When Diane Thomas opened the Christmas present her husband had given her, she said she knew that not only the honeymoon--but the entire marriage--was over. He had given her a high-domed covered electric skillet.
"I wanted something pretty and useless. In the past he had given me lovely jewelry and furs. You could tell the relationship had changed," said Thomas, an information officer from Huntington Beach, who was indeed divorced the following year.
What is there to say at such a moment of truth?
"I said, 'Oh. It's a skillet.' "
Good presents, say etiquette experts, come from the heart. They are not perfunctory. They carry no strings. They confirm the recipient's secret self-perception.
But real presents are different. Every holiday season, ribbons, bows and wrapping paper are ripped off to reveal the thoughtless, the bad and the ugly. Worse yet, the giver is usually watching.
"From greediest childhood, we build up so many expectations about presents that the chances of being let down are statistically higher than those of feeling unworthy of the bounty showered upon us," writes Judith Martin, also known as the syndicated columnist Miss Manners, in her book "Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior."
In fact, so many people receive disappointing presents that post-holiday parties to exchange awful gifts have recently sprung up. "Usually (the worst presents) came from office parties. We found a lot of coffee mugs with strange sayings on them like 'World's Greatest Golfer' or 'Boss,' " said Ed Portmann of Irvine, owner of Portmann Communications, who gave a gift exchange party a few years ago. "There was no shortage of bad gifts..
"They were along the lines of a hideous plaster of Paris animal. There was a Buddha, green and gold, with a clock in the stomach. It was dropped as it left the house."
It was an honest accident, he said, "but nobody cried."
Buena Park Deer Farm
In the exchange, Portmann said he received four tickets to the Buena Park Japanese Deer Farm. It had been closed for three years.
Topping the bad holiday gift list of other recipients, who demanded anonymity, were a Ritz cracker shellacked and made into a tie clip, some bedroom slippers in the form of tomatoes and green beans, a half-sewn dress, a single lime-green bath towel and a jar of Planter's peanuts.
Diabetics have received dessert cookbooks; problem gamblers have received a trip to Las Vegas; a couple moving to Arizona were given raincoats. Some women have been given lingerie that is too intimate, too bizarre or too small.
The worst gifts are those that "make the other person feel obligated," said Annie Bower, VIP gift consultant for Amen Wardy, a Newport Beach women's apparel store where prices range from $125 for perfume to $50,000 for a fur.
Once, she said, her godfather gave her an expensive sculpture of the angel Gabriel for Christmas. His extravagance made her uncomfortable since she was unable to reciprocate, she said. "I started to say something, but he said, 'Don't say a word. The greatest gift you can give me is to enjoy what I've given you.' He was right."
It's OK for givers and recipients to be out of sync, she said. "You do what you can when you can. So will they. If you measure it by money, you're lost."
Nearly everyone can recall his or her worst present.
Tracy Strevey, 84, of Laguna Hills remembers a grim Christmas 76 or 77 years ago in the small town of Chelan, Wash., where his father was the Methodist minister. "Small town churches used to have a Sunday School program with a Christmas tree all lighted up with presents underneath. Santa Claus would be there," said Strevey, a historian and former vice president for academic affairs at University of Southern California.
Package of Dried Figs
"The tragedy was, on this occasion one little boy didn't get a present, so my mother quickly changed the present that was to come to me and gave it to him."
Strevey got a package of dried figs. "I spent a long time trying to forgive somebody for that. . . ."
On the other hand, Rod Soderling, a Newport Beach developer, knows exactly whom to blame for his worst present. And he can't wait to get even.
It was Christmas two years ago, after the scandalous collapse of J. David & Co. and the alleged bilking of $82 million from wealthy Southern California investors. Soderling--along with hundreds of others--had apparently lost enough money to experience what he called "a certain amount of humiliation and pain." Trying to outrun bankruptcy proceedings, J. David (Jerry) Dominelli sold his Rolls-Royce to Soderling's friend Bob Lintz, then owner of Sterling Motors in Newport Beach, Soderling said. (Dominelli pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud and tax evasion related to events following the bankruptcy and is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.)
Lintz gave Soderling the Rolls' license plate, which reads "J D Co 1." The plate now hangs on his office wall as a reminder, he said, "of my astute investments."