Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The gifting quandary

When I was a kid, Christmas was all about the presents. I mean, yes, the tree and decorations and family time were fun, but -- PRESENTS. I can still clearly remember the Christmas Eve I spent all night awake (I think I was eight or so? Maybe 10?) hoping like crazy that my parents had listened to my entreaties that I would be the most blissed-out kid in the universe if Santa coughed up a Petster robot cat. Happily, Santa did! Which only ramped up my campaign for a real kitty, but that's another story ...

The presents side of Christmas was still quite exciting when I was older but broke. In college and for my first few years out, I relied on Christmas to snag the kinds of indulgences I couldn't afford to buy myself and which my frugal Dad saved for the year's big holiday. My first digital camera was a Christmas gift, as was my iPod. I was always very grateful to be treated to such luxuries, and it made drafting Christmas lists (which my Dad always requests) easy.

But about four or five years ago, I stopped being broke. I'm hardly rolling in money, but I have enough cash flow now that if there's something I really want -- a book, a DVD, a not-stratospherically-priced electronic gizmo -- I just go get it.

This has rather complicated Christmas. There's very little in the way of material goods I actually want that I don't already have or can't easily get myself. (Within reason, I mean. The Big Purchase David and I really need to get organized about saving for, an apartment, is a bit out of Christmas list territory.)

More problematically, almost everyone I know is in the same boat.

Shopping for my Dad is the trickiest. He's the worst combination of traits, from a gift-giving perspective: well-off enough to procure anything gift-sized that he would want for himself, and a total minimalist. I clutter; I collect things. Dad does not. Extra things around my house are generally absorbed into the usual chaos. Extra things around Dad's house fester, drive him nuts, and eventually fall victim to a cleaning purge.

So what in the hell do you get for people who really don't need anything?

For most of my friends, I've taken the popular route through this problem: food or donations. There are very few people who won't appreciate interesting snacks or a meal out; buying birthday dinner has become a standard gift I give when the opportunity arises. I go the charity route for the holidays: I have a list of about 10 friends I make holiday donations on behalf of each year, and follow up with e-cards. (This year, my organizations were Heifer International, Donors Choose and Doctors Without Borders.) My favourite thing about doing donations is that it's a low-pressure gift, avoiding the awkward dance of "uh oh what if they get me something and I don't get them something or vice versa and ..." A charity donation is low-key and guaranteed to be useful.

But there will always be some people you have to get a physical thing for -- very close friends or family, spouse, and so on. And that is just tricky when people don't really need or want things.

I've basically resorted to three categories here: 1) things the person will love and didn't know existed; 2) things that are hard to find; and 3) art.

Category One is the obvious perfect thing for gifts. My sister managed to nail this one this year for me: she got me an AeroGrow indoor garden. I didn't know there was something that would let me grow herbs in a lightless NYC apartment. There is! I had no idea! Hooray!

Category Two is the tactic I usually take for David, who is a mediaphile who quests after all sorts of obscure things. One of my best holiday scores was probably the least expensive gift I've ever bought him: A D-Generation album he'd had when he was younger and never been able to find again. It took eight months of monitoring eBay Australia, but I found one -- for about $5.

Category Three is one I'm taking advantage of more and more frequently. Art is hard to buy for others -- tastes are tricky things to nail, and I only have about three people I'm confident enough of their likes and dislikes to chance it with. But it's also one of the surest ways to get something someone isn't expecting and will (hopefully) find intriguing. Etsy is fast becoming one of my go-to gift-shopping stops.

The only trouble with this approach is that it takes time. Which is why unexpected, hard-to-find or unique items make such great gifts -- they clearly illustrated that you thought ahead, considered your recipient's personality, and devoted time to the hunt. Knowing someone cares enough to do that is the best part.

But this year, sigh. My November and December vanished to job craziness; I literally had to schedule shopping windows weeks in advance. It was not one of my finest holiday gifting seasons.

But David seems happy with his wooden tennis racquet, my sister likes her autographed horse-race photo (the only gift I did manage a head-start on, and thank God the framer could do an incredibly quick turnaround), and my Dad liked the restaurant my sister found for his birthday (which falls the week before Christmas). Whew!