How to streamline your holiday shopping by purchasing the same gift for everyone on your list.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Dec. 19 2009 7:56 AM

One Gift To Bind Them All

Streamline your holiday shopping by purchasing the same present for everyone on your list.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

My grandmother had a no-fuss method of tackling Christmas gifts for her extensive brood of descendents. She sorted us into broad categories (female, male, adult, child) and then bought multiple copies of the same gift for each grouping. Red ties for all the adult males, say, and matching necklaces for the female children. One year, I received a floor-length, red-plaid flannel nightie. At 7, I didn't mind the Boudoir-Secrets-of-the-FLDS vibe—but I suspect my 20-year-old cousin felt differently.

Buying Christmas gifts in bulk is a fraught enterprise. And yet the prospect of streamlining the holiday shopping process is a tantalizing one. Think of the precious mental energy expended every year on determining the perfect, pointedly individualized present for each person on your list. Think of the time you then waste at the mall or on the Internet trying to buy said perfect gifts for the lowest prices. What if there were a single item that would be well-received and even cherished universally?

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But how to find this holy grail? Your humble correspondent, possessed not only of a drive to simplify her life but also of a large, geographically and demographically diverse list of gift-requiring friends and family, is here to help. A few ground rules and guidelines for this exercise:

  • No gift cards. There's no sport in that. They might be useful and economically efficient, but they drip with impersonality. Generic might be the goal here, but we don't want the recipients to realize that. Besides, the chances that your card recipient will remember you every time he hears that Lady Gaga song he downloaded from iTunes are slim to none.
  • This guide only proposes gifts for people old enough to gain admission to R-rated movies. In this as in so many other ventures, children complicate matters.
  • I'm setting an arbitrary price limit of 50 bucks—your humble correspondent is a frugal sort.
  • The perfect generic gift ought to share attributes with the loose strictures of Unitarian Universalism—vague and inoffensive, warm and fuzzy and enveloping and giving the general impression of standing for something while not really standing for anything in particular. The gift-giver must sacrifice panache at the altar of practicality. Greatest good for the greatest number of people.

One obvious category for exploration is foodstuffs, a perennial favorite of holiday gift guides. The logic, I suppose, is that we've all gotta eat. But what to eat is a classic, paralyzing first-world problem, a minefield of neuroses and stereotypes into which it's risky to dip even a toe. Omaha Steaks or a Harry & David gift basket are traditional options, but you risk coming across as grandparental. Try to update these old standards with a Starbucks version, and you're a hopeless, mindless yuppie. How about a tray of homemade cookies? Bet they're not as delicious as you think they are, sorry. Don't put yourself out there for embarassment. Wine, fine spirits, or really good, unusual beer won't do, either. Too many self-styled experts, too many possible wagons to be clambered off and on. Cheese may, at first, seem like a bright idea. A lovely hunk of parmesan, or a log of bucheron—delicious dairy twists on the Bouche de Noel. What red-blooded American doesn't love fine foreign cheese? The vegans and the lactose intolerants and the locavores, that's who. Without passing judgment on the true color of their blood, your saddened correspondent moved on with the newfound realization that dietary restrictions and nutritive moral philosophies have put an end to the glorious era of the unifying power of cheese—or any other food, for that matter.

Bereft of the comforting notion that the way to all mankind's heart is through its stomach, I began to panic. My mind raced frenetically, careening from one unpromising possibility to the next. I thought, for a brief, crazy moment, that stationery might be the answer. Everyone needs to write a nice note from time to time. The problem is that not everyone actually does it when they ought; not universal enough. A calendar isn't a bad choice. Time and tide stops for no man, or so I hear, and it stands to reason that we could all use a way to mark it off in 2010. This one even works long beyond that. At the $50 price point, most tech-y gadgets (at least the well-made ones) are off-limits. Perhaps an unusual memory stick, but something about that choice telegraphs corporate-conference giveaway. Decorations and tchotckes for the home are such a matter of individual taste that it's better to steer clear. And plants are just the gift of new responsibilities.