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We’re living in a golden age of gift guides, but even so, no one knows what to give

Some suggestions are so banal they shouldn’t even count as suggestions. Others are flat-out ludicrous.

Ally Rzesa/Globe Staff

The good news for people who’ve been sucked into the annual holiday-shopping stress vortex? There’s no shortage of gift guides. The bad news? If you need to consult one you’re already doomed.

Considering that literally even CVS has a gift guide, it’s tempting to declare this the golden age of them. But many of the suggestions on these lists are flat-out ludicrous. A set of $19 fitness dice? (The only command I want to hear when I roll a die is “buy athleisure wear.”) A candle that resembles a bowl of Fruity Pebbles cereal?

As for the “encouragement” soaps from Oprah’s list, which are etched with words such as “kindness” and “hope” . . . what’s the scenario there? You’re visiting a friend, feeling glum about the world, you duck into the guest bath so you can doom scroll in private, and, then, whoa! Suddenly you’ve got a new guru, and it’s a cleansing bar. This soap is right — I will be optimistic.

Other suggestions are so banal they shouldn’t even count as suggestions. Thank you E! News for the digital photo frame tip! Who would have thought of that? So perfect for the techie on my list! Thank you Page Six for the Jo Malone $75 orange blossom candle idea, even more meaningful now, since you cued me in that the princess of Wales reportedly used this citrusy candle on her wedding day at Westminster Abbey.

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If only the lists were more practical: The five easiest things to return from Amazon! An hour of therapy to deal with the hidden hostility behind the gift I just gave you. A get-out-of-jail-free card for the next gathering you want to skip.

Also: the premise of the guides is kind of sad. You’re allegedly close enough to this would-be giftee that a present is required. And yet, you believe — probably correctly — that a stranger stands a better chance of striking it right than you do. With your own next of kin.

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Who’s to blame? It’s definitely not you! As always, the problem is other people.

Perhaps they have, annoyingly, declared they already have everything they need. Or, equally annoyingly, they instantly overnight themselves everything the moment that desire strikes, and you can never beat them to it. Or they’re so prickly that every gift is unsatisfactory, and don’t think that buying an “experience” — the white flag of the gift world — will help, because there’s no way a matinee or a hot air balloon ride is going to go smoothly.

The gift guides don’t really acknowledge this, but there’s a no-man’s land of the gift world — and it’s the father-in-law, said Nancy Brown, of Newton. “There’s basically only one thing you can get them: a telescope.”

But the problem, she added, “is that almost every man of a certain age already has one. My dad has one, my father-in-law has one, my friend’s husband has one. . . .”

And look out — the guides can actually be your enemy, said professional organizer Kathy Vines, the founder of Clever Girl Organizing.

“People see something in a guide and figure it must be good,” she said, but many of the lists are so generic as to not be helpful, and others are just another venue for retailers to push their goods.

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“You might be surprised how much time I spend with my clients editing their possessions and how often the answer to letting go of something was, “But this was a gift . . .” she warned in a blog post titled “The Guide to Bad Gift Giving — How not to suck at it.”

In an age of enormous income disparity, when many people struggle to afford food, medicine, and heat, angsting over a gift for the person who already has everything has come to feel particularly obscene. Some families have said enough already, and make charitable donations for gifts, or put gift money toward a group trip.

But retailers count on holiday sales, and Martha Stewart needs to hit her sales numbers, so the shopping frenzy and the lists go on. And they can work their way into your life if you’re not careful.

That’s a lesson Lisa Rothman, a real estate agent with Rutledge Properties in Wellesley, learned after she clicked once, and merely out of curiosity, on “Oprah’s favorite things.”

Now that she’s come to the attention of the guide pushers, her entire social media feed is nonstop guides. “For the rest of time,” she said, “I’ll be scrolling through [guides] for gifts I’ll never buy for people I’ve not yet met.”

The un-met? Why do they sound so easy to shop for?


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.