If your inbox looks anything like mine, it’s a digital deluge of Black Friday promotions filled with flaming emoji and ALL-CAPS ALERTS. It’s easy to get sucked into the consumer frenzy of the holiday season, especially as “Christmas Creep,” as calculated by Quartz’s Jason Karaian, sees us edging ever closer to twinkle lights in July.
All that said, there’s a certain joy to giving a truly wonderful gift, so I sympathize with the advance obsessing. While some of us get tied up in knots trying to find just the thing to convey our love and appreciation (and impeccable taste), others seem to effortlessly give gifts that delight their recipients. These givers might appear to be preternaturally, well, gifted. But there’s an art and a science to giving great gifts, again and again.
Rather than a shopping list, we wanted Quartzy’s 2017 Gift Guide to provide you with a framework for conceiving of great gifts forevermore. Five writers, myself included, investigated the appeal of the best gifts we’ve given and received. We found that each one—a pair of black jeans, a fancy candle, a pasta-making class, a handwritten love letter, and a bundle of chocolate-sea-salt cookies—represented a smart, thoughtful, and proven approach to giving a simple, perfect gift.
You can apply each of these approaches at any budget, for a wide variety of recipients and occasions. Bookmark them for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays ahead. Consider them our gift to you.
The Black Jeans Approach Just give them what they ask for
There’s a simple, selfless genius to giving gifts that are all about the recipient’s wishes, rather than the giver’s desire to impress. But show-offs need not be deterred; these gifts can leave a lasting impression nonetheless. As Marc Bain wrote, about a perfect pair of black jeans he received from his wife several years back: “Was I surprised by those black jeans? Not at all. Was I delighted? Deeply, and I continue to be, six years later, when I pull them on and pause to remember who gave them to me.” I just tried this method, scoring a vintage jean jacket for my boyfriend’s birthday. I felt like a hero.
The Fancy Candle Philosophy: The most luxurious gift is one that no one needs
A few years ago, someone gave me a set of three Diptyque travel candles as a thank-you gift. As I burned through the first two candles over several months, this present struck me as classy and generous, the antithesis of SNL’s re-gifted “Christmas Candle.” Then, I lit the third one—a Feu de Bois (ahem, “wood fire”) scent that made my cool, damp office feel cozy and luxurious—and I realized this gift was amazing. The giver had converted me into a “candle person.”
Quartz’s Sarah Todd is the ultimate candle person, a joy she compares to bird-watching, “with its associated literature and thrill of the hunt. Now, it’s a gift she loves to share with others: “The right candle is a perfect luxury: an utterly unnecessary object that has the power to make life, and by extension you, feel a bit more elegant, cozy, or calm,” she writes. “When you give someone a candle, you’re passing along the gift of ritual. Striking a match and lighting a tiny, pleasant fire in your home means committing to the idea that everyday life can be an occasion worth celebrating.”
The Pasta Class Theory: Give the gift of quality time, instead of more stuff
Some people say they don’t want anything, and they really mean it. Maybe it’s your sister who lives in a tiny studio apartment, your parent who finally Marie Kondo-ed the basement, or your partner who is just too picky to shop for. Eshe Nelson is that person, so when her best friend booked a pasta-making class for them to take together, it was a truly inspired move.
When life feels crazy and our homes feel stuffed, how wonderful for a gift to say: I want nothing more than to hang with you, and I organized this activity for us to make it happen. As for finding the right thing, Eshe advises asking yourself how you usually spend time with your gift recipient: “Do you eat a particular cuisine? Frequent wine bars? Go to exercise classes? Or what do you talk about: Books? Movies? World-changing ambitions? A desire to just relax? Any of these insights could help you make something, learn something, or see something new together.”
The Love Letter Method: There’s no gift like helping someone love themselves
When was the last time you wrote a real love letter? Leah Fessler has made such an art of it that her friends and family call her handwritten, freestyle odes “Leah letters.” Leah’s practice involves covering a sheet of paper “with sentiments I often think about this person—while we’re laughing over dumb TV, texting aimlessly, or sharing a good cry—but rarely say aloud.”
She starts by asking herself a series of questions about her subject, she says: “These questions can provide guidelines for those less comfortable with letter writing. And taken together, the answers communicate a larger, more complex sentiment: This is why I love you.”
That’s a gift that will always be treasured.
The Homemade Cookie Concept: A homemade gift is warm and personal, yet widely applicable
Sometimes you want to give someone a gift, just because. For this purpose, I turn to homemade cookies—specifically, Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies. If you’ve already encountered them you know, they are a thing—deep chocolate sablés (think shortbread, but sexier) studded with chopped dark chocolate bits and flakes of fleur de sel (think sea salt, but Frenchier) that sparkle as the chocolate melts on your tongue.
They’re the rare gift that is equally appropriate for the host of your fanciest holiday party, your lover, your lover’s mom, your office doorman, and the laundromat manager you practice Spanish with. Forgot someone? No problem. Just bundle a pile of cookies in parchment, tie it up with baker’s twine, and Bob’s your uncle.
Have a great weekend!
PS: A cinematic gift
Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s new movie, Call Me By Your Name, a love story based on the novel by André Aciman, comes out today. Quartz film reporter Adam Epstein says that true to form, the Sundance darling delivers lush Italian landscapes and raw emotional performances, especially from Timothée Chalamet, who he’s betting on for an Oscar nomination. If you can’t get out to the movies tonight, you might queue up Guadagnino’s I am Love or A Bigger Splash for more stylish, escapist romance.