What it is: This is the type of gift that's blindly recommended for any person who fits into a predefined broad category. Go to any online retailer at this time of year, and you'll see dozens of recommendations for him, for her, for the student, for the chef, for the teenager, etc.
These gifts are pretty good for everyone, but not specific to any one person. (This makes them the opposite of Perfect Gifts, which are selected with one specific recipient in mind.)
Who it's good for: As much as we'd like to have limitless shopping time and to know intended gift recipients perfectly, there are many times when we are somehow obligated to buy a present for a person we don't know very well. Standard gift lists can be very helpful when we have to buy a gift for a coworker, new in-laws or an office gift exchange.
Who it's not good for: The Recommended Gift is the jack of all trades and the master of none. It serves reasonably well for almost everyone, but perfectly for almost no one. If you know the recipient well enough to buy something more specific to their tastes, do so.
Bottom line: These gifts can be somewhat generic, but sometimes they're the best you can do. And it's the thought that counts, right?
What it is: I struggled a bit with the name for this category of gift, because the Perfect Gift may not always be the perfect gift. (Lawful Gift sounded weird, though.) Anyway, the Perfect Gift is the gift that's exactly what the recipient wants -- the gift that they would buy for themselves, only they haven't gotten around to it (or, even better, they don't yet know it exists).
Who it's good for: This gift is good for almost anyone, since it's defined as something they want. The lack of creativity might possibly annoy someone who was very rich (i.e., if they genuinely were going to buy it for themselves next week or something), but there aren't many people like that on my gift list.
Who it's not good for: This gift is almost always a good fit on the giftee side, but it's really easy to screw up on the giver side. For starters, you have to know the person well enough to pick out a Perfect Gift. (It's easy to think you've got it right, but to be veering into Personalized Gift territory, instead.) Also, you have to make sure that the person hasn't actually bought the gift for themselves already, or that someone else hasn't bought it for them. (Such situations can be mitigated if you happen to live with the giftee already, and can thus rifle through their clothes or CDs or books to find out what they already own.) Also, by buying someone only what they would buy for themselves, you miss out on the chance to introduce them to something new that they might like if they gave it a chance. (Plus, some people would rather get something sort of random than something entirely appropriate, however unexpected.)
Bottom line: This is a great gift in theory, but it can be tricky to execute in practice, because it relies on your knowing the recipient very well.
What it is: This type of gift is so fundamentally useful, it doesn't even seem like a proper gift. Bulk foodstuffs and basic office supplies count as useful gifts.
Who it's good for: This type of gift is good for people who are too poor or too busy to get around to buying basic supplies. Starving college students, for example, will always appreciate a case of Ramen noodles or Campbell's soup. (One year my mom gave staplers to all of her siblings for Christmas. You wouldn’t have expected such shrieks of delight, but many of them didn't have a good stapler, and hadn't ever gotten around to buying one.)
Who it's not good for: Although this type of gift is more useful than the random gift, it's still not very specific to the recipient. The useful gift is to be avoided if the recipient (spouse, girlfriend) or occasion (birthday, anniversary) calls for more thought.
Bottom line: Don't dismiss this type of present too quickly, even though you wouldn't normally think of it as a gift. It may not be flashy, noisy, or Rudolph-themed, but it might be one of the few gifts that actually gets used.
In the spirit of Christmas and a general penchant for classifying the world, I present to you my very own gift-giving guide, to be posted in seven parts.
1. The Random Gift
What it is: This type of gift is, as the name suggests, completely random. In fact, it may be so random that you will check the gift tag again to check that this present actually is intended for you, and you will rack your brains to figure out why someone gave this gift to you.
Who it's good for: The random gift can be very funny in its randomness, and there is a certain type of giftee who will appreciate an intentionally random gift. (In fact, I believe that Melyngoch's family has a longstanding tradition of putting highly random gifts in each others' stockings.)
Who it's not good for: Nothing says "I didn't really think about you at all" like a completely random gift. (To be fair, a purposely random gift actually requires a bit of thought, and is thus somewhat less random.) If expensive, this gift can be particularly unwelcome, prompting thoughts of what might have been purchased for the same amount and trouble.
Bottom line: Good for small stocking stuffers and a must for white elephant gifts, the purely random gift has little place elsewhere in the greater world of gift-giving.
I have, if I may be less than modest, a knack for figuring out what my Christmas presents are. I can analyze the size, shape, density, and all-important “sound” of a wrapped present to narrow down the possibilities, and I’m not above trying to read through unusually transparent wrapping paper or poke my finger into the corner of a gift bag. I don’t know if this gift comes from nature or upbringing, but my brother’s got it too.
We’ve been known to rent out our services to our cousins at Christmastime, and to thank people for what they were giving us before we opened the present. (At least we’re still polite.)
Our mother, on the other hand, believes strongly in the sanctity of Christmas surprises. There’s a general sense that it’s OK to know you’re getting a book or a CD so long as you don’t know which book or CD, but if she thinks of a surprise present, it had darn well better stay a surprise until we open it on Christmas morning.
This led to a sort of Christmas present arms race while growing up: She was always devising new strategies to make noisy presents quieter and quiet presents confusingly loud; we were developing ever more sophisticated methods for keeping up with her. (One year my brother couldn’t decide if a box that rattled was full of Legos or K’Nex, so he got out his own boxes of each to listen and compare acoustic signatures.)
One December, she decided to wrap almost all of the presents inside thin old towels, and then inside other boxes. Unbeknownst to her, the towels she was devoting to her cause were the same towels I liked to use to dry my hair. For an entire month I had to choose between too-small hand towels or too-large bath towels, vaguely wondering why my favorite hair towels were never clean. On Christmas morning, I opened my first towel-swaddled present and shrieked in delight – not because of the gift, but because I had the towel back. (Now I can’t even remember what the gift was, although I’m sure that I liked it, too.)
She never made the mistake of using those towels again, although she remarked that perhaps in future she wouldn’t buy us Christmas presents at all – she would just confiscate something that we often used, and give it back to us for Christmas.