Gifts: For someone with everything

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. ( 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

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.


Susan B said…
Oh Duchesse, your gift ideas never fail to delight and inspire! I'm taking notes. ;-)
Kristien62 said…
Your gift ideas are just in time. I am downsizing the gifting this year trying to find different, meaningful gifts that don't break the bank. The boxes from Etsy would be great for my daughters-in-law filled with goodies from Ulta. Thank you for the idea.

And may I recommend soaps by Deshawn Marie on Etsy. They are beautifully packaged and the scents you can choose are endless.
Anonymous said…
I second Une Femme: great ideas, as always.

Last night my seventeen-year-old said, "Mom, I know how you love honey and bees, and in Environmental Science we learned how important bees are to every ecosystem, so how would you feel about it if I gave a hive of bees in your name to a family in Tanzania for Christmas?" I assured her that I would love that--that, in fact, she had read my mind. Since Sandy barreled past us, leaving our power (mostly) unaffected and our basement miraculously dry, I've been feeling more than ever that I must give to those who were not so lucky. Rather than participating in the usual holiday gift hunt, I hope the whole family will agree to donate to the Red Cross, food banks and flood relief, the Heifer Project (which sends those goats and bees and other useful animals to parts of the world where they will make a huge difference) and Unicef instead. I love your idea of matching a small personal gift with a substantial gift to those in need (the goat & goat cheese) and will try to do that if I can. In fact, when my daughter insisted that she wanted to give me something else, too, I told her that a little jar of honey is always welcome!

LPC said…
I am ordinarily not a fan of "gift lists." Everyone's so individual. But yours is wonderful. I think the best idea is party pants. So perfect. Who would buy themselves a pair of purple velveteen pants, and who wouldn't find herself wearing them far more often than she thought? I'd give them early, so they got good usage for the actual holiday prime time.
Viktoria Berg said…
Very timely for me, I´m brainstorming about what to give a 70-year old cousin for his birthday. I think the gift bag idea was best: a good bottle of wine, a smaller bottle of great whisky, some good pralines, a pair of luxurious socks, perhaps a home knit scarf?

I think gifts are terribly hard. Thank you for the support.
Oh I 'd love to be on your gift list. Such clever and thoughtful ideas and no clutter for miles!
materfamilias said…
You are the star of the gift lists! And I'm delighted to get a nod, thank you, although it's really aimed Pater's way.
I love the idea of #5, giving the chevre along with the goat, so that the receiver gets something tangible besides the glow of helping out. . .
Fritinancy said…
I must bake those biscuits. Alas, the Practical Cook link is broken.
Duchesse said…
Pseu: It's a fun post to write!

Kristien63: We all appreciate recommendations for superior products; thanks!

c.: Is your love of honey b/c of your Greek heritage? I'm moved by your family's decision.

LPC: Brilliant to give them ahead of time, perhaps for St. Nicholas' Day?

Viktoria: That's a lavish array and also the idea, the gift bag can be modest or deluxe.

hostess: Decluttering is always on my mind but I'll make room for velveteen pants :)

materfamilias: Biscuits being made this weekend!

fritinancy; Link now tests as working but if for some reason not, just search "Mark Bittman biscuits"- and enjoy.

Hi Duchesse, thank you very much for your advice on this topic. My parents-in-law are just those people who have everything and at the same time, they are very picky and have extremely high standards. For the past few years, they have set us a $35 dollar budget for a gift to the both of them which means most store-bought items are excluded. As a result, we have been giving them baskets of home-baked items - the addition of a tea towel to the basket is a great idea. said…
I love the velveteen trousers, but how on earth can you give them to someone else? Hard enough to know one's own size in virtual shopping.

I have given the goat alongside other friends (to Haiti) but we are of course sending bicycles with CycleNordSud - the bicycles and parts from here also include a cash donation for mechanics and workshops in poor countries. The bicycles are used by public health workers, small merchants, school kids... It goes through associations in the target countries.

I don't really give holiday gifts, but always cook stuff. This week I'm cooking and freezing a duck tourtière.
Duchesse said…
Louise: There sre so many wonderful homemade things, from sweet to savoury, and parents or elders appreciate them as they usually are cooking less themselves.

lagatta: Notice I said "sister or best friend", so you would likely know the size, and the site gives waist, hip and length measurements. If the fit is not perfect, she can exchange or the good and reasonably-priced tailor @ Beaubien and St. Laurent. If choosing a pair of dark blue jeans one can buy locally but for something special, or a hard to find size, order.

The Latin-American lady in the little shop on Beaubien? Knowing she is good is a GREAT gift.

Yes, I rarely see velveteen jeans in the shops here, and when I have, they were in bright colours I wouldn't wear - more suited for very young people. I loved the ones I had decades ago. If I recall, they were deep green, similar to the Scotch Fir.

Biscuits, or scones, which are similar.
Duchesse said…
lagatta: We have only tried her with jeans but she does a good job of that.

frugalscholar said…
Oh, those scarves. Love them both, esp the geometric. One young fellow of my acquaintance received many gifts from his family last year: his favorite was a $50 gift card from Publix, his local grocery. So-for a starving student or recent grad--gift card can be appreciated.

For this same fellow--I don't NEED to buy him a gift, but I am going to make him a condiment basket--capers, coconut milk, curry paste, etc. These are the expensive things that new cooks often don't buy.
Mardel said…
I love your gift posts because they always seem to appeal to my love finding just the right little something. However I have family members who request the gift-cards, and I sometimes begrudgingly comply, but it seems a soul-sucking enterprise to me. I do usually manage to find something interesting and personal to accompany the more "practical" (their words not mine) gift.
Duchesse said…
Mardel: Requesting the form of a gift is a delicate matter; it is one thing if one expresses appreciation and another to make it clear only a GC or cash is acceptable. Someone ho did that with me received only a piece of my mind.

The giver ought not have her soul sucked!
Duchesse said…
Frugal Scholar: The condiment basket is a *fantastic* idea! (And maybe a big bag of rice toward a curry?) Money is useful to anyone who is scraping to buy groceries. Hope he can get some help, not just at Christmas.
Anonymous said…
These are great ideas -- I may add a few to my buying list and to my wish list. (I find that even harder than buying for others -- thinking of things that I want that others might buy for me!)

Last year, I did ask for gift cards from iTunes and Barnes and Noble -- living overseas, but with both accounts still active in the States, it meant I could watch movies and buy books for my e-reader, both in English, which was a real treat.

And I give gift cards to my nieces and nephews who have reached ages with two digits in them. Especially when you've just crossed that threshold, it's very cool to be able to pick out your own stuff and "pay" for it yourself.
Duchesse said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duchesse said…
rubi: I would like to offer a different perspective regarding young people and GCs. IMO it teaches them that gifts equal money, and is an difficult association to break once created. Yes, it is fun to exercise choice and pay for it yourself, which is what allowances and babysitting jobs do.

No matter that young people (who are not yet at the stage where one reflects fully on the deeper aspects of giving and receiving), say "Just give me the gift card! or express delight." It's about more than that, like eating is about more than taking on calories.

"Wish lists" are (as you can imagine) unattractive to me as well, they say, " Just tell me what you want". The giver does not have to pay attention (or ask those who have). The deeper elements of giving are subverted.

re "Wish Lists": Telling each other what we want is *not* giving a gift, it is co-consuming. I suspect people know that and mutually agree not to put in the effort, thought and consideration.

A rung higher is the ritual gift, such as "Every Christmas I give you a book". That's OK (to me, but hey this is my thing) if the book is still something that pleases and there's some thought in the selection.

While I appreciate a good solid hint, the exchange of lists is a not something I want to do, nor will my sons. They want to be surprised, "like when I was little", one told me just yesterday.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, I agree with you about wish lists -- I don't love being asked to put one together, because in addition to diluting the surprise, it makes me feel a bit as if the person asking doesn't know me well enough to know what I'd like without me saying anything -- and I don't ask others to make them for me, for the reasons above, only in the mirror. I tend not to buy wedding gifts off a register for the same reason.

I want to be surprised, I want to be delighted, I want to be touched. And I want to do the same for the people I love.
Northmoon said…
Your post is timely and very much in line with my views this year. Love your ideas - the baking, donating to good causes and small thoughtful gifts like warm socks.

Unfortunately I clicked the link to Hiroko Japan, and ended up buying myself a scarf!! Oh well, at least I'm supporting a small business, even if it isn't local!!
Duchesse said…
northmoon: Hiroko Japan's things seem exceptional, the natural dyes are so intense yet delicate. There is much there I would love- enjoy!

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