There’s nothing quite as revealing as a bad gift. In my experience, gift giving is often heartbreaking for this reason. Giving requires reading what a person wants or needs, and incorrectly reading these wants and needs can be strangely devastating—especially during a holiday celebration.
Thoughtful giving is all about context, so the items on this list are intentionally vague or specific enough that only a certain kind of person is going to want them. I think there are all sorts of ways to mess up a gift, even when you take time to consider the factors (i.e., will it require the person to change their lifestyle or self-expression in any way? Is this change positive? Does the person desire this change? Will this gift offend the person’s pride? Or bore them because you’re doing the bare minimum to appease a holiday ritual?). But at least if you think about your gift, you’ll have a solid reason to explain to the person when it all goes terribly wrong, at which point, you can flash your best doe eyes and repeat, “It’s the thought that counts!”
1. An annotated book
In high school my best friend lent me a book with a beating heart. It was the one that would get me into poetry, which I had previously thought to be a bit of a wash—so many of the great poems just made me feel stupid and thick-headed. Weirdly, I think the better part of the book was not its official print, but her annotations, which were somehow more vulnerable than the poems themselves. She’d underline the throat-punch lines and write, “Woah!” Such beautifully earnest expressions of wonder. I was so honored that she let me see her like that.
Not everyone wants a book you annotated for yourself, so you might think about it more intentionally. This past Christmas, I read the books I bought my mother before wrapping them. I chose and read them with her in mind, then wrote a card summarizing my thoughts and stuck them in an envelope to be opened upon finishing the book. This past Christmas, I tried to think about what I liked sharing with my mother, and what she liked receiving from me. I landed on ideas, though I think this shifts with time.
2. A specific kind of labor for a fixed amount of time
Is there a necessary task your loved one despises performing? For example: installing an A/C, doing the laundry, or caring for a child or pet. Your time and effort can make the perfect gift, especially if you are low on funds and comparatively stacked in time and effort.
3. A playlist or set of playlists
I adore curating playlists, so I’m partial to this one, but I think if music is a part of your relationship with someone, this can be a really excellent gift. Playlists can work as time capsules or subliminal messages or recommendations, or all three. I also appreciate making playlists as a gift of this particular labor: considering a sonic relationship between you and another person.
4. A donation to an organization
If you have a loved one dedicated to a particular cause (or multiple), a donation can be a good way to both see them for their passion and cosign that particular passion. Additionally, if the gift recipient has lost someone in the past year, a donation to an organization fighting against that person’s cause of death can be a meaningful tribute (depending on the cause and how well it’s understood and treated).
There are a lot of contexts in which photographs can make a decent gift: if you’re typically a camera shy person and your relatives just want some good photos to show their friends, if you love the camera but stage a photo shoot with the gift recipient in mind—maybe something for their eyes only. Family photographs can help define or redefine your family. Pet photos can celebrate and memorialize. Even though the personal tech revolution has caused a proliferation of photography, that photography has almost entirely been captured for a potentially enormous, digital audience. There’s something wonderfully intimate, in comparison, about taking photographs for a single person.
6. A planned experience
The right experience depends on your budget and relationship with the gift recipient, so I’ll list a range: a vacation, night in, picnic, live show, or weekly call time. Experiences can be a way to gift any combination of money, time, and labor—whatever ratio pulls the proper balance between what you want to give and what the recipient wants to receive.
(A short rant: I do not think experiences are necessarily better gifts than material goods, and usually when people insist that they are, the kind of experiences they’re referring to are very expensive—and so their own form of material good. Good gifts entirely depend on context, and sometimes what people desire most are material objects! Get with it.)
7. Creature Comforts
Everyone has a few objects they use to construct their sense of home. I use candles, books, blankets, velvet, and delicious-smelling soaps. Others use perfume and fairy lights, cigarettes and leather, plaid and bourbon. These are the little everyday goods you know your gift recipient can always use more of. While this might seem like an unexciting present, sometimes it can feel good to know a friend or family member has observed your habits well enough to know precisely what you desire. This is a good kind of gift to give if you’re anxious about the recipient using whatever you offer them—a growing concern (of mine, at least) in our suicidally wasteful present.
8. Handmade Goods
Handmade goods are an excellent go-to for those short on cash and long on time (and craft). These can include homemade food or drinks, knitted or sewn garments, photo albums, or handmade jewelry. Maybe you’re really living that craft life and you can throw a vase or construct a birdfeeder. Just like some of the other suggestions on this list (playlists, photographs, annotated books), the very fact of this gift’s existence demonstrates that you dedicated time and effort to the recipient.
Recipes make a solid gift within any relationship between lovers of cooking, especially ones that involve mutual admiration for each other’s cooking. Since American culture is so proprietary, I think the act of sharing a recipe actually functions as an act of humility—of resisting the ego boost of a secret, unique recipe by sharing it with a friend who loves the food as well.
10. A collection of online moments
If your person loves the internet, making a physical or digital collection of their favorite internet moments can make a wonderful gift. The internet is astounding, but moves so quickly and on so many different channels that it’s bad at providing sustained joy. Collecting these brief moments of joy in one book or one Google doc or social media account creates a more personalized, long-lasting pleasure. It’s a gift of slowing down time, of understanding what brings your recipient happiness and gathering it all for them in one container, saying Here, I see you, and this is how I love you.
is still figuring it out.