Many unhappy returns: The anatomy of a bad gift

Just in time for the holidays, here’s a re-post of a story I did for

A recent survey showed that the majority of people prefer to give gifts rather than receive them. While I might regard this as a sign that mankind’s altruistic nature is not entirely lost, a more cynical analysis might suggest that people prefer to give for no other reason than that the act of giving is free (for the most part) of the awkwardness and disappointment that comes along with getting a really terrible gift. Get my advice after the jump.

I say “for the most part” because there is always the possibility that you yourself are a bad gift-giver, and as such, have become accustomed to the disappointed faces glaring back at you every Christmas morn. (If this is you, then all the more reason to read on.)

So now the holidays are over, and if you’re like me, you’re stuck with at least one or two gifts that are so terrible you wouldn’t even give them to the Taliban. (A word of advice on gifting the Taliban: While giving Christmas gifts to the Taliban may seem like a good idea, this gesture will likely not translate well across cultural lines, and may be viewed as needlessly antagonistic, exasperating an already tense state of affairs. In most cases, it’s best not to exchange gifts with the Taliban.)


“Well, we don’t have rocket-propelled grenade-launcher from you!”

But what do you do when you get a bad gift? Like me, you probably accept them graciously, hiding your crushing disappointment behind the same hollow, upbeat smile you usually reserve for when girls tell you they “just want to be friends” or when you turn on LOST and it’s a rerun.
You put up a strong front on Christmas Day, but now you’re sitting in your house staring at the pile of junk that you’ll never use. (Though, that copy of Going Rogue will probably make a good door stop.)

Of course, you can’t just throw your gifts out. That would be rude (and wasteful – there are starving children in the world who would give anything to have the director’s cut of Wild Hogs, you unappreciative ass.) While Christmas etiquette dictates that you must at least make an effort to enjoy your gifts until the Epiphany, there are no hard and fast rules in place to address how one should cope with and eventually move past the pain of being badly gifted.

Until now.

First, we need to break your bad gifts down into easy-to-manage categories, then, we can figure out what the hell to do with them, and how to politely and effectively address bad gift-giving in the future. Typically, bad gifts come in three types:

1) The Broken Record Gift. These are the gifts they won’t stop giving. When I was younger, I liked the Beatles (I still do). My family noted this, interpreting my interest in the band as a green light to bombard me with Beatles gifts at every turn. Christmases, birthdays, Easters, Flag Days – it was one cheesy Beatles-related present after another. Finally, it was clear that I had to put a moratorium on the Beatles. But how do you break the cycle without seeming ungrateful?

FAIL squared (Album AND Beatle).

My advice: Try compiling a list of other things you like – musicians, writers, TV shows – which your family and friends might refer to when seeking out gifts for you in the future. But be warned; while a list can be helpful, it’s a double-edged sword: you will inevitably come to the demoralizing realization that your family knows absolutely nothing about you. (Sorry, but you were bound to find out eventually.)

2) The Useless Gift. These are the gifts that nobody wants or needs yet somehow they keep finding their way under the tree (think: ShamWow, Topsy Tail, Bedazzler). Most of these products are cheap, poorly manufactured, pieces of junk – unintended by-products of our conspicuous consumption. Nobody invented the Snuggie; it just happened. One day, somebody walked into the QVC warehouse, and there they were, 10,000,000 of them just waiting for us to by them.

My advice: These products do have a certain novelty value. Admit it; deep down you’ve always wanted to bedazzle something. We say enjoy it while it lasts. There’s even some helpful websites out there that show you how to get the most out of these utterly pointless gifts. For example, you adults might want to visit where you’ll find more than a few creative ways to spice up your Snuggie experience. (In fact, you may discover this is the best gift you’ve anyone’s ever given you. Ever.)

Thumbs up, indeed, little buddy.

3) The Family Gift. These are the most tragic gifts of all. They are typically awful, but they come from people who love you so you want to like them. Proximity is the name of the game here. Aunt, uncle and grandparent gifts aren’t nearly as unfortunate as that ugly sweater from your mother is.

Indeed, the feeling of forced gratitude is all the more forced when you first lay eyes upon that hideous mass of wool your mother bought for you. She looks on, eagerly awaiting your response. Look at her. She really thought you’d like it. You smile politely, holding it up to your body to see what it will look like on you.

“Oh, I really like green,” you mumble, searching desperately for something honest to say. You do like green. That much is true. But lets be honest; Bill Cosby wouldn’t even wear this thing. It’s the sweater equivalent of 9/11. For a moment, you think you might be able to pull it off ironically. You consider becoming a hipster – you’ll move to Brooklyn, start reading Vice magazine and drinking PBR all so you can spare your mother the sadness of knowing she bought you a gift you don’t like.

But before you go, ask yourself: can you really live like this?

My advice: Be honest (eventually). While we don’t recommend expressing your disgust immediately, it will be easier in the long run if you let mom know that it might be a good idea for her to give gift cards instead. We suggest waiting until sometime in the spring for this. Buy her some flowers, and gently break her the news.

So there you have it. Hopefully, I’ve given you some tips to help alleviate the stress of holiday gift-getting. At the very least, you learned about the Snuggie Sutra (you’re welcome!). And to all you bad gifters, I hope you’ve learned something, too. They may say that it’s the thought that counts, but don’t kid yourself. You’ve got a little over eleven months – that’s more than enough time to get your act together. Happy New Year.


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