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Thinking Outside the Giftbox

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There are as many surprising gifts for loved ones as there are pesonalities. An unusually playful gift-giver might find it easy to get a smile out of her recipient. But for most of us it’s not so easy, and at some point we find ourselves on Christmas Eve staring down the mall at Bass Pro Shops, African Art Gallery, and GameStop at a complete loss for where to start.

Here are some ideas to kick you gently into creative mode.

Start With the Ordinary.

Arguably, the things people care most about are the things they have with they all the time. These are described as “evryday carry” objects, and range from keychains to fountain pens to tactical sporks. Yes, tactical sporks. The trick is to find something extraordinary among the ordinary. You might never have considered giving someone a keychain until you ran across the Exotac Freekey, which allows one to add and remove keys and keychains with ease. Why give a boring penknife when you could macho it up a notch with the DeWalt folding pocket knife, featuring easy one-handed opening (and this thing opens really easily), both serrated and straight edges, and a useful Japanese-inspired Tanto blade shape? Or go upscale with the Kershaw Leek pocketknife, which (like most Kershaw knives) is a work of art in itself and was (though Kershaw’s website no longer says so) designed by legendary knifemaker Ken Onion.

You’d probably never consider giving a spiral-bound notebook, but the Messenger leather notebook by Rustico is a whole other type of thing. Hand-made and bound in American-sourced leather, the Messenger is based on Lieutenant Dunbar’s journal in the film Dances with Wolves. Writing in this notebook makes a simple grocery list feel like writing the great American novel.

Sometimes the product’s name is enough. You might buy the Big Skinny Women’s Taxicat Bi-fold Wallet just so your loved one can say she has a Big Skinny Women’s Taxicat Bi-fold Wallet. It also happens to be pretty cool.

Bonus game: try to think of everyday things, then Google “tactical” versions. Tactical holiday stocking? Check. Tactical diaper bag? Check. Tactical butter knife? Check. It’s kind of hard to lose this game.

Get To the Heart of the Matter.

If you’re going for big impact, aim for the heart. Reader Darci LePage recounts the story of getting a painting of herself and her father on the anniversary of his death: “It was [painted from] a photo of him when he was healthy, and I love looking at it and reminiscing…warms my heart. Such a heart felt gift from my boyfriend of 8 years and a total surprise on the anniversary of daddy’s passing.”

We tend to think of emotional things as “cheesy,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Emotion is why we do all these things to begin with, so why not start with emotion in the first place? Enlarge and frame a photo of a favorite dog or favorite destination. Have a local artisan turn a memento into a work of art. Stage an elaborate ceremony or celebration. You get the idea.

You Make the Difference.

The giver is a big part of what makes gifts special. You can make the most of that by making the gift itself. Just think for a minute: what is your special skill? A cheffy person is the right person to assemble the perfect kit of exotic spices, homemade cookie mixes, funky utensils, and picnic goodies. If you’re a woodworker, break out those saws and planes and work up just the right thing: a wooden toy, a toolbox, a chair or set of wine stoppers. Do you sew? Stitch together just the right sketchbook carrier, stuffed animal, skirt, or any of a million marginally useful things you can find on Pinterest.

You say you aren’t good at anything? That’s the best possible answer. Your ineptitude will make the gift all the more beloved, and it comes with a built-in second gift: a good story.

Still Stumped? Go Frivolous or Go Genome.

The person who has everything doesn’t need anything. Who is better suited to receive a “useless box,” a peculiar device that in most cases does nothing but turn itself off. Amazon has dozens of variants. If you’re resigned to giving a bad gift, might as well make the most of it.

Finally, reader Cathy Hogan-Smith reports receiving a DNA test as a gift. We figured the story behind this gift couldn’t possibly live up the the explanations we were coming up with, so we didn’t ask.

Have some interesting, unique, or otherwise perfect gifts you want to tell us about. You can do it here.