Maryland. My sister-in-law Katie mentioned a local tradition that got my attention: the Sock Burning.

At the spring equinox, everyone in town gathers for the beginning of boat season in the harbor town. At the celebration, they roast oysters and burn nasty old winter socks. That’s it! I thought. That will solve my problem. I immediately shared my epiphany with my husband and teenagers. And despite the lackluster response, it has become a custom in my family.

Now, twice a year — at the winter solstice and summer solstice — we have our own ritual Sock Burning. First, we locate every sock in the house. We empty all the sock drawers and all of the laundry baskets. My kids have to check under their beds (insert eyerolls here) and I add in the bin of single socks I’ve collected. We dump them all into a huge pile in the living room.

It’s immediately apparent that we have too many socks. And honestly, I do not know where they come from. Sure, I bought some no-see-ums for a recent trip for myself, because those kinds of socks literally evaporate. And my son got some new athletic socks, because his were worn out. But the rest? I have no idea.

Between the four of us, we only have eight feet. We look at each pair. Everyone has to choose their favorites and to keep only what they need. They groan. They complain that this is not a Christmas tradition.

But then we sort gently used socks into a pile to go to the homeless shelter, where we know they are appreciated and greatly needed. Socks with holes go into a different bag for recycling (to be made into more socks — the cycle continues!). The socks we really love and wear go back into the drawers.
We don’t actually burn any socks, but this is almost as cathartic.

Sometimes, we fight over our best socks (FYI: balls of socks are fun to throw at one another!). We usually agree on the ones that need to go — maybe they slip down, or the elastic is shot or they don’t fit right. But often, we don’t end up talking much about socks at all: despite the eye rolls and the complaining, it’s an hour we spend together, just our family, in the midst of the busy holiday season.

Our many socks are a reminder of the plenty in our lives, that we have more than enough to share.
And in the end we all feel more organized; our drawers and minds are both a little less cluttered.
As I was doing laundry this weekend, I noticed my single sock bin getting full. Come winter solstice on December 21, we’ll be ready.   

This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.