Giving gifts is an act fraught with significance and anxiety.(1) How much should I spend? Will the person re-gift this? How the hell do I wrap and ship a live goat?(2)
Never fear. Here are some tips on what to do, what to avoid, and how to make sure your gift is really special.
The Good. My husband, Dan, is the best gift-giver I know. His strategy is to follow me discreetly around a mall or exhibit hall, note what I ooh and ahh over, and sneak back to buy it.(3)
Another good strategy is the one he and my mother cooked up one year. They went through old boxes and closets and found things I had forgotten about that were a bit the worse for wear – a tambourine, a doll, a ceramic Christmas tree I had made – then cleaned, repaired, and refurbished them. Items I had forgotten I owned were especially nice.
I have a hard time getting gifts for my husband. He belongs to the “Here’s what I want; just get me that” school of thinking. That is no fun. But I probably should just go with his requests, because I often end up getting him things he doesn’t want or use, like a yogurt maker or a GPS for his car.(4)
Once, though, I thought of Exactly the Right Thing. He had an old, orange-striped cat, and I had a friend who was a painter. She told me how to take a good natural-light photo of the cat and then turned it into a painting.(5)
The Bad. Rex, a former boyfriend, never knew what to get me for any occasion. He therefore unilaterally decided that I would henceforth collect heart-shaped boxes. I received boxes decorated with ribbons, fashioned from colorful stones, and so forth – none of which I particularly wanted.(6) Something to store in those boxes – say, jewelry – would have been much more welcome.
The Weird. If you know as many weird people as I do, you enter the realm of weird gifts. The world’s ugliest Goodwill tie fitted with a microchip that plays “You Light Up My Life.” A 12 Days of Christmas themed “Three French Hens” – three eggs decked in tiny black lace garter belts. A toy chicken that walks and lays malted milk balls.(7) The Black Widow model slingshot.
If there’s a White Elephant or pick-or-take gift exchange it can get weird quickly, too. Ten dollars worth of toilet paper.(8) A mug that says “I Don’t Have Herpes.” Sea monkeys. An inexplicable purple and orange glass thing. It’s even more strange when the weird gift is the one that people fight over.
There are other considerations besides the appropriate gift. For instance, there’s:
Wrapping. My efforts at wrapping resemble those of a ten-year-old child. But at least I try to be creative. I once wrapped an umbrella to look like a candy cane, if a wrinkled, uneven one. And if I give boring socks (in addition to a more interesting gift), I like to wrap each pair in a different sized and shaped package.(9)
Gift cards. Some feel that receiving them is boring and giving them is a cop-out. Not my friend Michael. He has an entire philosophy of gift cards: “Making sure that the gift doesn’t get squandered on something I was going to (or needed to) purchase anyway.”
He explains, “To me, respecting the gift means using it on something outside the ordinary, or at least something I would have trouble allowing myself to get with family funds. Something that will stay associated with the giver in my mind, at least for a while.” Think of that the next time someone gives you a gift card.
Poverty Christmas. One of the best holidays I remember was when all of my friends and I were broke the same year. Separately, we each had the idea of hand-making or hand-selecting gifts. I cross-stitched potpourri sachets. Meg baked cookies. Phil went to a used book store and found exactly the right book for everyone. Rhonda decorated small baskets of inexpensive treats. That was really an “It’s the thought that counts” kind of year. Since we all did it, it wasn’t even embarrassing.
There you have it: my advice on gift-giving. Go good. Go weird. Go small. But don’t try to make someone collect heart-shaped boxes.
(1) At least it is for me. Once I walked into a store to buy a baby shower gift and instantly got a charlie horse near my collarbone. It felt like a ping-pong ball under my skin. Only painful. Excruciatingly painful.
(2) No, I’ve never actually tried to do this. I use Kiva.com for all my goat-gifting needs.
(3) Sometimes he even pretends the store was out of whatever to make the surprise even more of a roller-coaster of disappointment and delight.
(4) Truthfully, I am the GPS for his car. I suppose I should be glad that he prefers me to electronics, but somehow I’m not.
(5) I also had the painting printed onto a t-shirt so that when he said, “Hey, that looks like my cat!” I could say, “It is!” and give him the painting.
(6) Teapots. Eggcups. Stuffed armadillos. Almost anything would have been more to my taste. I sometimes wonder how many other women he knew suddenly found themselves collecting heart-shaped boxes.
(7) I suppose it was meant to be laying them, but it really looked like it was pooping the candy. And I never liked malted milk balls anyway.
(8) It makes an impressive-sized package, if you get the really cheap kind. People love that.
(9) Yes, I know I’m wasting trees, but at Christmas it hardly seems to matter.