Every year, EVERY YEAR, I feel like it is wayyyy too early to discuss gift ideas / holiday china / holiday cards and so everyone will be annoyed because OMG SWISTLE IT’S ONLY HALLOWEEN—and then every year I am sitting here with only two Wednesdays left before Christmas, thinking, “There’s no tiiiiiiiiiime! There’s no tiiiiiiiiiiime!!” Still on my post list: gifts that have to work for an unknown recipient, food gifts, holiday cards, holiday china patterns, a holiday craft a child can make as a gift and it’s something a non-related-to-the-child person might even WANT, gift-idea books for children, gift-idea books for adults, good general DVD gift sets, puzzle brand comparison, teacher gift ideas, stocking stuffers, gift ideas for 4/6/10/12-year-olds. We can pick two of those. And by “we” I mean “me,” because by the time you read the first of the two posts (this one), I’ll already be working on the second one. So. Next year don’t be surprised if I start the discussion in October.
My attention was seized by this dilemma, written by Kristin on the Assortment of Unusual Gift Ideas post:
Swistle have you ever done a list of gifts for the family holiday exchange? I kind of poked around your archives but didn’t see one. We do a Christmas gift exchange in our family, and the gift is supposed to be appropriate from anyone from my 80-something grandparents down to my 20-something cousin and everyone in between (basically once you are out of high school, you’re in the exchange). It stumps me every single year. And we don’t draw names in advance, so you can’t shop for a specific person in mind. Aieee!
Oh, dear. That takes the cake for the worst family gift-exchange plan I’ve heard. I can see what they were trying to do there, but no. Names need to be drawn, or at the very least we need assignments like “buying for a woman” or “buying for a man.” Or else this needs to be done Yankee Swap style, where people can trade. However, I am familiar with the way family things typically work, and my guess is that you will have to be one of the old ladies of the family yourself before you’ll be able to change this, so let’s work with reality the way it is.
I think Gift ideas for people you don’t like (or the more crudely-named Gifts for A**holes) is a good place to start, even though presumably you DO like most of these non-a**holey people. Those posts includes ideas for when you don’t want to make an emotional investment in thinking of what someone would like, you just want to buy a good general gift anyone would like and be done with it. So there are some jokey things on the list (knives, trash cans, books that support a habit of self-absorption), but also those are indeed things pretty much anyone would have a use for: puzzles, books, blankets. I can picture either a grandmother or a college guy being interested in a book like Picture of Me: Who I Am in 221 Questions (photo from Amazon.com) or All About Me—and if they instead find that sort of thing self-indulgent, it’s an easy re-gift.
In fact, that reminds me: I have some experience with this. Last year I participated in a gift exchange where we had to buy something for someone we didn’t even know. I went to the store and realized how impossible that was. So what I did was, I looked for something that would have wide general appeal (stationery rather than weird artsy vase; throw blanket rather than baby blanket; puzzle book rather than auto-repair manual), but ALSO something that the person could use as a gift for one of their own family/friends if it wasn’t something they themselves could use. So I bought an assortment of ritzy holiday treats. I can’t remember anymore what exactly they were, but something like: box of fancy cookies, tin of fancy nuts, box of fancy chocolates. The recipient could eat those herself, or she could hand them out as two teacher gifts and a mail carrier gift. (My gift-giver also did a good job with this: she sent me two pretty blank journals, a mug, and a package of fancy imported coffee, if I remember right. I could use those myself, or any of those would make great gifts for a friend or a secretary or the bus driver or WHATEVER.)
So that’s what I think I’d aim for if I were you: not necessarily something that will please the recipient (though starting with something of general interest that’s likely to have broad appeal), but something the recipient can use as a gift for someone else.
Now, how about a list of gifts with wide general appeal? These work as Secret Santa gifts, mail carrier gifts, teacher gifts—gifts for anyone where you don’t really know the person and that’s okay.
Cute kitchen utensils! I have several of these happy spoons (photo from Amazon.com) in various colors, and they’re great spoons as well as being super cute. I also have many of the whimsical kitchen tools this post, and a cute piggy spatula that’s the perfect size for a million things (it’s slightly smaller than a regular spatula).
Cute desk accessories! I have this chicken tape dispenser (photo from Amazon.com) and I think it is even more charming in person. I have two pairs of woodpecker scissors because I love how they look but they’re also good scissors.
Branch pencils (photo from Amazon.com) are fun and awesome. (Here’s a set of non-colored lead ones.)
Which reminds me of the General New Skill Kit idea: almost anyone would be intrigued by a beginning drawing book/kit (photo from Amazon.com) (I have that very one and it was really fun and neat) (there’s a watercolor one, too).
Or if your family happens to be a bunch of artists, perhaps they would prefer Harmonica for Dummies. Or perhaps you have a family of instrument-playing painters, but can they make things out of duct tape? or do coin tricks? At the very least, it seems like such a gift would create an interested little stir, and perhaps some furtive trading.
Reusable shopping bags! Most of us fall into two categories: (1) we use them and could stand to have a few more, or (2) we don’t use them but feel like we ought to. And there are plenty of people who love them, so they’re easy to re-gift if we’re either (3) inundated with a million bags because we love them and keep buying them or (4) not going to use them so QUIT NAGGING. I was looking for a good sample one to link to and found this one that folds into a frog shape (photo from Amazon.com); I have no idea if it’s any good, but that is the kind of whimsical detail that takes a gift from boringly practical to fun and interesting. There’s also a pig, a duck, a mouse (I don’t think that’s a mouse, I think it’s a cat), and a bear—so you could buy however many you need to get to whatever people usually spend at these events.
Box of candy! Again, if they love candy, they’ll be happy—but it’s a perfect hostess gift or friend gift if they don’t. My own fancy-chocolates heart belongs to See’s, but any fancypants brand would work well. Ditto for a snack of other sorts: fancy cookies, fancy nuts. Choose a good brand and then get whatever you can for the price.
Gift card! Yeah. Probably you’ve already thought of that, if it’s the sort of thing the family gift-exchange allows.
Good stationery! If we knew who we were buying for, I could have found a more exciting set. [Shoot, I linked to one that had free shipping, but now those are gone and there's a shipping charge. You might as well go to Crane.com in that case, and maybe get a nice sale set.] But good plain Crane stationery (photo from Amazon.com) is the kind of set that can be used by a grandfather or by a college girl, by an aunt or by a brother. Maybe they won’t use it OFTEN, but good letter paper is good to have around.
Ornaments! Only you know if your family is more likely to have a general appreciation for pretty red glass birds (photo from Amazon.com) or for sock monkeys, for olivewood Bethlehem scenes or for bacon.