Christmas is fast approaching, and it always reminds me that gift-giving can be a tricky business. There is great potential for wasting money on a present that the recipient will very likely display prominently at their next garage sale, or re-gift to someone they don’t like very much.

For men, buying clothes for women or girls can be a mine field. There is, of course, the style question, but the true conundrum is the size issue. Myself, I’ve learned to head straight to the scarf display, and the counter with the bracelets and the earrings.

Like most things, I learned this the hard way. Dianne likes over-sized housecoats – mine, for instance. The first Christmas we were together, I bought her one of her own – from what I didn’t realize was a ‘plus size’ clothing store. The housecoat turned out to be ridiculously huge, and when she returned it, the saleswoman said: “I’d kill him.”

There is also the category of clothing. This is very dangerous territory, I discovered. I had a roommate once who was a feminist labour historian. She complained that, because she was a feminist, no one ever bought her anything feminine, like lingerie. The next time her birthday came around, you guessed it, I bought her a lace and satin teddy. She loved it, but when my girlfriend found out … I’m not too bright sometimes.

I’m careful, too, about buying books as a gift. To me, it’s a gesture that implies an obligation; I’m expecting you to read it. It’s like giving someone homework. “Gee, thanks!” And then, of course, there’s always the possibility that, if they’re a keen reader, they already have it, or, it’s not up their alley, making the obligation to read it doubly taxing.

Sometimes when I don’t know what to buy, I go online to those best-gifts-this-year lists. They’re not particularly helpful and the risk there is that you’ll buy what everyone else is buying. I remember the year when levered corkscrews were all the rage. We got three of them. Now it’s charcuterie boards.

I’ve probably had the most success by gifting people alcohol or maple syrup. A bottle of scotch or a nice bottle of wine usually goes over well, provided the recipient enjoys those things. That said, I was once given a nice bottle of boutique gin by our daughter’s well- meaning boyfriend. I hate gin. I tried a sip, but that’s as far as I got. I think it’s still in the cupboard.

Our friend John has a sugar shack near Grenville, and we visit every spring. Maple syrup is a big hit, especially for friends and relatives outside Ontario and Quebec. It’s a gift that seems to be always appreciated. We’ve dispensed John’s syrup to relatives in Denmark, and to people we’ve stayed with in Ecuador and Portugal. When my mother visits from Vancouver, she has a standing order for herself and my sisters. The first time she flew home, though, she made the mistake of packing the four cans in her carry-on luggage. When they were confiscated as she passed through security, she was almost in tears. When her pleading met with no success, she barked at the security man: “I hope you enjoy them!”

Gift cards are very practical, of course, but I always feel a bit lazy, or unimaginative, when I consider sliding one into a greeting card. Cash is another option, and it’s my go-to when it comes to weddings. When Dianne and I got married, most of our guests gave us cash, which we used to buy camping gear. It’s unlikely anyone would have thought of giving us a tent as a wedding gift.

The one time I bought someone an actual wedding gift, it was a flop. I was invited to a wedding in Belgium; I’d met the groom at a French language school the previous summer. As a student, I didn’t have much money, and I wanted to get him something distinctly Canadian, so I opted for a soapstone sculpture. The problem was, with my budget, I could only afford a very small inukshuk; it wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t much bigger than a shot glass. At the gift opening, it was clear that he didn’t think much of it. Next time, maple syrup.

Receiving gifts can be tricky too. I must admit to a child-like glee when I’m given a gift, but I’ve learned to brace myself for disappointment and prepare to act as if it’s just what I’ve always wanted.

“A bottle of gin! Thanks!”

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