The challenge of gift-giving


It’s a really cold winter…maybe something warm, fun and colorful?

This was a funny/telling piece recently in the Men’s Styles section of The New York Times:

“The older I get, the more anxiety I feel about gift giving,” said Mr. York, a 48-year-old executive at a nonprofit company in Brooklyn. “It’s a huge amount of stress, and it will go on for several weeks, until about five or six days before Christmas. The more Christmases that pile on, there is more anxiety.”

For men like Mr. York, who try to do the right thing, the very idea of giving and receiving gifts can spur feelings of failure and self-doubt.

I’ve rarely seen such crazy anxiety as when I worked three holiday seasons as a sales associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall in New York, near my home here.

It started at Thanksgiving when holiday shoppers started panicking, and ratcheted up to truly stupendous levels as Christmas approached.


Music? Hers is great stuff, from the 80s’…

What if I get someone the wrong thing?

What if they hate it?

I have no idea what they’d even like!

I admit, I did see more of this panic in male shoppers, like the man who (!) asked me what his 14-year-old daughter would like.


— I was far from 14

— I have no kids or nieces of any age

— She’s your daughter, dude!

None of which, of course, I said to him. I probed gently as to what sort of girl she was and tried my best to be helpful. But, honestly, I found it sad and weird he had no idea what might make her happy.

Another man, frantically pawing through the ski jackets, yelped: “I need to find a present for a pain in the ass!”


We all do, kids.

For anyone you know who loves travel or aviation — or just gorgeous prose — get this!

In the 16 years Jose and I have been together, he’s given me wonderful Christmas gifts, everything from a colander and toaster (I was so broke that year!) to gorgeous earrings. The only dud? Snowshoes.


Our gifts tend to be fairly traditional: clothing, jewelry, books, music and always a present “for the house” — pretty new dishes or glassware or kitchen tools.

This year, we set a very tight dollar limit for one another and yet I’ve been able to find a fun variety of things I think he’ll really enjoy.

The secret of choosing a great gift?

You need to know the person well.

The panic sets in when you’re buying for people you don’t really know at all, nor their favorite/hated colors or textures, what they own (or want to own), their current sizes, etc.

Even worse are the gifts we end up buying, often at the very last minute when we’re tired, cranky and already over-budget, out of sheer obligation, sometimes for people we don’t even like very much.

One of my favorite Paris shops — scarves and mufflers in every possible color

As someone who was the grim recipient of too many of these — like the books with the big black streak on them, the stigmata of the remaindered (i.e. cheap) — not to mention discarded free cosmetic samples — just don’t!

(When someone has no money, of course a gift is anything they offer with love. When someone has plenty of money but no heart or attention to detail? That can feel mean.)


I posted an extensive list of ideas here recently, so click through for some last-minute ideas.


Give a quality newspaper subscription! Facts matter now more than ever before.

And, maybe the best gift of all right now, is a donation to your favorite charity, domestic or global…


Want to help those fleeing Aleppo? Here’s a link to donate….

And seven more.


What’s the best holiday gift you’ve ever gotten?

The worst?

10 thoughts on “The challenge of gift-giving

  1. i try not to let it get to me. i pick things that i think they would like and hope for the best. for those i am close to, it is very easy. i tend to pick a group of little things and one classic gift item. i remember an old murphy brown episode where the whole office decided not to give gifts and they all ended up running into each other at a cheap 24-hour store, buying gifts, when someone ruined it by giving someone else a charlie brown mug. they bought what was left in the store, like a pile of ceramic celery. classic.

  2. My first husband was a knobhead when it came to gift giving – one time he gave me a set of cleaning supplies, complete with bow on top. I can laugh about it now. 😉

    We have been part of the non-gift giving crowd for about four years now. It’s just too crazy & the commercial attempts at emotional blackmail annoy me.

    You always have such great ideas, though! 🙂

  3. Jane

    Best holiday gift? Perhaps the gorgeous silver bangle my husband organised my sister to pick up because the store it’s from is near where she lives (in another state) & which she secretly handed over to him when we stayed with her pre-Christmas. On one side it reads Always My Love, My Life, My Wife. It was a complete surprise (hub’s not a good secret keeper) & I wear it often.

    Next Monday 12 months ago a client rescued us from financial disaster by buying our business. Today 12 months ago we had to let all our staff go. We had cancelled our work Christmas party earluer that week and my husband did the deed. I stayed for the handing out of redundancy notices & then left to go do urgent errands (including getting the agreement doc for the sale from the lawyers). It was a dreadful time. We didn’t go to our family pre-Christmas get together because we couldn’t face talking to anyone. Christmas Day was with my sister-in-law’s family, who don’t know us well, so we avoided having to talk about the situation.

    I’ve been struggling this festive season with a small dose of PTSD – booking the work Christmas Party was extremely hard, we haven’t put our tree up, I feel apprehensive rather than excited. Last year I put the tree up in the adrenalin fueled distress that followed meeting with our accountants & agreeing our business needed to go into administration (this was before our client said they would buy us out). Tonight I’ve resolved to put up the tree.

    Last night my husband came gift shopping with me for the first time I can remember. We have a $ limit so it was fun looking for gifts that met the criteria! Getting my husband back (he has been a different man now the huge stress has gone) has to be my best holiday gift, via our wondrful client (whose faith we’ve repaid by having a profitable year).

    Thanks for your thoughtful, interesting posts throughout the year.

  4. I swear, I’ve just looked at your blog post now…just minutes after posting mine. And I was surprised…and happy to see that you’ve put up charity website links for Aleppo, Syria.

    As I said in my blog post, I need nothing, nor do I particularly want anything for Xmas. In fact, I’ve got too much stuff. The other day I carted two big bags of used (very good) clothing to the Red Cross up the road. We need to be less materialistic and more “outward-looking”. I’m sure you’ll agree.

    1. Aleppo’s fate is terrifying. It has been horrific to watch. I ended up (!) in a very brief Twitter exchange w a journalist from there who, after I expressed how much — and how many journalists feel this way — I was devastated and feeling helpless, he expressed deep gratitude that anyone “out there” even cared at all. It was heartbreaking.

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