As all spoiled-rotten children of the Christian persuasion know well, the day after Christmas is the worst day of the year. Regardless of how many wonderful gifts you've received, what seems to matter is that the gifts have stopped coming. Naturally, contemplation of the eightfold splendor the holidays hold for one's Jewish friends only worsens this feeling, as does the realization that the "12 Days of Christmas" scenario is outdated. And while psychologists and parenting experts would, I'm certain, opine that working through this sort of disappointment is important for a child's development, I am equally certain that no one ever works all the way through it. That's why I salute whichever astute student of human nature first came up with the business plan for a gift-of-the-month club. It's a lot easier to grasp the idea that a "gift can keep on giving" if a new version of it shows up at your door every month.
The options for gifts of the month are vast: You can play serial Santa with everything from steaks, beef jerky, and ice cream to cigars, candles, teddy bears, or boxer shorts. I decided to test out a few representative clubs to see whether one sort of monthly gift is more fun, or useful, to receive than all the rest (setting aside, to the extent possible, personal preference; if you like beer better than wine, of course you'll be more excited about that enrollment).
I requested three-month sample memberships from the Murray's Cheese of the Month club, the Kitchen Store's Gadget of the Month club, Film Movement's DVD of the Month Club, and the beer-, wine, and flower-of-the-month clubs operated by C&H Clubs Inc. (The avocado-of-the-month club, as well as various chocolatiers, did not return repeated queries from this reporter.) I chose these particular purveyors because they're well-established, reasonably priced, and well-regarded in their respective categories. To evaluate every cheese club out there would have been impossible and not exactly clarifying (to either my arteries or my goal in this column).
The Kitchen Store's Gadget-of-the-Month ($99.99 annually)
Some people, like those who've recently raked it in from a bridal registry, find their kitchens overstuffed with gadgets they never use. Since my movement to substitute first-apartment showers for bridal-showers has failed to gain mass support, I find myself with the opposite problem, and my birthday and Christmas wish lists are always filled with such dull things as salad spinners and wine-stoppers. The gadget club seemed like a way to chip away at those lists, but the gadgets themselves were flimsy disappointments: A cheap "Bakeware Buddy" plastic-slicer, an Oxo wire cheese cutter that appeared well-made but did not exactly fill a gaping hole in my cabinet, and, worst of all, two plastic 23-pound-turkey brining bags, at once incredibly specific and incredibly useless. Other months apparently hold the promise of melon ballers and the thrill of a butter dispenser. I suppose the lesson here is that of-the-month clubs don't work very well if you're counting on them to fill actual needs.
Film Movement's DVD-of-the-Month ($134.99 annually)
Film Movement, a company that distributes foreign and independent movies, sent me How I Ended This Summer, If I Want To Whistle I Whistle, and Come Undone. (Here's a complete list of available movies.) Each selection did well at the Berlin Film Festival, which means that each would, under normal circumstances, linger at the bottom of my Netflix queue. But I hoped that if they landed on my doorstep, I'd spend the odd Monday night checking out the latest "worthy addition to the new wave of Romanian cinema."
Here's the thing: You know what also has a new wave? Nightly? My DVR. Always new, always enticing me with that flirty wink of a "recording now" message. The cinematic worthies lost out to blessedly compact episodes of TheDaily Show. By the time the third DVD came, I had that sinking feeling I used to get about math homework. Still, for someone who lives out of reach of good independent movie theaters—or is just more highbrow in practicum than I—the club could be an ideal gift.
Murray's Cheese-of-the-Month ($775 annually)
Murray's Cheese Shop sent along just one installment (rather than the requested three) to the Slate offices, so I didn't quite get to experience the club as a monthly affair. But the cheeses—an Appalachian Meadowcreek Jersey cow Milk, a Carleton Yoder triple cream, and a Beehive Cheese Co. "Barely Buzzed" lavender/coffee coated hunk— did make an editorial meeting a bit more festive than usual. And all afternoon, staffers surreptitiously headed back to the cheese plate to nibble away at more. Cheese is, of course, the sort of foodstuff that's inherently suited to a monthly doling-out rather than one grand gesture of epicurean munificence: It spoils, and, though this is better not to contemplate, isn't good for you in large doses. Moreover, three wedges are an awful lot for one person or a small household, so this gift, though expensive, has the added bonus of encouraging sociability.
C& H's Beer-of-the-Month and Wine-of-the-Month (Beer starts at $22.95 per month, Wine at $29.95 per month)
These packages were the most fun to see waiting outside my apartment—fat boxes labeled "alcohol." Good things might come in small sizes—if my mother or Muggsy Bogues is telling the story—but never underestimate the importance of going big. And really, who doesn't like lots and lots of free drinks, especially when they don't come with strings attached, as they so often do? (Sitting through a bad date, a work party, writing an article about holiday gifts.)
The wines came in monthly pairs, a red and a white. The beers came by the dozen, with bottles from four different microbreweries each month, getting more wintery as the months went on, culminating in oatmeal stouts and strong lagers. Both were accompanied by newsletters (Cellar Notes and Malt of the Earth) with descriptions of the vintage/brew and folksy declarations like "Merlot: Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, no more" as well as pairing suggestions, recipes, and a "member of the month" contest—it made the whole thing feel sort of like an actual small-town club.
I wouldn't sign someone up for a wine or beer club who is a true wine or beer aficionado—I assume that a more finicky drinker might quibble with the choices. But for the middlebrow, muddling casual drinker, they're just fine. These clubs also encouraged me to entertain more; with so much beer crowding my fridge, I asked people over each month to help me get rid of it. So this manages to suit both the idealistic gift givers, who think companionship is the best present of them all, and the cynics who think the answer to the question of the holidays is, always, booze.
C&H's Flowers-of-the-Month ($28.95 per month)
For reasons that remain unclear, I received only one shipment of flowers. The arrangement, October's selection, wasn't particularly to my taste—very tall, unusual Hawaiian proteas in vibrant shades of "pink ice latifolia" and "safari sunset" (taken together, the names conjure a rather confusing clime). Even so, I loved having fresh flowers around, and this varietal was particularly long-lasting. Flowers also have what I've come to believe are the key of-the-month attributes; they are indulgent but not expensive, people rarely buy flowers for themselves, and they have a use-by date, so they're nice to receive in batches instead of all at once.
Or perhaps flowers-of-the-month struck me as such a perfect idea because I only got one set, and you always want what you don't have. I suppose that even if I'd gotten 12 months of flowers I'd have pined for 24. After all, nothing says Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year like the lingering feeling of not having gotten enough.