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Gift Guide: How to Give the Perfect Gift

We gift-givers often get a mite confused as the holidays approach. And our bafflement in the search for a good gift is worse than just dispiriting; it can be expensive, too. A bad gift often has to hide its shortcomings behind an impressive price-tag, while the just-right gift is so, well ... right that it doesn't even seem to have a cost. As usual, we over-think the assignment. We import a dozen irrelevant factors into the gift-buying formula — from what it costs to what it says about us — and turn what should be a simple pleasure into mission impossible.

If you want to clear your Santa Claus head, banish all thoughts but this one, sometimes attributed to novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. The greatest gift you can give somebody is to see them exactly as they wish to be seen. Your goal is to salute the person your loved one hopes he or she is.

First, this guiding thought will keep you from making a surprisingly common mistake — buying gifts you think they should want. If your brother-in-law tends to wears nothing but boring deep greens and blues, that canary-yellow golf shirt isn’t a gift, it’s a fashion lecture. And if you give your jock-godson some novel you loved back when you were a kid, 9 million years ago, he may get the idea that you think he should be just a teensy bit more bookish than he is — not exactly the spirit of jingle bells. We’re not trying to fix anybody here, just love each other. Never give a gift because you like it.

Instead gently endorse the recipients’ version of themselves. If your father enjoys feeling like the family expert on foreign policy, buy him a book that suggests you see him that way too. (Never mind if you actually think he’s a know-nothing knuckle-dragger.) Careful now, don’t buy him a primer on the Middle East, something any amateur might read. Choose something brainy, that only a maven like him would be able to handle. If your sister is a self-styled kitchen goddess —no matter if her lasagna tastes like leather — a specialty cooking item doesn’t have to be expensive as long as it comes with a card that toasts her skills and cites a specific dish you loved. The detail, the up-close observation of the givee, is the key.

Even if you can’t see into self-images, you can pay attention to your people. You know your mother-in-law likes how she looks in that dusty-rose shade. That’s why the scarf you buy her requires at least a trace of same. She’ll notice that you noticed. If a meat-loving friend from Wisconsin is far from home at Christmas, a gift-box of Green Bay bratwurst is a well-aimed if high-fat wink. Nothing touches the heart more strongly than the sense that we’ve been noticed. A gift gets better as it gets ever more customized. We have an obligation to each other, to bear witness, to honor enthusiasms, quirks and singularities.

If you’re really frugal, consider the linking gift, the sweet-silly-token-of-friendship gift. The Web offers a chance to find almost anything, including a ticket stub from that Abba concert you and your college roommate rocked back in ’89. Any document or shred can be laminated into a bookmark, plexi-glassed into a paperweight or reproduced on a coffee mug. The Book of Common Prayer defines a sacrament as an outward sign of an inward spiritual grace. Poke through your memory box or junk drawer in search of anything that might be framed, mounted of otherwise turned into a relic, a testament to shared history. With all the technology at our fingertips — mashups, sound-tracks, digitized images, streaming video — we’re all potential producers, just a few downloads and clicks away from creating something that might qualify as a work of art and would certainly be a cherished gift.

It’s hard to fight Harried Holidays Syndrome. But if we can just take a minute and ponder the uniqueness of each person on our list, we might just happen upon a nook or cranny of their nature that cries out for understated celebration.

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