Romance is difficult enough. Combine it with the hazards of holiday gift giving and you got yourself a bona fide minefield.
How do you figure out the right present for your significant one? What works best, and what's to avoid? What's been tried, and who's been true? How do you choose a gift that is appropriate to the particular stage of your relationship and sends the right message about your intentions?
Personally, I've got no idea: I'm almost as inept at gift giving as I am at romance. So I sought out the experience and advice of a wide circle of acquaintances (who shall here remain anonymous) to see what wisdom I could gather about this very delicate subject.
What you're looking to avoid, of course, is the dreaded gift mismatch. For example, when the first gift-exchange occasion arrived a few years back for one couple I know, she bought him a nice bottle of wine and a turtleneck sweater. ("OK, pretentious," she recalls, "but nice effort.") His gift to her: Silly putty. The solution to such snafus, she declared later, is simple psychic talent, "A man needs to try to match, through guesswork, your girlfriend's gift in tone, seriousness, and/or dollar amount." (Not that a mismatch can't make right—the two are now happily married.)
Not surprisingly, my research shows that women tend to have more finely wrought views and ideas about gifts than men and harbor some very clear dos and don'ts.
One of the most important rules: Don't give a woman any gift that would appear to carry even a whiff of a suggestion that she is less than perfect just the way she is. "Never buy women sporting equipment unless they are athletes," decrees one woman. "They take it as a hint, instead of a gift." Underwear is also very dicey: "Men have a hard time predicting such dimensions," says one friend, who points out that too-small sizes will "shame her into thinking she has to fit into them." Another woman declares, "A man should never give a self-help book," unless it's How to Break Up with an Insensitive Jerk.
While men tend to have a fondness for gear and other practical items, they should studiously avoid purchasing them as gifts, at least in the early stages of a relationship. "A man should never give bread makers, mixing bowls, or batteries for your camping flashlight," says a friend. "It is just simply too impersonal, and it sends the message 'I do not love you; I am just having fun with you.'" Remember guys: You're not having fun, you're having a "relationship." On the other hand, "sensible" gifts can start to wear a man down, as well. One poor sap I've heard about received a watch three times from three different girlfriends. Remember gals: Lateness is not a function of not knowing the time.
Several women strongly counsel against giving any gift in the shape of a ring box—other than a ring. One woman I know grew so exasperated with this repeated practice by her boyfriend that when she finally did marry him, she dispensed with an engagement ring altogether.
So what do women want? I consulted an expert, Lisa Gallegos, a personal shopper who gives one-on-one shopping assistance at the Nordstrom in Bellevue Square. She recommends indulgence gifts that a woman might not pick out for herself: a massage, an afternoon at the spa, a therapeutic pedicure if she's on her feet all day. She also suggests a gift that might hearken back to a special moment: If you brought her roses on your first date, perhaps a fragrance with "rose notes" would be appropriate, she says.
For those not on a Nordstrom budget, or in a Nordstrom mindset, less glitzy items can send an equally heartfelt message. The thoughtfully chosen, handsomely well-worn (and cheap!) used book of poetry goes over well. Neruda is a particular favorite. "It shows them you're thinking of them on a deeper level," says one friend, who declares such gifts connote "a kind of harmonious intellectual kinship that seems boundless; signing the inside is always a nice touch."
One friend of mine had just started dating her current husband around holiday time. "The post office had just come out with the Otis Redding stamp," she recalls. "Since we both love Otis, I bought a little frame and mounted the stamp. He loved it and actually still keeps it on the shelf, and that was eight years ago."
Another friend recalls how she and her now-husband, during their first year together, made each other presents, without realizing that the other was doing it—just like in O. Henry, but with a better ending! He souped up and painted an old electric guitar for her: "We got together under the guise of him giving me guitar lessons, so it was very symbolic and sweet," she says. She, meanwhile, had saved all the movie stubs, cards, notes, concert tickets, fortunes from cookies, airplane and train tickets—"everything that we had done together in those nine or 10 months"—and stylishly laid it out in a big black scrapbook. "He was so amazed by it," she says, "I think because men rarely think to save those things but are always as happily nostalgic as women when it comes down to it!"
A surprise night on the town, a fancy meal, tickets to a great event—all of these can give you something to enjoy together and provide plenty of stubs for next year's scrapbook. "I think the idea is to share an experience," says one gentleman who's currently contemplating this issue with someone he's been dating for a while, "like a weekend up in Victoria or Vancouver, something to bond over rather than a token of affection. I've always felt the best gift you could give someone is your time."
But what about those unfortunate cases when you feel the holidays approaching and your romance fading? One woman's recommended breakup gift is stationery: "As in," she says "'we won't be around each other much longer, adios.' I got a book of fancy postcards from one guy, and, sure enough, after a little while, we weren't even corresponding that way." Says another guy, "I've had a couple of imminent holiday breakups, and my point was to spend as little money as possible because if the love was gone, why should my money be as well?"
And we won't even tell you the story about the woman, her cheating boyfriend, some candy canes, and her cat's rear end—while true, it should never again be tried.
Mark D. Fefer is a senior editor at Seattle Weekly.