You know the feeling. You’re standing in some crowded store scanning the racks and racking your brain for the perfect gift for someone on your list. The clock ticking, the crowds heaving, your whole body sweating in a store that’s 89 degrees and playing “Jingle Bell Rock” on a loop, you start to suffer from a certain holiday-specific delusion that alters all your original intentions and makes everything in the place look like an amazing idea. (“I know he said he wanted a sweater, but oh my God, he’s going to looooove this hat that looks like a fox’s head.”)
Now the question as to whether the retailers do this on purpose—that is, create an environment that allows them prey on your weak holiday moments in order to move products you would never otherwise buy— is beside the point. The point, everyone, is that there are just some things, no matter what the shopping conditions may be, that you should never, under any circumstances, purchase as a Christmas gift for anyone you care about. Or for anyone, really.
Here, a list of those things you should avoid this season.
1. “Aspirational” gifts
For when you want to say “Merry Christmas and Also, You Really Need to Work on Yourself.” Just say no to gym memberships, gift certificates for body waxing and James Joyce’s entire collection of works with study guide.
2. Professionally themed gifts
I have a friend—a teacher—who could open up her own store, stocked completely with gifts she’s received over the years. The store would be called “Crap With Apples on It.” (She doesn’t even like apples.) Meanwhile, a writer friend of mine says could open her own store next door to Crap With Apples On It, and it would be called “Empty Journals and Notebooks and Some Fancy Pens.” You see where this is going.
3. Clothing that’s too small. Or clothing that’s too big
The subtext being either “Huh, you’re actually a lot bigger than I thought you were” or “Huh, you actually look a lot bigger than you really are.” Which of these mistakes do you want to make?
4. Anything from Skymall
Pressurized air + one Bloody Mary = gifts like this.
5. Any gift that requires the giftee pay a monthly fee
“Yay! We got you a Netflix account! It will only cost you a couple of hundred dollars this year. But Homeland is sooo worth it.”
Unless it’s a Picasso or an Asian antiquity worth millions, it will just stress people out to have to hang it on the wall every time you come over.
7. Any gift related to housework
I like those Roomba commercials, too. But it’s still a vacuum.
8. Food/drink you wouldn’t consume yourself
You know: the fruitcake, the mystery wine with the funny label, the $65 Williams Sonoma fancy mustard pack, the gingerbread house your kids’ grubby hands have been all over. One colleague reports getting reindeer jerky one year from a vegetarian sister, which is both gross and startlingly un-Christmasy.
9. Stars. Rainforest trees. Endangered animals.
Or any of those other gifts where you send off some cash and get a certificate assuring the lucky gift recipient that they own something they can’t actually see. “The first year we were together, I bought my boyfriend a beer-making kit. He bought me a walrus that lives in Alaska,” one friend reports. She’s never met her walrus, Cecilia. “I have her picture somewhere,” she says.
10. Office Swag
“Like that Valtrex stress ball you got at a conference,” offers one pal. Yeah, he works in public health, but I’d argue that it’s tacky to re-gift even the less, um, branded free shit you accumulate on the job.*
*Unless you work somewhere like Vogue or REI, where the free shit is Marc Jacobs or snow skis.
11. Anything that looks even a little like it could conceivably end up here.
12. Anything that won’t work if the giftee doesn’t assemble it, or will die if the giftee doesn’t take care of it.
Gerbils aren’t presents.