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-style wrapping. Impressing people with my astute profiling 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 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 gifts in the future and don’t hesitate to add to it whenever you see something that seems like a great idea for a gift 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 rarely appear serendipitously when we’re frantically seeking them. The trick is designating the drawer, basket or box for stashing your mini-collection of quality items. Once you make an actual place for it, 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 tea, 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 pretty much buy whatever they want tend to be pragmatists when shopping for food and basic household items. Artisanal fruit conserves, DOP balsamic vinegars and pricey single-estate 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 some 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 is famously hard to choose for someone who has a strong opinion about it—and not always a hit with one who doesn’t.
Include a way out. Consider giving your recipient outright permission to return, exchange or regift your gift. “Hey, here’s either this thing I hope you like or the convenience of not having to worry about getting somebody who might want this a present.” 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. An elegant alternative can be 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: remember to say “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 when they discuss their desires—they might be in for a far 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 tykes 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.