December 23, 2010
That department store song that you can't get out of your head says, "It's the most wonderful time of the year."
For some people, I guess that's true. But for others, it brings back memories of The Worst Christmas Present Ever.
For several decades, I thought the gold medalist in bad gifting was my own father who one Christmas morn presented my hard-working mom with a 50-pound bag of coal.
--It was a good gag.
--She could use it in the fireplace to keep the Yule log burning.
--This is not remotely funny.
--Where is the real gift?
Unfortunately for my father, the large bag of coal was the real gift.
The coal is the Lousy Present Story that will not die. Decades later without fail at Christmastime there's eye-rolling family recollections about this contender for the Gift Giving Hall of Shame.
But ask around and you'll discover that there are so many other This Gift Stinks medalists.
Laura Vessey, of Plainsboro, N.J., will never forget the year she got a beautiful leather handbag from a dear friend who had purchased it on a trip out west.
"As I was ooohing and ahhhing over the gift," Vessey recalls, "I opened it up and found she had stored her dirty underwear and socks from the trip in my new bag."
The friend was right there for the discovery. "She was mortified — but it quickly turned into one of the funniest stories that we have shared over the years."
Also in the ick factor category is this story from Maya, of Santa Barbara, Calif. (Many recipients asked that their last names not be used to protect the hapless givers.)
Maya had asked for a stress-reliever but got the opposite. "I wanted one of those pedicure, relaxing foot baths for Christmas," she says. "I received a used one!"
"I promptly threw it away. That isn't something to be re-gifted and it was very obvious at that."
Then there's the category that requires the recipient to do something for the giver. Husbands who give wives vacuum cleaners, for example. No thanks.
Or, this story from Lisa Madden of St. Louis:
"My darling brother and his family stopped off in Hershey, Pa., on the way to our parents' home for a family Christmas. He purchased several blocks of unsweetened Scharffen Berger chocolate which he gift wrapped and gave to me. Nice. Except that the card said it was for me to use to make him chocolate sauce.
"So to be clear: The 'gift' to me was to provide him chocolate. I could sweat over a hot stove preparing, then packaging and mailing chocolate sauce for him? Have you ever?"
In a similar vein, Deborah of Oakland, Calif. relates:
"Now let me start by saying that I did not think this was the worst Christmas gift ever — but a lot of my friends did.
"When my boyfriend and I were dating in our 20s, he gave me a toaster. When he told one of the girls he worked with what he'd given me, she was appalled. Seeing the look on her face he told her, 'Well, it's not just a toaster. I'm giving her the gift of toast!'"
Sometimes a lousy gift is one that entirely ignores the style and taste of the recipient. Or is just plain ugly. "When I was 15," says Kerry of suburban Washington, D.C., "my grandmother gave me a pair of orange stirrup pants!"
What did she do with them? "Hid 'em in the back of a drawer," says Kerry. (For lots more like this check out whydidyoubuymethat.com)
Then there's the just cheesy gift. Heather says that at a Denver holiday gathering, "My sister gave me a deck of playing cars with a photo of the Grand Canyon on them. After opening the gift up, my heart and the grandeur of one of the seven wonders of the world shrank."
"I opened it in front of a group of family and friends. People were pulling me to the side later saying, 'Why bother? Just do not give a gift.'"
And here's a plea for an end to generic one-size-fits-all gifting. "Please make a case for a five-year moratorium on the gift soaps," says one woman who declined to have her name used for fear of offending the legions of people who over the years have gone the eucalyptus/vanilla/lavender/honey-almond route. "I don't have enough bathrooms (or guests)," she laments.
Finally there's this sad sentiment from Tom, of Oakland, Calif. "The worst gift is the one you were hoping and praying Santa would bring you when you were little. But he didn't."
How to avoid "worst gift" honors:
Include a "gift receipt" so it can be returned to the store.
Beautiful wrapping and a handwritten note ease the pain if you've made a poor choice.
It never hurts to ask recipients' friends/family for hints.
You won't go wrong with homemade cakes, cookies.
Avoid predictable generic gifts (like guest soaps).
Gag gifts often backfire.
It's not about you: Give what they like, not what you like.
A gift card is boring but always welcome
I'm a big believer in re-gifting, especially if you think the recipient will actually enjoy the present. However, etiquette expert Anna Post says, "I prefer other options whenever possible." And if you are re-gifting do it with "transparency" she says as in, "I had an extra copy of this book and thought you would like it."
Post, of the Emily Post Institute, says if you do re-gift it must be in the original packaging and never a handmade or unique present crafted with love by someone just for you.
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