Those who give holiday gifts now enter into prime time. Though I give very few holiday gifts anymore, I enjoy that ritual–and ritual it is. Many readers worry; some send me e-mails. Rather come up with ideas for the 70-year-old aunt who lives on a ranch ("I was going to send her a gift card but I know what you think, so what are better ideas? She has everything."), let's revisit the principles.
I've mentioned Margaret Visser's book, "The Gift of Thanks" before; anyone wondering why a gift card is such a flat present is referred to her anthropological exploration. "We were a gift culture before we were a money culture" Visser notes, as she describes the mutuality of giving and receiving, across times and cultures. (The paperback is on sale on Indigo's web site for $16.50)
The gift card to someone who "has everything" is a truncated, dispirited gesture, a minor ennui of the heart. You are icing the cake, so, figure out the flavour.
It's true that many people, especially elders, don't want more clutter. We asked our sons to only give us things we can use up, and my friends and I give to our charities on one another's behalf. But we still give, and receive, with pleasure.
From modest to lavish, here are some suggestions for the aunt or other loved ones.
1. Biscuits, plain and simple
Materfamilias posted a photo of a breakfast Pater made, and I thought, staring, "I would rather have those biscuits than a diamond bracelet". Nice to present in a basket (dollar store, $2). If getting fancy, you could throw in a tea towel or a jar of preserves.
You'd make them just before leaving your place and sample only one. (I.said.one.) There's Mark Bittman's excellent recipe, courtesy of The Practical Cook's blog, or you may have one of your own.
2. A warm hug
You want to hug the people you love. If you live somewhere where winter brings a chill, a soft scarf is a classic gift, but, in an unexpected colour or material, rises above the cliché.
Big Mess scarf by String Theory, of 50% baby alpaca and 50% cotton; price, $140.
For warmer weather, a reversible indigo and cherry hand-dyed natural linen scarf from Etsy seller Hiroko Japan, about $75.
3. Merry socks
Socks are back as a style accessory, but never go away if you live in a place where boots are winter gear. All of us buy the drug or department-store brands, but how about giving a pair or two of something special? Whether thigh-or-knee-highs or soft cashmere crews, the pleasure is in giving something beyond the basic.
Fair Isle camp socks, $18.50 from J. Crew:
or if splashing out, their Corgi cashmere colourblock socks, $88:
4. Glad rags
When Deja Pseu, who wrote of party pants' piquant possibilities, I thought, "There's another fun thing to give as a gift, say, to your sister or best friend."
Talbot's Signature Fit velveteen pants come in Misses (including Tall), Womens and Petites, price, from $89.50; there's also a side-zip style with a narrower leg.
5. Good and plenty
This is a two-part gift:
1. A nice log of chevre, for your friend
2. The goat, for a family in need.
6. An unexpected treasure
Every once in awhile, we might thrill one another. Several years ago, Susan gave me a bracelet of multiple strands of big, translucent amber beads. It was over the top, and I felt truly special. I am touched every time I wear it.
Turquoise blue enamel half-hoop earrings from BeladoraII: tailored pools of perfection, set in 18k gold. Price, $395
7. Lighten up
My Swedish friend Towe gave us a pair of these Orrefors "Ice Cube" votive candle holders, ideal on both casual and more formal tables, providing a low flame that doesn't require craning around the arrangement to see people. They mix well with other pieces, and hold those Ikea votive lights. $33.59 each from Amazon.com.
8. Petits riens
Find a pretty box and fill it with treats: wrapped amaretto cookies, hip paper clips, a good toothbrush, one of those tote bags that folds in your purse, a lipstick, a portable magnifier, a pair of emerald-green shoelaces, a new nail file... the ideas are endless. This is a version of the Christmas stocking, but need not be given at that holiday.
This gift can cost little; a friend gave me dozens of perfume samples she had collected, probably for several years, because she doesn't wear fragrance. Or the cost can soar; set a rough budget before you start assembling.
(Shown, "French gift box 2" from Etsy seller HighTeaDesign.)
When do gift cards make sense?
It may be impossible for you to parse the deepest codes of teens or young adults: which surfer/goth/vintage/prep jacket is right, and which goes in the bin with an eye-roll?
Ask the parent for the name of his or her favourite local store and get a gift certificate there, rather than a corporate one. Similarly, one of my friend's goddaughters is studying at Juilliard; my friend will give a GC for the music store that strings and repairs her instrument.
Sometimes you need a little string along with that gift wrap. For example, you have an adult child living at a distance and know he and his partner are saving for a Pottery Barn sofa, but the dude has been known to blast through gift cheques at the poker table. Give the GC until he handles money better (or ups his poker skills).
While that approach dilutes the open-handedness of giving, it's sometimes prudent.
But aunt-on-the-ranch? I think we could trust her. I'd send her a big, rich, oozy toasted pecan pie in a wood crate, from Zingerman's; price, $50.