Christmas Shopping: Joys, Hazards, and Helpful Tips

Christmas shopping: to some it’s a scary phrase evoking images of mad last-minute shoppers, gift-giving disasters, and a rapidly decreasing net worth with every chime of the cash register. “This should be fun” some muse as they elbow an out-of-state soccer mom for that last cheesy pre-wrapped snow globe. After all, what’s better than buying beautiful gifts for your loved ones while indulging in a girl’s favorite pastime?

Shouldn’t shopping at Christmas be as happy and cathartic an experience as it is the rest of the year? After many Christmases spent shopping and a year working at Saks Fifth Avenue, this girl’s favorite pastime has not lost any of its luster – not even in December – despite many a Christmas gift disaster.

Let me start at the beginning, with my first Christmas experience. I only started celebrating Christmas according to “western” rules when I was 11, since I lived in the Middle East during my earlier years. That was the year of the fish flashlight. Ahhh, I remember it vividly. For years, it was the standard by which I judged bad presents. My little brother (eight years old at the time), had saved up all of his coins and had taken a “secret” trip to Toys R Us, only to discover that he could only afford a novelty flashlight in the shape of a goldfish. Having convinced himself that it was the best gift ever, he wrapped it up and proudly put his first independently purchased Christmas present under the tree. The next night, as I was routinely snooping under the tree, I accidentally leaned on the present. It lit up! I was immediately intrigued and spent the next week thinking of all the wonderful things it could be: a Barbie with a light-up outfit (think Barbie as a Rockette) or a Barbie with a light-up forehead, or maybe a videogame of some kind. When I pondered these possibilities in front of my brother, he said “no, no, it’s SO much better!!” Sadly, the benefits of a barely luminescent fish activated only through unwavering pressure on the gills, just didn’t live up to the hype. Not that the present I gave my brother, the Home Alone board game, was much better. After our first Christmas in America, we began to learn the ulcer-causing effects of a simple act of love and generosity.

Of course, my first bad Christmas gift experience was not my last, or my worst. Only last year, I found myself hastily racing upstairs on Christmas Eve, after having discovered that I had bought gifts for all but one important person. Shame washed over me as I scribbled a check and tried to decorate it with ribbons and glitter and stickers. I even sprayed it with my favorite Yves St. Laurent perfume. I thanked God that he was five years younger than me and a student, so this gift had some chance of seeming appropriate or well thought-out. As I glued my home-made card shut and raced back downstairs, I thought about how much I was starting to hate this ritual. I contemplated sending an email to all my close relatives asking them if we could “cancel out” each other’s Christmas gifts next year (i.e., “This year, I am giving you the gift of freedom from shopping”).

In the end, the grand prize for bad gifts goes to my own wonderful and saintly mother whose loving intentions did not quite come through in the combination gift of the “Ab Roller” and the “Cabbage Soup Diet for the Clinically Obese.” Yes, that’s right. She gave me those gifts on the Christmas right as I was about to leave the last self-abhorring thoughts of teenagedom behind, setting me back a good five years. For the record, my brother got a new laptop. But I digress. Shopping for Christmas presents can be a bad experience no matter what age you are. You never know if you’re being offensive, or forgetful, or inappropriate. And what if the person already has that item? (That’s how the Ab Roller got sent back. “Oh, mom, that’s so sweet, but I already have an Ab Rocker. . . I mean, Roller. . . thanks though!)

Things become even more complicated when you’re married. How exactly do you shop for someone who sees your credit card statements and knows where you are most of the time? And how does he shop for you when you share the same pool of cash? For our first Christmas, the snowball effect of shopping for a spouse overtook me and my husband Philip. If you find yourself tempted to mock us as you read the conversations below, think of the last time you gave someone a gift certificate. Let she who is without Christmas faux-pas cast the first stone:

Breakfast: Day 1:
Philip: So babe, what do you want for Christmas?
Dina: I don’t know, you decide.

Philip: How about a handbag?
Dina: That sounds nice!
Philip: Okay, let’s talk about something else.

Breakfast: Day 2:
Philip: Can I borrow your Saks card? I need to use the Associate Discount.
Dina: You should wait for Associate Double Discount day on Friday.
Philip: Okay

Philip: So… umm… Can you outline the key product attributes of Prada and Chanel?

Day 3: the day of the Saks Associate Double Discount day
Philip and Dina run into each other at the Ferragamo handbag department of Saks.

Philip: Hi! What are you doing here?
Dina: Double Discount Day. This is my Christmas!
Philip: Speaking of Christmas, what are your thoughts on Ferragamo?
Dina: Do you want me to pick it out myself?
Philip: Oh, Thank God! Could you have it sent to my office?

Christmas Morning:
Dina opens her gifts and feigns surprise, while Philip stands by proudly, truly believing that Dina had NO idea what she was getting.

Of course I tell all of these stories with a giant smile on my face. They’re some of my favorite Christmas memories; the quirks that make my family unique. Along with these stories come a thousand others of joyous Christmases together, giving and receiving gifts, which are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes a perfumed check.

The thing I learned about Christmas gifts, through my years with my family, and through a volatile year dealing with crazy Saks shoppers, is that the best gifts have to do with experiences and come from the heart. When I think back, I realize that the fish flashlight was one of the best gifts I received because it was the first gift my brother gave me. He poured all of his creativity, resources, and energy into it. I also remember that some of my most memorable gifts have come from my husband who, despite the handbag incident, has a great knack for figuring out what people value. He learns about them deeply and gets gifts that will make an impact. I’ve found that these types of gifts – those that have a deep affect – often cannot be bought in a store….

When I think about truly great gifts, I’m reminded of the time my mom spent three weeks making a scrapbook of my college years, or the time Philip gave me a hand-drawn picture of us at the age of 65, sitting together in a Chalet in the mountains, or the time my brother found the only surviving and long-lost baby tape of the two of us and gave it to my mom for her 40th birthday. To make a long-winded point slightly less long-winded, I think the best gifts come from the heart, and are carefully thought-out, and are rarely store-bought. However, since I still have a loyalty to Saks and since I plan to go back to the world of retail someday, I will end by giving a list of fabulous gift options, in case you don’t have time to make a hand-made quilt or to plant your loved one a tree:

A gift for your girlfriend or wife:
* Juicy Couture mini I-pod holder – $58
* Prada Beauty perfume – $95
* Prada “Stiletto Trick” handbag charm – $138
* Adrienne Landau jeweled fur scarf – $195 (or if you REALLY love her, the fox stole for $1595)
* Burberry Signature Grosgrain Watch – $275
* Chetta B Fox Fur Capelet – $303
* Salvatore Ferragamo small bifold wallet (pink) – $345
* Loro Piana opera stole – $765
* Marc Jacobs pocket satchel handbag – $895
* $X worth o
f downloadable music from an online music store

A gift for your boyfriend or husband:
* Portolano leather cadet gloves – $110
* Christofle silverplated “pebble of peace” – $110
* Saks Fifth Avenue martini glass gift set – $155
* Dunhill mother-of-pearl cufflinks – $235
* Tumi flap computer/briefcase bag – $250
* Rainforest black cashmere overcoat – $795
* $X worth of downloadable music from an online music store

An experiential gift for anyone on your list:
* Swedish Massage at Cranwell Resort (see November article in Harbus)
* Lunch at favorite restaurant
* Concert tickets
* Home cooked meal
* Gourmet cooking lessons
* Dance lessons
* A bungy jump
* A donation to the charity of his/her choice. (Despite popular belief, this is NOT a lame gift. It is a wonderful way to embrace the true meaning of Christmas).