Like others who prefer an uncluttered life, I have a love-hate relationship with gift giving that is especially acute around Christmas. What do I love? The craft and artistry of creating, curating, and origami-governed wrapping. Impressing people when I manage to match the right gift to the right person (especially when it is both something they want and not something they would ever get for themselves). What do I hate? Thoughtlessness. Automatism. Poorly made things. The proliferation of unwanted possessions. Embarras de richesses. Forced reciprocation. Fake gratitude. The burden of obligation.
Over the years I’ve made some observations that serve me well come gifting time. Below are a few of the life hacks they’ve inspired.
Stock a gift cache. Designate a place for items that will make excellent presents in the future and don’t hesitate to add to it whenever you see something that seems like a great gift idea in general or the perfect present for a specific person. Think ahead—even when your sister’s birthday is still seven months away, or when it’s tempting to disregard an eventual Christmas in June, because great gifts don’t just appear when we’re frantically looking for them. Half the work is just designating that drawer, basket, or box for stashing this stock of quality items. Once you make actual space for this, you’re well on your way to “going shopping” at the last minute—without leaving home, without having to enter your card number or worry about delivery. Good ideas include blank books, quality storage boxes and zippered bags, tins of fancy salt, simple anodyne magnets, and (if the crowd you run with is anything like mine) pretty much anything from Muji.
Give consumables. Especially ones that are indulgent versions of everyday products, because even well-to-do folks who buy whatever they want tend to be pragmatists when shopping for food and basic household items. Artisanal fruit conserves, DOP balsamic vinegars, and top-shelf olive oils are virtually always welcome gifts, as are non-standard utility items such as luxury cleaning supplies and stylish gift wrap or tape. (And if for any reason they fail to please, such items are easily redistributed and place the recipient under no obligation to display them in any way for the giver’s benefit.) Note, however, that wine can be hard to choose for someone who has a strong opinion about it—and might not be a hit with one who doesn’t.
Include a way out. Consider giving your recipient outright permission to return, exchange, or regift your offering. “Hey, here’s either this thing I hope you like or the convenience of being able to pass this on to someone who might want this.” Convoluted, perhaps, but dazzling on the right occasion. Also, take note of gift receipts, popular in the US but still rare in Europe: they allow for returns and exchanges but don’t list the price. Maybe consider including the original receipt in a tiny sealed envelope, just in case? And as you’re giving that gift, don’t underestimate the unburdening powers of straightforward messages. Repeat after me: “please don’t feel obligated to keep this if you don’t like it as much as I imagined you would.”
Grant an explicit wish. Sometimes we just make it too hard by insisting that our gift be a surprise. Teenagers in particular are very good at stating exactly which model of what specific thing they actually want, as are most wives, adult daughters, and preschool-age children of either gender. (Indeed, should you actually listen to your loved ones as they’re going on about their desires—they might be in for a bigger surprise than you think.)
Skip the gift altogether. This one challenges the very foundations of Western etiquette, but there are times when it’s good advice. (Particularly when the gift in question is a toy for a small child and the proxy receiver the child’s parent, already overwhelmed by the number of stuff piling up in the household, and further overwhelmed by the scarcity of occasions on which a visitor to the family’s home doesn’t come wielding a toy. Basically anything that helps us teach our kids not to greet people with “Where’s my present!” is a gesture the conscious parent is bound to appreciate.)
Happy giving, folks. May there be ease and freedom all around this holiday season.