What is the Best Gift? | Varyer
An illustration of a toy with a thought bubble that reads "What is the best gift?"

What is the Best Gift?

Bloodletting, crafting an AIM away message, home milk delivery: all bygone art forms rendered obsolete. Will the quaint tradition of gift-giving go the same way? These days, elder advice columns are full of scandalized letters: someone’s ingrate niece registered for cash for a down payment, or a selfish son requested a GameStop gift card!

Cash is a tie for the best gift, no matter what it’s up against.

It’s not just the older generations struggling with the process. Recently, I asked a friend what his boyfriend had gotten him for his birthday.

“Nothing,” he admitted, but then added it wasn’t the worst gift he’d ever gotten.

It’s true: a bad gift can be much worse than no gift at all. I once had a boss who left trinkets on my keyboard after she was mean to me, like a cat leaving dead animals on a doorstep. A Lady Schick CVS coupon, leftover fortune cookies, a HOLLY (yes) novelty license plate. Because I feared her, not only did I have the chore of bringing the gifts home for disposal (I couldn’t risk her spotting them in an office trash can), I had the psychic burden of inventing fantastic scenarios of gratitude, regaling her with tales of how much I’d enjoyed the mini-shampoo she’d stolen from the Marriott and left on my desk.

“And did you see it’s actually a combination shampoo-conditioner?” she’d ask, with a sociopath’s smile.

“Oh, now that you mention it, my hair does feel extra-silky!” I’d marvel, caressing my hair and attempting a facial expression in the vicinity of ‘enchanted.’

(When done right, though, apology presents are a high-performing gift category.)

On the opposite end of the no-birthday-gift spectrum, a man was recently arrested for a scheme worthy of my king George Costanza: dating forty women simultaneously and telling each woman a different date for his birthday, ensuring a deluge of presents. It seems like a lot of work when he could have simply married one of them and had a gift registry. After all, aside from the legal right to collect your late spouse’s Social Security, the primary reason to get married is the gifts.

An illustration of a pair of socks with a bow.
An illustration of scissors, wrapping paper, a gift tag, and tape.

Although, actually, I’d never turn down a stick of my preferred $24 deodorant, which requires hourly re-application. DM me for my shipping address xo

I love presents, especially ones I pick out myself, but I’ve never been married. Have you? My understanding, based on a diet of 60 Minutes docu-specials about spousal murders, is that you can’t trust ANYONE. My grandmother, irritated by this excuse, told me that it doesn’t take a marriage license for a man to kill you. So true! While that pep talk didn’t send me scrambling down the aisle, I’m occasionally tempted. I fantasize not about the ever-deepening lifelong bond or my Marianne Faithfull-inspired wedding dress, but about the registry.

When it comes to semi-attainable dreams, though, I generally focus more on real estate, perhaps because I was indoctrinated as a child when the local newspaper ran a column called Single Female Homeowner. It was written by an anonymous woman, coyly hiding her face with a hammer in her author photo. Imagine if the comic strip Cathy focused heavily on home maintenance, dishing on what it’s like to hire a plumber—as a woman. It was shocking stuff. (I realize I’m playing a dangerous game by inviting readers into a let’s-critique-columns mindset. Let’s not linger with too harsh a light on my very special column, but instead, focus on the demented premise of SFH. ⚒️💋)

The Single Female Homeowner was always recommending gadgets designed for singles as if to live alone were to be functionally disabled. Think Ned Flanders’ Leftorium, but for single women. Bracelet fasteners, jar openers, zipper pulls, a CD of barking-dog sound effects to scare burglars. The SFH insisted that these were amazing gifts for any SFHs—or SF renters. She was wrong. They aren’t necessarily bad objects to have, but it’s like deodorant; you buy that for yourself. You don’t want someone else suggesting it’s something you need.

Although, actually, I’d never turn down a stick of my preferred $24 deodorant, which requires hourly re-application. DM me for my shipping address xo

Fun fact: ‘self-care’ is the term that my fifth-grade puberty book used for masturbation.

These appalling gift suggestions, published in an otherwise reputable newspaper, are an example of why some people prefer to cut out the misguided middleman and give to themselves. As a shopping addict, I happen to fall under this category, but luckily, this selfish tendency can be cleverly re-packaged as the noble pursuit of self-care. Self-care, in turn, is broadly recognized as an investment into community well-being; necessary personal maintenance so that one is rested enough to nurture others around them. It’s yet another burden passed on to the individual citizen by the government. We have to spend an hour every Sunday doing a calming face mask in lieu of enjoying a social safety net. So I shouldn’t completely dismiss SFH’s ideas. She was advocating for self-care in the form of self-reliance, which is valid. But gifts are supposed to be fun, and unwrapping a jar opener 😶 shatters the illusion that life is worth living at all.

Fun fact: ‘self-care’ is the term that my fifth-grade puberty book used for masturbation.

An illustration of a gift box acting as a light prism, emitting a rainbow.

So. Now that I’ve demonstrated that gifts are a critical tenet of our social order, you’re probably eager to get into the game, wondering: what is the best gift?

From Hallmark to Hollywood, America’s moral authorities agree: gift exchange etiquette is the glue holding us together, producing iconic moments we can all treasure regardless of our class or culture. Think of Mr. Duncan giving Kevin turtle dove ornaments in Home Alone 2 or China giving Nixon giant pandas (Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing 🐼🎁).**

**Pandas are a wonderful diplomatic overture, but some nations have a miserly stocking-stuffer attitude. Obama was particularly victimized by this approach. Great Britain gave him a clothbound journal…I mean…. And Brunei gave him a candle and a penguin-shaped tea infuser—possibly an ironic reference to oil-driven climate change?

A clue: my old friend Kohl’s ran holiday ads suggesting that we ‘give joy.’ Great idea. And for those of us working in a common category (birthday, Mother’s Day), there are gift guides for every possible persona, down to “niece who makes you nervous.” But some niche categories can be challenging: push presents, for instance. I was first introduced to the concept by British tabloids. Push presents are what a woman gets from her partner after giving birth, and we can learn a lot from the range of gifts and attitudes at play.

These can be frustrating reads because all the weight-loss stories use stones. I know reading those articles is gross, but if you feel compelled, like me, the conversion is 1 stone = 14 lbs ⛰

In an investigative report on ABC, ‘everyday mom’ Vicki Steinberg stated that a push present “just enhances the entire experience of giving birth and creating a family,” but another mother, Sasha Brown-Worsham, argued against the concept with a Phyllis Schlafly flair: "There's an equality that's missing. A man doesn't get a present for doing his part of the baby-making.” I wonder what the Single Female Homeowner would have to say about that—and all the unheard Single Male Homeowners.

Anyway. Sasha is wrong, and Vicki is right: presents enhance any experience. Just ask your local celebrity about their push present. Jay-Z gave Beyoncé a blue diamond in reference to their daughter’s name and because “blue is Jay-Z's favorite color.”

🚨 ALERT 🚨 This is a gift faux pas. Jay should have considered Beyoncé’s favorite color, not his own! My brothers and I used this inverted-generosity maneuver a few times, treating our dad to Father’s Day presents like a backyard trampoline (1998) and a dog (2003), but he wasn’t in a position to divorce us.

Blac Chyna, a fellow self-gifter, bought herself a Rolls Royce. Scott Disick gave Kourtney Kardashian a pair of “small” diamond earrings, but Babygaga.com was sympathetic, noting “…with such a tiny frame, it can be hard to imagine the reality star with large earrings, so small studs seemed to be the right choice.” Final verdict? “Through all their difficulty [Scott dating a 19-year-old], Scott still knows how to gift a great gift.” And that’s why we’re all here! Gifting great gifts.

Moms.com acidly noted that “Typically, when a woman gets a push present, she doesn’t receive it until after the baby has arrived. Also, a lot of women don’t pick the present out themselves, but model Blac Chyna is different.”

An illustration of a car with a bow.
An illustration of a gift progressively unwrapping.

There are exceptions, of course. Some people manage to get by without really playing the game. You can give kitschy gag gifts (an approach that says “look at this weird thing I found”), or there’s no shame in sticking to a registry, assembling a robust cart of three forks or whatever scraps will keep your budget under $100. And although I hate to say a kind word about New York, I do appreciate that one can purchase flowers on nearly every corner. Flowers are always fine and make you feel French-ish (a wonderful side-effect, helping you imagine you aren’t in New York).

For the rest of us, operating in a world of consumers who grew up with aggressive Toys ‘R’ Us marketing and graduated into DTC targeted ads, it’s going to take a lot to impress the average gift recipient. What is one supposed to do? What can we learn from Scott?

We can’t all afford diamonds, but there’s one accessible thing all of these press-worthy push presents had in common: amazing wrapping paper. Shibori tissue paper, a gold-flecked Hermès scarf, Giannini marbled paper, and even linen, which feels like something a pharaoh would use. Blac Chyna’s car had a bow on the hood. So perhaps we can determine that the key is not the gift itself, but the packaging. The ritual. The gesture. Occasionally, I receive gifts from someone who just sticks them in a Duane Reade bag, as if he thinks his gifts are capable of standing on their own merit. I admire his confidence, but presentation is so important: as I write this, a woman is taking a phone call outside my window, ranting about how her sister giving her ‘only’ two embryos is selfish. Maybe if she’d wrapped them nicely I’d be eavesdropping on a different conversation.

You may be wondering: wasn’t this supposed to be a gift guide? All I can tell you is this: when an occasion for gift-giving presents itself, the giver must adopt a code-breaking mentality. You are on a quest to surprise and delight. If you’re the type of person who likes puzzles, the recipient is giving you the gift: the challenge of pleasing them. And this column is its own puzzle, for whatever lies within the wrapping paper—the best gift—is ultimately up to you.

xo Molly