Clothing is generally off-limits, of course, but there's potential in the realm of accessories—like a quality umbrella. The endemic lack of a truly rain-blocking, long-lasting umbrella seems a common problem. And if your recipients happen to live in, say, Southern California, they can think of it as an objet d'art. While there is an endless supply of fun umbrellas out there, in this case I'd go for function, since one woman's quirk is another woman's white elephant. Here's a good one. And then, of course, there's the classic stuffer for the cannibalistic stocking: socks. A bit bland, yes, but who doesn't need 'em? And whose day isn't markedly improved by the dull but steady pleasure of wearing a very nice pair? (Personally, I'd shell out for a pedicure just to make my feet worthy of these handsome creatures.) Still, there's a telltale whiff of the generic about all these options.
Books are a rich but difficult category. (I'd argue they still make better gifts than DVDs, even if the latter has replaced the former in our hearts, minds, and shelves.) I generally love giving books, since they allow for an endlessly nuanced expression of your interests, the recipient's interests, and the shared ground therein. But that bespoke potential goes against everything this quest stands for. So what to do? Purchase this year's barnburner by the dozen? Going Rogue might not be a bad idea. Red meat for Sarah Palin's base, and a different sort of red meat for everyone else. We all secretly want to read it. Still, the staying power of Sarah Palin's prose is doubtful, and, besides, at the rate it's selling, everyone on your list will have a copy before you can give it to them.
This brings me, at last, to the perfect universal holiday gift: Good Poems, a collection curated by Garrison Keillor. It's unabashedly middlebrow in the best sense of the word. Keillor isn't for everyone, but these poems are. It's populated by well-known classics and accessible modern stuff, arranged by broad topic—death, love, failure, family, complaint, etc. Maybe if you don't like Anne Sexton on "Courage," you'll turn to Louis MacNeice on "The British Museum Reading Room." For every Howard Nemerov or Thomas Lux, there's a W.B. Yeats or Langston Hughes. Even people who don't seek out poetry, or people with an overdeveloped poetic muscle who swear they only read late-period Ezra Pound, will find something in here to like. If, that is, they have a shred of humanity. And you should tell your ungrateful wretch of a best friend exactly that if she looks a little crestfallen when she unwraps it.
The book hits a crucial target—it's general, but feels personal. Each recipient will be under the impression you thought long and hard about how to warm his soul this cold winter, when, really, you're working with an industrial-grade furnace. (If you really want to go in for the kill, bookmark a couple of poems that seem particularly well-suited to your giftee's taste.) Don't feel bad about it: We might all be unique little snowflakes, but the fake snow that gets spread underneath the Christmas tree isn't. So mark that quantity box with 12 or 20 or whatever it might be, stock up on wrapping paper, and pour yourself a big glass of eggnog. The big-kid kind. Or maybe cut yourself a wedge of brie. You know exactly what you'd like—no guesswork here, no need to worry about anyone else's preferences a moment longer.