In the minds of some, the holiday season is a time of joy, a time of peace, even a time to deck the halls, be jolly, don gay apparel. For a lot of stressed-out modern holiday shoppers, however, it's more complicated than that. This is a season of confusion. A time to fall into a shopping frenzy. A time to buy. A time to cry.
It's a good bet whoever wrote the words to the carol "Deck the Halls" never had to hack his way through a crowded mall in a half-demented state buying gifts for long lists of business associates, clients, baby-sitters, housekeepers, Little League coaches, a paperboy and a mailman.
Purchasing personal gifts for immediate family members and close friends is joyful enough: Check their wish lists and pull out your credit card. The truly stiff Yuletide challenge comes in seeking appropriate items for people on the periphery--people too close to ignore, but too distant for you to have a clue what to get for them. Those who work for you. Your co-workers. Your barber. Your hairstylist. Your gardener. Your accountant. Your lawyer. Your mother-in-law. Your butcher. Your window cleaner. Your personal trainer. Your masseuse. Your UPS driver.
Those who make life worth living.
For these people, you need the generic gift that delicately and concurrently says you care, but not too much. A gift that lets them know you are thinking--but not dreaming--about them. A gift that expresses a measure of appreciation without getting too intimate. A gift that doesn't border on bribery. A gift equal to the relationship.
You need what Cathleen Carlson of Errands Unlimited, a personal-shopping service in Woodland Hills, calls "benign gifts."
Gifts that won't flat out incriminate you.
"In these situations, I'd advise people to buy gift baskets with containers of jelly, jams, cookies, fruits, cheeses and crackers," Carlson said. "Maybe an assortment of coffees and teas, a box of stationery, a picture frame, something almost anyone could get and be happy with. You don't want to get too personal or offend anyone."
Above all, she says, stay away from lingerie, satin pajamas, expensive jewelry or anything that costs too much.
According to Letitia Baldrige, author of books on manners and widely known aficionado of the prim and proper, giving inappropriate gifts to periphery people is pulling a big-league boner.
"Give an impersonal gift--gourmet cookies, or candy, or fruit, or gift certificates," she said. "Write them a note saying you are hopeless at selecting the right thing. Hedge your bets with a gift certificate.
"If you really want to get something specific, find out what they like. Call their secretary or their spouse. Do some research."
When in doubt, though, Carlson says, pull back and be conservative. Every holiday season, for whatever reasons--from bad judgment to bad humor--some gift givers don't and aren't.
In an informal survey, a number of sources were asked to name the least-appreciated gift they received last holiday season from someone they knew marginally. The list included:
* A Chia Pet.
* Kitty litter.
* Dandruff shampoo.
* A bottle of whiskey.
* An exploding cigar.
* A Slim Whitman tape.
* A lace teddy.
* A diet book.
* The Clapper.
Indeed, holiday gift horror stories abound.
Carlson says she once was asked by a wealthy client to locate a pair of silver-polishing gloves that were subsequently given by the woman to her house maid as a Christmas gift.
"I think she was thinking that that gift would save her maid time and energy," Carlson said. "But, still, that's a pretty rank gift. I'm sure the maid would rather have had money or a gift certificate."
Or, better yet, a new employer.
Laura Crane of Calabasas says her family received a gourmet pizza in the mail from someone, which wouldn't have been so bad had the family been spending the holidays at home. However, they were in Europe for a three-week vacation.
"We do like pizza," Crane said. "But by the time we got home, it didn't look too appetizing. We threw it away."
Even worse than Crane's bad pizza is the tale of Lance Pierce, a sales executive who works in the San Fernando Valley area for a computer software company based in Washington. Pierce received as a Christmas gift stock options for 100 shares in a company that was guaranteed to take off. The giver, a fellow executive, suggested that he exercise the options at $10 a share because they were sure to billow to $25.
Pierce did so.
Unfortunately, those shares are now each worth $2.50.
"This hasn't exactly been the gift that keeps on giving," Pierce said. "This is the gift that keeps on taking. I've lost $750 because of this gift."