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Why is holiday gift-giving so hard?

A new UK study reveals that 7 out

A new UK study reveals that 7 out of 10 kids don't like to be surprised with Christmas gifts that aren't on their wish lists. Photo Credit: iStock

This has been a pretty bleak month or two. There are so many Serious and Important Things going on that I think it's best if we took a moment and talked about Seasonal Gifts.

If you are anything like me, holiday gifts are something that you have not thought about getting for anyone yet, and when you do wind up getting them, they are less "good gifts that people want to receive" than "horrifying statements about the ways your life is going down the drain." Maybe if we start early this year (anything before the 24th is early, for me!) we can actually come up with the perfect blend of thoughtfulness and desirability that all those Gift Guides suggest.

Or at least we can avoid the disaster of last year, when - I am not making this up - I panicked and wound up presenting my grandparents with a large bottle of vodka and a set of scratch tickets. In my defense, it is hard to find a good, thoughtful gift for your grandparents at a gas station. Again, this is why it is important to begin your shopping early.

Fortunately, there is a lot of received wisdom to sift through on the subject of acceptable gifts.

They say homemade gifts are best. "They" in this case, are being a little optimistic, don't you think? I have one or two friends for whom this adage rings true. These friends can. They even pickle. They set the bar impossibly high. "We are so sorry," they say, presenting you with homemade jam, "the berries that we grew and then hand-picked for this batch were a little sub-par." Your fingers tighten on the glass jar. "Oh, yes," you say. "Well, we've all been there." This is, of course, a lie. You have never been there. You once hand-picked a berry and the berry wilted in your hand. You have whatever the opposite of green thumbs is (flesh-colored thumbs?).

You can tell if homemade gifts are a viable option for you if you have ever, in your life, put something into a mason jar and then tied a little decorative ribbon on it. If so, you can stop reading and go do whatever it is you do, you magical and tremendous being of pure light.

As far as the rest of us are concerned, homemade gifts are out, and they have been out ever since tracing your hand to make a turkey and then giving that to people ceased to be cute and instead became a worrisome sign that you might not be meeting developmental milestones on time.

They also say to give people gifts that you would like to receive, yourself. I have never found this to be true, either. This has led me to give people the following: pillows with Rutherford B. Hayes on them; lifesize plush Jar Jar Binks'; personalized phone messages from WWE wrestlers; socks with images from Western art on them; scratch tickets and vodka. No one ever seems as excited to receive these as I would be, in their place.

Another reason behind gifts is that you simply have to get rid of an object. My family owns a number of truly malevolent-looking doorstops for which this seems to be the only explanation. Gazing at them, you have the sense that the giver felt an ancient and evil presence inhabited them and just wanted to get as far away from them as possible.

It is hard to go wrong with a gift card, but it is possible, especially if you are trying to find an adequate gift for the people who gave you life. Somehow, $40 at Outback Steakhouse does not seem like adequate recompense for 18 years of room, board and affection.

At least we can be reassured that giving good gifts has never been easy.

There is a famous story by O. Henry called the Gift of the Magi, about two people who were foolish enough to try to get each other thoughtful gifts, well in advance. As the story illustrates, this is always a mistake. You wind up with an unflattering haircut and no watch.

Elsewhere in seasonal literature, the Little Drummer Boy had no gift to bring, and so, panicking, he gave the gift of making a very very loud noise around a baby and some sleeping livestock.

The Wise Men, I feel, did something similar. Gold, frankincense, myrrh? These were clearly things that the kings, being kings, just happened to have on their persons at the time and tried to pass off as in any way suitable for a baby. This is the Kings of Orient equivalent of finding some matches and a pen from a Ramada Inn in your pocket and trying to insist that they "really made me think of you, Cheryl." You could always ask people what they want, but that just seems like surrender. We still have days and days! We can do this! The fact that the world is going to Heck in a handbasket (Heck seems pretty optimistic at this point, as a destination) is no excuse to let your holiday gifting slide

. "I'm sorry," you cannot say, on Christmas morning or Hanukkah eve, "I was so distracted and alarmed by the things going on right now that I panicked and got scratch tickets and vodka again." That won't fly. Sure, gifts don't matter in the scheme of things. But you have to tend your garden where you are, as Voltaire said.

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