We've come a long way since the Shakers sang about "Simple Gifts." According to the chatter of Seasonal Magazine Advice (including the online kind), Christmas--excuse me, holiday--gift-giving is strewn with more pitfalls than a mined highway to Baghdad. Having toiled as a consumer-magazine-content-generating droid in my journalistic career, I sympathize with the writers and editors who churn out this bilge. "Ten Gifts Not to Give This Year." "Twenty Worst Presents for Him/Her." "Gift Goofs! Top New Trends to Avoid--If You Want Your Relationship to Survive!"
But I'm not immune to shopping anxiety, either, particularly since I tend to get Weird High-Concept Ideas about Christmas giving. (This year everybody gets: dessert sauces! odd books! almond soap! narcissus bulbs!) We've got a very small family left to shop for, which makes life easier, but the drumbeat of smug warnings about awful gifts is wearing me down. As a reader service, I have synthesized these helpful offerings into one convenient list.
Image: Antique trade card, R.H. Macy & Co.
A Dozen Things Not To Give, You Pathetic Turkey
1. Gift cards aren't really gifts, let's face it. It's the "gift" that says, "I stopped at Rite-Aid on the way here."
2. For those hard-to-buy-for types--Aunt Millie, your sullen nephew Jared--don't even bother trying to buy "something personal." They want cash--so if you're squeamish about greenbacks, buy a gift card, fully loaded.
3. 'Tis the season for many of us to become co-dependent enablers--but real friends don't give temptation. C'mon, does your tippling Uncle Bob need another bottle of Scotch, and can you really give Godiva with a clear conscience to your friend Frannie who's on her third go-round with Weight Watchers?
4. 'Tis the season to ruin people's holidays with the bummer of a "good-for-you" present. You know your Uncle Bob wants Glenlivet, not grapefruit (not even the fancy crate of it shipped from Florida). And does your plump chum Frannie really need the Healthy Gourmet Cookbook when what she wants is some once-a-year marzipan? Give 'em what they want, people!
5. We're all drowning in brand-name crap, so how about, this year, bucking the materialistic tide and giving a present of caring--for the needy, for the earth, for a friend's or relative's favorite charity? Since Aunt Millie already "has everything," buy a llama for a needy Bolivian family in her name--it's a feel-good present she won't forget!
6. Know what we all want for Christmas, kiddies? A present. The kind with wrapping and a bow--not a donation to some noble cause, no matter what we say. Next time you're tempted to sponsor a llama for your well-heeled Aunt Millie, stop, slap yourself, and dodge into Hermes for a nice scarf--because Aunt Millie is giving you a Coach wallet, not a freakin' farm animal.
7. Tired of giving the same old stuff? Personalize it! Whether it's a photo mug with Baby Brandon's picture on it, a monogrammed tote, or a custom-embroidered dog sweater for Fido, nothing perks up a present like a person's name or face. (Picture the smile on nephew Jared's face when he sees his name graffiti'd onto a new skateboard!)
8. Avoid personalized stuff like the plague. It's probably embarrassing, and it's definitely non-returnable.
9. Guys: Except for your private enjoyment, forget about the Victoria's Secret catalog. Unless your lady wears such items regularly (like, to the supermarket), a tiger-print thong or black lace push-up corset is just as likely to start the old "What, you wanted a Hooters girl and you got me instead?" line of thought...and that's less fun than a glass of curdled eggnog.
10. Guys: It's about romance, stupid. Even if she puts a blender on her list, she's just testing you. Get some lacy lingerie under that tree if you hope to get lucky under the mistletoe; the blender is just as likely to start the old "What, am I turning into his mother?" line of thought...and that's less fun than a slab of fruitcake.
11. In a mass-produced world, nothing touches the heart like a hand-made gift. Don't think you need to be Martha Stewart; even a beginner at baking, sewing, knitting or crafting can turn out a creative treasure (and save a bundle at the mall as well!)
12. You're not, repeat not, Martha Stewart, sweetie, so skip the home-made craft project and head for the mall. That cute quilted tea cozy looked better in the magazine than it will in the lap of your puzzled Aunt Millie on Christmas morning, and Uncle Bob can live without those hand-crocheted golf club head covers. What Uncle Bob really wants is Scotch--or maybe it was black lacy underwear, I forget.
Now, get out there and shop, dammit, or the terrorists will have won.
"The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it; and some day suddenly wake up and discover why." -- G.K. Chesterton, Generally Speaking