Every December, my mother promises that she’s “not going crazy” with Christmas gifts, and then she asks me what I want. In the past I’ve taken the “not going crazy” as a cue to demur: Aw shucks, I don’t really need anything, you’re generous all year long, etcetera.
But come Christmastime, she still buys me presents—and a disproportionate quantity of those presents are adorned with birds. My childhood nickname was Jaybird, so aviary-themed stationary, accessories, tea towels, and dishes make for an easy fallback position. To be clear, my mother has excellent taste, and gives me beautiful things. But my apartment isn’t that big, and one more bird item will put it in the territory of this store from Portlandia.
And I’m not alone in my predicament. More than a third of Americans return at least one holiday gift each year, and though I’ve yet to find a statistic about how many have a closet shelf stuffed with tchotchkes they feel too guilty to expunge, I’d imagine it’s similarly substantial.
What’s more, in the US, the volume of household waste increases by 25 percent during the holiday season. Tough to say what percentage of that is made up of unwanted gifts, but I’m sure they’re in there. And then there is the regift, popularized by Seinfeld in the mid-nineties, but conceptually probably as old as gift-giving itself. (See: Roz Chast’s “Regifts of the Magi.”)
So last year, I tried something different. When my mother asked me what I wanted, I was honest—not in an “I’d like a pair of Saint Laurent Chelsea boots” sort of way, but in a practical, “my moisturizer is almost empty” way. I knew she wanted to put some things under the tree, and frankly, I’m not noble enough to ask for a charitable donation in my name. (If you are, see here or here.) I was also a little broke.
As presumptuous as this felt at first, when I requested specific, everyday items, it actually banished the awkwardness of holiday gift-receiving as an adult. It turned out great. My essentials—such as socks and face cream—were replenished in time for holiday travels, and my mother was happy to have gotten me things I would really use. (Some items were stuffed into nifty bird-printed pouches, for consistency. Thanks, mom!)
The experience has made me an evangelist for a new philosophy of holiday gift-giving, at least among adults: Let’s be honest about what we want, and not waste money on things we cannot use.
That said, the unexpected, special gift has its place. I have hand-knitted hats and hunted down limited-edition prints as gifts. And of course, I have been delighted by presents I never would have asked for. (A mixtape!) But that’s a high-risk, high-reward scenario. Some people just want to buy you something foolproof with a single click or stop at a store—maybe it’s your in-laws or your overworked sibling.
Do them a favor: Make this list for them.
Think about those quotidian items you consistently replace when they expire, or the handy gadget you have wanted for your kitchen or desktop.
In case you’re stumped, here are some of the staples Quartz staffers are asking for this year: disposable fountain pens, a microplane grater, a swanky soap set, a seltzer maker, a mat for standing on, a classic cookbook, non-iron shirts, plastic travel bottles, a new carry-on, speckled socks, an immersion blender, a nice umbrella, warm undershirts, a front loading toolbox, a tube of face cream, velvety black tights, a nice shave, a fresh shade of nail polish, an iPhone case, and some poplin pajamas—and see more stylish essentials here.
Those are things we’d never regift.