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?
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.
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.