In my life, I've been lucky to receive many gifts — charming, simple, elaborate and steeped in meaning.
The best, from the past, was a toy house no more than a foot tall, inhabited by a family of mouse dolls as long as the end of my pinky finger. It was so small and perfect. The mice had about 10 children (including two sets of twins; they were mice, after all). In a world where I often felt very small and imperfect, my mother had given me a universe in which all the stories and scripts were my own.
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After I'd outgrown playing with it, I still kept it, treasured, on my bookshelf. I came home one weekend from college to find out that my mother had given it to a friend who collected unusual dolls and dollhouses. The outrage brought tears to my eyes.
It still does.
For years, and in more than one country, I searched for something like it. But there was nothing like it. There was only one.
One of my best friends gave me a light, simple silver chain with a cloud, a star, a diamond shape — each engraved with the name of one of my children. Now, on you, this would look like a necklace; for me, it looks like a charm bracelet. Still, she took that into consideration. It couldn't be heavy. Another pal once found a duplicate of a statue that had been my mother's, accidentally broken by my father's new girlfriend after my mother died.
All of those things, taken all together, probably cost less than $100.
It's the season for egregious materialism, for the presumption of wealth in chaos. There's a commercial that portrays a twentysomething babe giving her beau a modest box that reveals a fancy phone inside. But the real gift is the instant photo she's texted him — of the Lexus with the big red bow outside.
It's doubly cynical when statistics show that 80 percent of college graduates have to live at home after graduation.
Another portrays a girl singing out her dissatisfaction with all her family's gifts to her, as an announcer advises giving the young what they "really want." In a poll by the Associated Press and MTV, more than 1,000 kids ages 13 to 24 said that the key to life was a good family, followed by solid friendships.
But what matters more is imagining the story that unspools in your head every time you wear it, use it, taste or see it — the solace of knowing how much you matter to someone … or how much you did once.
Choose your gifts wisely. Some of the ones on this little list cost a little more, some nothing at all. Every one comes with a guarantee.
They'll love it.
For younger kids or grandkids
- A Wii2. Nintendo hit a home run 86 million systems ago with this gaming system. It's not for hard-core gamers, but keyed to families and — its genius — movement. If the first generation was a rocking horse, the second one is Secretariat. Activity and interactivity make the Wii a true electronic card table. You can buy a whole Wii system, console and all, for about $250, a 10-in-1 Sports Resort game (on an island playground, you can fence, bowl, fly a plane, play tennis, water-ski). Other games cost about $15 to $70 and offer all kinds of delights: Hasbro Family Game Night (all the old faves from Battleship to Sorry to Connect 4); the dance games now include Zumba; and my favorite, Just Dance: Summer Party, with tunes from "Mambo Number 5" to Katy Perry's "Firework." Brand-new is ActiVision's Skylanders, a story-driven adventure that lets young players bring real-world action figures directly into the game. It was written by Joel Cohen and Alex Solokow (Toy Story), and it shows.
- The best live theater experience you can afford: Be it Broadway's "Mary Poppins" at about $100 a ticket or a great community show for $25, introducing a child to the stage, and the original 3-D, is to create a convert.
- An iPod Nano. At $129, it's pricey. But be smart. Get the "watch band" (because kids are such losers, in the classic sense) for $24.95, and the Apple Care protection plan ($39) for when it encounters the pavement. And before you gift, load at least a dozen songs that you want the child of your life to know (Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, Tony Bennett's "The Way You Look Tonight," Kristin Chenoweth singing "Popular.") They'll load it with music du jour, but someday you'll be riding in the car and someone will say, "Can we listen to 'Clair de Lune'?"
- Something of yours. Be it a book or a record, with the songs burned onto a disc, or a piece of jewelry, a doll, a game, even a teacup, include the written story of how and why you loved it, and how and why you love the recipient.
- Legos. As you know, they're back with a vengeance, and you can spend anything from $3 to $300 on anything from a bucket of Duplos for toddlers to the Lego Star Wars Death Star ($400 on Amazon). But that's not all. I recently gave my 12-year-old a set from the Architecture series. The Robie House was about $180 new, but I bought it on eBay for much less. (Bargains also turn up on Craigslist from collectors who need cash for new obsessions.) It's the model airplane of a new generation, but better, because there are endless combinations: Once Captain Jack Sparrow gets into the Lego City Fire Station, things get really interesting.
For your best friend or sibling
- Make a date for something important. Give a one-month gift membership at the small local gym, or calendar that postponed colonoscopy. Then take the day off and make a party of going together.
- A first edition of a favorite classic book, if you can afford it, or, for less, a copy signed by the author (yes, we will) of a new one.
- Fingerless gloves. It may seem like a contradiction of terms, but if your BFF or favorite brother has a smartphone attached to him like a third hand, being able to operate it and stay warm (although not while driving!) is a singular gift.
- Wrap their Christmas presents for them. Clean their house. Help them tag the garage sale. Taking away a dreaded task can earn you a lifetime of good will.
For your spouse or love
- The best piece of carry-on luggage you can afford. Don't panic. It may not be wickedly expensive. For example, Baggalini's rolling tote (designed by an airline flight attendant) easily accommodates a weekend's worth of clothing, a laptop, a toiletries case and a tuna-salad wrap and still rolls right down that aisle. Like the indispensable Baggalini purses, this also comes in about 10 groovy colors, and depending on which one you choose, costs from $100 to $200. Travelpro's Walkabout Lite-3 comes only in black but, on a scale of five stars, deserves 10. Every time that overhead bin clicks closed, your love will think of you. If you shop around online, you can get it for as little as $75.
- A manicure and pedicure: For either gender. I've seen fishermen in Gloucester getting their tootsies tenderized. Once you've been there, you can't believe you didn't go before: $50.
- Cooking lessons: Succulent sushi? Enticing enchiladas? Classes in virtually every kind of cookery are happening nearby. Send your sweetie and reap the benefits. Or take a cake-decorating class together and stun your family with your confections. At schools and restaurants, four to six sessions for $30 to $400 or more.
- Just the two of you. Probably with your own computer, and certainly with Shutterfly, you can make a book, for as little as $13, of the great times of your life. Find a song and inscribe every photo page with a line: "I'll be seeing you/in all the old, familiar places."
- Wrap their presents. Or clean their house. A friendship coupon for one dreaded and odious task will earn you a lifetime of good will.
For that crabby neighbor, in-law or boss
- An indoor plant. It breathes oxygen, which makes people healthier and nicer. Among the top 10 that will fight for their lives through any amount of neglect are peace lilies, Christmas cactus, Chinese evergreens and spider plants.
- Chocolate. Featured on the Food Channel, Gail Ambrosius of Madison, Wis., is a chocolatier well-named. For super-goody points, give the 12-for-12 assortment, a box of truffles every month for three months for $95, or gift the classic truffle collection for just $11.75. Flavors run the gamut from raspberry to Lucille's vanilla to curry (it's great!) to … mushroom! Medical research proves that dark chocolate actually stimulates good feelings and fosters health.
- Honey. It's always been on the menu in heaven. Great clover honey from your local hives is perfect, but the best I've ever tasted is the rare Hawaiian organic white honey, which can go for $17 for 8 ounces. Still, a little honey goes a long, long way, which balances the cost. Honey is great not just in tea, but brushed on a piece of grilled fish or dabbed on cheese and crackers. It is also the one food that never spoils. Liquid honey was found in the tombs of the pharaohs.
- Etsy gift certificate. There are people who still don't know about the wonder of etsy, the online marketplace for artists. They make everything from furniture to paper bead earrings to cupcakes to cupcake-shaped soap to … fingerless gloves, for man, woman, dog or child. All the profits go directly to the artisan. You can find steal-the-compliments objects on etsy for $25, and if you can't find anything you like, you really don't deserve a present.
- Tea. It's no mistake that it's the first thing offered to people in British mysteries to calm their nerves after someone murders the vicar. Teavana Tea Store is a vendor that offers selections for as little as 2 ounces for about $10. Buy a tea ball to put into a cup and pour the boiling water. It's a civilized thing to do. For those less Zen, a selection of bags from Tazo (the assorted sampler) is $11.59 online.
- Chickens. Not for them! For somebody whose life depends on it. For generations, Heifer International has offered the chance to give sustenance to families in developing countries where a rabbit hutch or a cow can mean the difference between life and death. A set of chicks is $20, while the Cadillac of gifts is a camel, for $850. Shares of such creatures, in smaller denominations, are available, too. Presume a person is good, and the person may just live up to it.
Jacquelyn Mitchard is the best-selling author of 20 books. Her most recent, Second Nature: A Love Story, was published in September.