Love, the Stepchild

Gifts for your not-quite-kin.

Definition of terms: steppresent (n): a gift you give to an individual who is not your friend and not in your nuclear family. Steppresents may be purchased for the following: your father's new girlfriend, your chilly stepmother, your newly acquired stepsiblings, or your significant other's stepparents.

Buying gifts for these folks is notoriously hard—and how could it not be? Choosing a present for a person you hardly know can feel like a nearly impossible task. But don't fret. Following a few basic tips will help you triumph over the challenge. For instance, you should know that gifts for these people generally fall into two categories: those that are designed to improve bonding and strengthen the relationship, and those that aren't. (Of course, there is a third category for gifts designed to insult, but in the spirit of holiday cheer, we won't spend much time on those.) Decide where you fall in this spectrum of intention, start shopping accordingly, and take inspiration from the great gift ideas below. As an added bonus, all of them can be sent through the mail—just in case you, like me, don't always deliver your steppresents in person.

STEPPRESENTS DESIGNED TO STRENGTHEN A RELATIONSHIP

Gifts for your own stepparent or your significant other's parents may fall into this category. And when it comes to giving this type of gift—one that will leave a good impression—some sleuthing is in order. The first step is to nail down your recipient as one of four basic types: food lover, garden lover, book lover, or gearhead. (Remember: These guidelines are for buying steppresents only. Happily, we don't have to be reductionist about people we really know!)

If food is their thing, find an intriguing cookbook you can give with accessories—for example, a volume of Indian recipes with the appropriate spices. Another good bet is The Perfect Match: Pairing Delicious Recipes with Great Wine ($27.50, 800-722-6657 or www.chroniclebooks.com). Augment the offering with a nice bottle of vino, and you're all set.

If you suspect they may have a green thumb, then purchase a gift certificate from Heirloom Roses. The Oregon-based company will send them a thick catalog of gorgeous, full-color photographs of luscious flowers ($13.95 per plant, www.heirloomroses.com), giving your gift recipient a chance to choose the right rose for their garden.

If literary loot might please them, you're in luck—with a slew of new books in the stores, there are plenty of choices. If a classy hardcover is in order, give them a copy of this year's National Book Award-winner, The Corrections ($26), and let them decide for themselves if author Jonathan Franzen (who snubbed Oprah's seal of approval) is a priceless genius or a pretentious goofball. If you suspect the voracious reader on your gift list will have already devoured the best-seller list, and The Corrections with it, try giving the book that Jonathan Franzen said inspired his work: Dangerous Characters by Paula Fox ($12). Originally published in 1970 and recently rereleased in paperback with a new introduction by Franzen, it's the gripping story of a Brooklyn couple whose marriage starts to crumble. Be forewarned, however, that both books focus on dysfunctional families. If that might be viewed as a negative message, steer clear!

For gearheads, check out REI, which has everything from camping stoves to bright flashing bicycle lights. You can't go wrong with a new Swiss Army knife ($40, www.rei.com) or a rugged REI mountain watch ($40-$65). Best of all, their Web site and stores have plenty to choose from and will exchange any gift—an essential option in case your steppresent misses the mark.

STEPPRESENTS DESIGNED TO MAINTAIN THE STATUS QUO

Gifts for your mother's new boyfriend or that stepsister you've only met twice might fit neatly under this heading. While you bear this individual no ill will, you don't exactly feel overwhelmed by an urge to find them an ideal present. Happily, that's OK, and a very general type of gift is called for here. Try giving them something pleasant and patently inoffensive, like easy offerings of gourmet food and wine. Explore the world of artisanal cheese through the Williams Sonoma catalog—choose a collection of fresh goat cheeses or an assortment that includes more variety ($32-$78, 800-541-2233 or www.williams-sonoma.com). If delectable eats isn't their thing, glamorous bath goods from the Canadian company Lush might do the trick. Pair a fruity-smelling Plum Duff Bath Bomb with a bar of Icon soap, a translucent violet bar flecked with golden sparkles, and you'll have a gift to please anyone with an appreciation for long baths and luxurious suds ($4.95-$6.95 Canadian, 888-733-LUSH or www.lushcanada.com).

STEPPRESENTS DESIGNED TO INSULT

Sometimes maintaining the status quo is slightly too nice, like in the case of your mother's annoying new boyfriend or your stepbrother's obnoxious fianc饮 Unfortunately, however, if you're sharing the holiday with these folks, they deserve a present, too. Choose something that reflects your true feelings and helps you act out your inner aggression, like a really itchy wool sweater, scarf, or hat ($29.50-$32, www.jcrew.com). It sends a subtle message that will last until long after the holidays are over—which is exactly what the perfect steppresent is all about.

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