For years, every December, my mom would declare she was “not going crazy” with gifts, and then ask me what I wanted. I would take her “not going crazy” as a sign that we were finally giving up gift-giving as adults: Aw shucks, I don’t need anything, you’re generous all year long, etc, etc.
But come Christmastime, she would still buy me presents—a disproportionate quantity of which were adorned with birds (a nod to my childhood nickname, Jaybird). To be clear, my mother has excellent taste. But my apartment was small, and starting to resemble the “Put a bird on it!” store from Portlandia.
A couple years ago, I tried something different when she asked what I wanted: I was honest—less in a “I’d like some red Prada platforms” way than in a practical “I could really use some new moisturizer and tights” sort of way.
At first, requesting specific, everyday items felt presumptuous, even Grinch-like. But I’ve since embraced the basic wish list without shame. It has helped cut down on the awkwardness (and wastefulness) of adult holiday gift-receiving. My essentials are replenished, and my mother is happy to give me presents I can really use. (Some still come stuffed into nifty bird-printed pouches, for consistency. Thanks, mom!)
To be sure, the special hand-picked or handmade holiday gift has its place, but that’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition. If there’s someone in your life who just wants to put something, anything, under the tree for you—maybe its your in-laws or an overworked sibling—do them a favor. If they ask what you want, just tell them. And maybe try asking them what they really want, too.
Quartz fashion reporter Marc Bain would say “socks.” But not just any socks. The key, he advises, is to look past kitschy designs and spring for luxe natural fibers.
“Socks might not stir our passions the way expensive jewelry or electronics do, but maybe that’s because when we give them, we prioritize the wrong qualities,” writes Marc, in a fervent endorsement of sensible sock-gifting. He likes them in merino wool by Smartwool and Pantharella, which range from $18-30 per pair.
Also a consistently welcome gift: Cookies! These are the best-ever sugar-rolled ginger snaps, originally from the 1963 McCall’s Cookbook.
Sift the flour, baking soda, spices, and salt together, and set aside. Beat the butter and just one cup of the sugar with a mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Mix in the molasses and egg. Add the dry ingredients and chopped crystallized ginger and beat at low speed, until just mixed. Cover the batter and put it in the fridge for at least an hour. Once it’s chilled, pinch off pieces of dough, roll them into 1 1/4-inch balls, and roll each one in a bowl of the remaining 1/3 cup of sugar. Place them on Silpat-lined or greased cookie sheets about 2 1/2 inches apart, and bake 8-10 minutes at 375°F (190°C).
“Securing the box is an act of love.” One in every ten Filipinos lives abroad—including Quartz design reporter Anne Quito—and many participate in the holiday tradition known as the balikbayan box.
Balikbayan, writes Anne, is Tagalog for “return to country,” and here refers to a giant cardboard box stuffed with sundries and treats such as Spam, peanut butter, electronics, toiletries, and chocolate. Because they’re sent by freight forwarders that offer a flat-rate fee without a weight limit, there is a science to packing them efficiently—as delightfully demonstrated by Vangie Tuason, a New Jersey woman who showed Anne and Quartz video reporter Adam Freelander how it’s done.
“Loose items can be grouped inside a duffle bag and the spaces can be stuffed with new socks, small garments, pocket books, or cylinders of Pringles crisps,” writes Anne. “Shoes can be stuffed with small canned goods, and breakable items can be wrapped in new towels—bubble wrap is a waste of space…An over-taped box can signal senders’ desperation for the hoard of humble treasures to reach their beloved relatives in perfect condition. Securing the box is an act of love.”
Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas. The dark horse of Jim Henson’s Muppet movies is a 1977 holiday classic starring a river-dwelling otter with worried eyes, the nose of a terrier, and a bluegrass band.
This 50-minute musical has fallen into obscurity, but it holds a special place in the Muppet pantheon. It might look a little low-tech, but the ambitious production laid the groundwork for features including The Muppet Movie and Labyrinth. Plus, the characters are dear, the storyline is timeless, and the songs are catchy. This movie melts my heart every year.
You can read my full love letter on Quartz, or just let Emmet and Ma Otter serenade you while you hang lights or wrap presents. Have a great weekend!
I’m having a hard time committing to podcasts and albums lately, and so have been leaning hard on Spotify’s New Release Radar. (Look for ”Your Release Radar” under the “Discover” tab on Spotify’s dashboard.) Similar to the app’s Discover Weekly feature, it pulls a custom playlist based on each user’s behavior, but this one is stocked with—you guessed it—new releases. Some might just be new versions of songs you already love (Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl“) while others are totally new (the 17-year-old Yellow Days’ fuzzy, soulful “Gap in the Clouds“). If you’re blown away by your playlist and want to know how Spotify made it, check out this episode of Actuality.