When I was 11 or so, I gave my brother the worst present I've ever inflicted on another human being. It was a little dog-shaped figurine that I'd made out of Sculpey clay roughly 15 minutes before the gift giving was to commence. Ever the bright-eyed procrastinator, I didn't leave sufficient time to fire the thing in the toaster oven, so I decided to pretend the product's functional failings were intentional by adding a punchy tag line to the card: "I make it, you bake it!" When you give someone a shit gift like a clammy clay dog, you have to go deep on marketing. Handmade in Massachusetts! One of a kind!
Typically, my brother was more gracious than the average person would be. My little sister and parents openly broke into laughter, choking on giggles while they mocked me for thinking I could get away with a stunt like this. They haven't let it go, 13 years later. It's fine. I totally deserved a good shaming.
If you're searching the Internet for gift-giving advice, abandon the mission now. The literature tends to be contradictory: Psychology Today warns against giving cash since it too concretely quantifies how much the recipient matters to you, yet New York contends that most people would rather get money than a subpar gift — and it backs up that claim with science. (Not that it matters, because I just told you to disregard the Internet's wisdom, but I side with the latter: $15 takes you and a friend out for expensive cappuccinos and a shared muffin. Heady fun!)
Instead, give up and let go of the fear of disappointment, because sometimes when you really strike out, you win. I like to think that when I gave my brother that limp miniature dog, the real present was exclusive and unlimited license for my family to make fun of me, redeemable at any time, expiration date never. It's the gift of togetherness — togetherness in embarrassing me year after year. Every social group needs a lightning rod.
At the very least, you'll never be alone in giving your loved ones well-intentioned garbage over the holidays. Read on for more tales of ill-fated gifts, solicited from my friends and colleagues.
Molly: "I did a Sculpey clay present too, except I didn't bake it and then it turned out it wasn't actually Sculpey clay but some other type of modeling clay, so when my friend put it in the oven, it melted.
"I think the worst gift I gave was when I took my little brother to the mall to buy a present and see a movie for Christmas when he was five, which I thought would be a great way for us to spend time together. The movie I took him to, "Coraline," was animated but turned out to be for much older kids, and it terrified him so much that we had to leave because he was crying so hard. He slept in his mom's bed for a week, and six years later he still has nightmares about people with buttons instead of eyes chasing him."
Vivian: "My gifts (since I outgrew my super-crafty phase after middle school, anyway — think handmade books and elaborate ribbons) have been distinctly mediocre, even in their bad-ness. They're never awful, just lame. But the time I sent huge pink peonies to my mom for Mother's Day, only to find that the flower company had sent her two small, sad pink roses as a "substitute" instead, stands out. Good intentions, defeated by florist fine print."
Danny: "Historically I have tried to give distinctive, memorable gifts. To a friend who loves popcorn, an old-fashioned, red-and-white popcorn machine; to a friend who likes sheep, a coffee table book of sheep portraits. (Yes, that exists.) Another friend and mentor is a lifelong gamer who has been in the video game industry for decades. I wanted to get him something relevant for his birthday, so late one Wednesday, after a few glasses of wine, I made my way to Etsy. There I found what I hoped would be magic: a wooden replica of the player's sword in Minecraft. It was $70, and there are no refunds, but I reasoned that it would be charming and relevant to his interests. When it arrived a few days later, it was a hunk of wood with uneven edges and glue visible. It is still in my closet, one year later. He did not receive a gift from me."
Maria: "The worst gift I've ever given was a three-picture frame from Urban Outfitters with zero pictures in any of the frames. An idiot move on my part. It was for a Secret Santa with my friends from home, and I definitely have a photo somewhere on Facebook documenting this exact exchange. My friend Jill looks thrilled."
Elena: "My twin sister's boyfriend was off at some special off-grid training camp being a badass for the military. It was Christmas time, and I wasn't sure what to get for her. One fateful evening, I stumbled upon a beautiful print shop in the East Village. I started looking through the military prints wondering if I could get something for her that would be funny/ironic. I found two gorgeous ones: one of a wounded Civil war-era soldier holding a photo of his beloved at home, with some melodramatic words printed at the bottom. A second of a Yankee family, mourning the death of their patriarch at war (bloody imagery involved) but honoring his duty for the union. I thought these were the cat's meow! What a great gift: funny but with real sentimental and artistic value. 'She can frame these and remember this important yet miserable time in her life and also feel a connection to the past,' I thought. I give them to her and... blank stare. Not funny. Uncomfortable. Sister feels I am making light of this deeply challenging time in her life. Offensive to boyfriend's dedication to his country. Images of dying soldier too close to home. Suffice it to say, she has yet to frame them."
Maura: "When I was in about fifth grade, I used some of my allowance to go to the mall and buy my family Christmas presents with my friends. I had this grand idea — like something out of "A Christmas Story" — of buying my mother a gift so moving that I'd bring her to tears. I'd never really bought a gift on my own at that point, so I had no real grasp of how much certain items might cost in a department store. When I tried to buy her a pair of legitimately nice, expensive earrings, I was, like, $200 too short. I started emptying out my little-girl coin purse on my glass counter to count out quarters — maybe I'd have enough!!!!!!!!!!!!! I stood there for a while, sweating and essentially trying to turn straw into gold, when I finally realized I would really only be able to buy one of those sugary candles from Bath & Body Works. In all those years since that incident, I don't think I've ever once seen my mom light it; she, understandably, hates the stench of artificial vanilla. It now sits in my childhood bathroom, unlit and waxy. From then on, I just crafted most of my holidays gifts. She cried at some of them."
Esther: "I still haven't given you your birthday gift."
Ed note: In mid-December, four months late, Esther did finally give the author her birthday present, a necklace with charms relevant to a private joke. It is wonderful and the author loves it.