Your first inkling that your Aunt Mimsy was coming to your Christmas party was when you saw her El Dorado pull up outside your house - and she brought her kids!
Unless you can come up with a gift that's better than a hastily-wrapped Whitman's Sampler containing seven missing pieces and one of your kid's action figures, you're going to feel pretty silly when you tell her how much your family is enjoying the Wii she gave you all.
But fret not: through the miracle of technology, you can get some pretty cool gifts in the time it takes to distract her with a few choruses of "Jingle Bells."
And we're not talking online gift certificates: all of these gifts are real things that the recipient can enjoy on Christmas Day. And just as importantly, they can create the convincing illusion that you put a lot of time and thought into it.
Good Gift For A Sibling Or Older Relative:
Duplicate a one-of-a-kind family photo. You had to throw a few elbows to get that photo-booth picture of your late grandparents, but it was worth it. It's the best picture of them, ever. But other family members will love to have a copy.
Just run to a nearby 24-hour drugstore. Many of them have self-serve photo kiosks that can copy, enhance, and print photos right on the spot. The best ones are by Kodak. And given that prescriptions are sort of just a sideline for drugstores these days, you can probably buy a picture frame as well and come home with a pre-wrapped gift, which you "left in the trunk of the car." (Try to get your spouse to cover for the fact that it took you 30 minutes to walk outside and retrieve it.)
Good Gift For An Older Relative:
An annual subscription to the New York Times online crossword. Every day, the world-class Times Crossword appears on NYTIMES.com. You can print a copy from your Web browser and fill it in the usual way, you can play it via the Web site, or you can download the puzzle to your PC or Mac and solve it with a free desktop app.
A year's membership is $40. Click here to sign up.
Good Gift For A Kid:
A subscription to Marvel Comics' online comic book library. A couple of months ago, Marvel put digital editions of thousands of their comics online. Type in "Iron Man" into the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited Web site and it'll return dozens of issues and stories spanning the 40-year history of the character. You can read the comics page-for-page, as they were originally published, right in any Web browser.
The subscription costs $60 a year or $5 a month. Click here to subscribe.
An annual subscription to the Flickr online photo service. Flickr is the ultimate accessory for a digital camera. It's an online service where you can upload an unlimited number of photos every month. Here's what you can do with them:
They're automatically archived. If the whole house burns down, your family memories are safe.
Organize them into online photo albums, and also add "tags" so you can quickly locate all of your photos described by "Christmas" and "Kids."
Share photos privately with your friends and family. Only people with permission can view them. Instead of e-mailing your brother a huge pile of digital pictures, just e-mail him a simple link he can click to see the new photos and albums in his Web browser.
They can also order prints directly from the service. No more having to go out and make 23 copies of a candid wedding photo and mail them to people. If they want a hard copy, they can order a print themselves.
A one-year gift subscription costs $25. Click here for more information.
Good Gift For Anyone Who Likes Music And Understands That It's Even Better When Computers Are Involved:
A subscription to the Rhapsody online music service. Rhapsody is like having an insanely rich and insanely generous next-door neighbor who owns millions of songs and is happy to let you listen to them. For a monthly subscription fee, you can listen to any songs or albums you want as often as you want, streamed straight from Rhapsody's servers. You can even build custom playlists that you can listen to from any computer with a Web browser. Or you can download songs and albums directly to your PC. You can even copy songs onto many pocket music players (not the iPod, though).
It's unlimited all-you-can-eat music, all for an affordable monthly fee. A six-month prepaid membership is $70, or three months for $35. Click here for more information.
Good Gift For Dang-Near Anybody:
Subscriptions to Netflix or GameFly, a huge lending library that sends you DVDs and game discs by mail.
Most folks are pretty familiar with Netflix by now. They have more than 100,000 movies. Go to netflix.com, browse the catalogue, put together a wish list. They immediately mail you the first three titles from your list. Keep them as long as you want. When you send them back (via a prepaid mailer) they send you the next title on your list. But fewer know about GameFly, which works on the same principle. With a typical game costing $50-$60, that's a great money-saver.
Good Gift For Anyone With An iPod:
Specific albums, movies and TV series from the iTunes Store. Yeah, I said "no gift certificates." And kids in particular love to get money to spend at the iTunes Store. But if you want to be a bit more thoughtful, the iTunes Store allows you to gift specific albums, movies and TV shows. You don't need to own an iPod to make this sort of gift. Just download the free iTunes software and you'll have full access to the Store's contents and gift options.
A specific album also makes a nice "wrapper" for an online gift certificate. Every year, I make my niece a custom iTunes compilation entitled "The Great Taste In Music That You So Desperately Lack" and tuck an online gift certificate inside it, so she can buy her own stuff as well.