If you’re like most people, you’re about to get a mess of presents.

And, if you’re like most people, you won’t like many of them.

The ancient art of gift giving may be unique in that so many people do it so often, and yet so few ever get really good at it. How many of the presents you got last Christmas are in the back of a closet right now? How many are in the landfill? How many can you even remember, much less remember where they are?

The fundamental purpose of any gift is to please the person who gets it. Sure, we all know that it’s the thought that counts, but it’s not. It’s the gift. Though bestowed with pure heart and accepted with apparent gratitude, a bad present is the gift of disappointment.

As the calendar marches toward December, now might be a good time to reexamine your gift giving practices and maybe recheck your Christmas list. There are no few persons learned in the ways of giving who’ll sagely share timely tips for dispensing appropriate presents. Most of their advice is of the Common Sense variety. Don’t buy the babysitter a diamond tiara, for example, and don’t give anybody used—excuse, “pre-owned”—stuff. Perhaps tongue-tied by an overabundance of tact, however, those otherwise astute gifting gurus leave scads of sins uncensured. For the greater gifting good, please find herein detailed a few of the most egregious gift giving gaffs.

First, do no harm. Don’t give your overweight friend a gym membership. Don’t give your acerbic uncle a sandalwood scented folio of saccharine affirmations. Don’t give your cilantro-in-everything sister-in-law cooking classes. Indeed, self-improvement gifts should be avoided as a matter of course. Presents are supposed to bring a smile, not self-scrutiny, and nobody likes to be reminded of their shortcomings, particularly at the most wonderful time of the year. No matter what you tell yourself, self-help presents are gift wrapped judgments containing mostly humiliation, self-consciousness and (hopefully private) resentment.

Don’t buy presents based on your own interests. You may think the electro-coustic rhythms of Folktronica music are gripping, exhilarating, even life changing, but it’s not likely the person who gets that CD under the tree will. In case you hadn’t noticed, people are into all kinds of things these days, and they generally aren’t in the market for unsolicited enlightenment. Your own beloved collection notwithstanding, unless you personally hear somebody waxing poetic about terrible art, you probably shouldn’t buy them a framed watercolor of a sad clown.


Corollary to that is gifting yourself by proxy. Giving someone two tickets to a show you really, really want to see, or a book that you intend to borrow first chance, or a gift certificate to a hip new restaurant you’ve been dying to try, is selfish, cheap and transparent. Similarly offensive is the self-congratulatory practice of presenting nonprofit swag like it was Van Cleef & Arpels. The logo fanny pack you got for sending 25 bucks to the United Rainforest Alliance may be brand new, but the only real present you gave was to the URA and whoever winds up with the water bottle has every right to feel used.

A lot of people are hard to buy for, and some people are very hard to buy for, so most gift advisors are okay with gift cards, which are flexible, and less tacky than cash, and really easy to wrap. Still, take care that the card matches the conferee. Dwayne Johnson might not need or want a free shopping trip to Anthropologie, and there’s a good chance Harbor Freight doesn’t stock anything to please the Monica Bellucci on your list.

Many gift advisors are harshly critical of gag gifts, and not entirely without reason. On the other hand, a gift of laughter is perfectly legitimate in the appropriate context. Gag gifts are best given “just because,” presented by surprise, on the fly, and for purely comedic purposes. On occasions when an exchange of gifts is customary, a gag gift should play an ancillary role, a zesty appetizer before the more thoughtful entree. Edible underwear and fake vomit are arguably funny, but should never be served as a person’s primary present.

Be very careful when giving anything that demands extended effort or attention from the recipient. Better yet, just don’t do it. People are busy, and they might not have hours, days and weeks to devote to your gift. Unless you know with certainty that a person has time on their hands, don’t give them a thousand-piece 3D puzzle of Minas Tirith. Lots of people unwrapping a 10-part literary anthology will be too intimidated, or too despairing, to crack Book One. If you’re not absolutely sure they’re cuckoo for crafts, don’t saddle them with a stained glass kit. Stamp collecting? Never ever misuse a gifting opportunity by trying to “start” someone on a new hobby, and for Pete’s sake don’t hand them three of something, anything, and say you’re helping them “start a collection.” What you’re trying to give them is a lifetime commitment, and they might not need another one.

Finally, and this is important, once you hand someone a present, it’s dead to you. Let it go. Banish all thought of it. Don’t wonder how the puzzle is coming along. Don’t suggest that the two of you go out for some Scottish/Uzbeki fusion. Don’t ask what they think about the thrilling conclusion of Book Eight. And, for the love of Mike, don’t press them to show you where they hung the watercolor sad clown. Whether they sleep with your gift under their pillow each night or cast it into the sea is none of your beeswax. If they liked your gift, they’ll let you know it. If they didn’t, pestering them about it will only cause embarrassment for you both.

Gift giving is a roll of the dice under the best of circumstances. It could be that the greatest gift you can give someone is the freedom to hate your gift.