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The best gift you'll ever give
My guide to buying presents!
I am a present person.
Not a in-the-present person. Pretty much anything but that.
Rather, I am a person who loves presents: giving, getting, wishing for, and elaborately planning. At some point I noticed that most people seemed to grow out of the excitement over birthdays and Christmas as they relate to getting stuff, but I never did! The only thing that’s changed is that giving stuff has become so much more fun.
Gifts always come in first when I take the Love Languages Quiz:
And I show “I like you and I want you to like me” by giving you objects.
On my second date with Mr. Mari, I stormed into a wine shop and demanded, “EXCUSE ME, I NEED A MAN TO FALL IN LOVE WITH ME. WHICH WINE SHOULD I BRING HIM?”
If we can owe my marriage to anything, it’s probably that bottle, plus the bouquet of flowers I picked him from my garden with a card that listed their symbolism. I’m sort of like a cat who just keeps on bringing loot of various desirability to the doorstep, hoping for love in return!
Thus, I feel sufficiently qualified to write a little guide here on gift-giving.
Please note: If you’ve ever received a bad gift from me, bring a printed copy of this newsletter to our next rendezvous and you’ll be compensated for my hubris.
I don’t always nail it (I’ve definitely been that childless idiot who brings an outfit made for a 5-year-old to a baby shower), but I have a few general rules that are sure to result in smiles (and possibly marriage)…
Give the Cheapest of the Expensive
This is my favorite genre of gift to give! It basically means: find the cheapest thing at the most expensive store, or the least costly item that a designer offers. You get the designer name with its signature gift wrap, just ooooozing in luxury, but you’re not actually spending that much money.
Some fun examples:
The Hermès Nail Polish is $55, which, yes, is insanely expensive for nail polish BUT is pretty reasonable for something that comes in Hermès’ signature orange box complete with a fabulous brown bow, and will look striking sitting atop a bathroom shelf like a little fuschia sculpture.
A food item from Bergdorf Goodman (or any iconic department store, like Liberty London) can cost as little as $10 and you still get the impeccable store packaging, which makes the gift feel and look so special!
I recently went a little nuts in the Bergdorf gourmet gifts section to stock up on some presents for the year, like this joyful pasta which is $14 but looks like a million bucks when it’s wrapped up in opulent paper and meticulously placed in a Bergdorf box:
Chanel Lipstick is a go-to holiday gift for my friends because I’m guessing most of them wouldn’t regularly buy themselves $45-55 lipstick and I love spoiling them with the experience of receiving a special Chanel box and something beautiful to wear on special occasions throughout the year.
Designer Toiletries are always a hit and also come in a box that is way more exciting than the product itself. And who wouldn’t want to display Dior hand soap in their bathroom?? Queen of Sheba, much?!
Give Custom Art
Yeah sure, Daddy Warbucks, I hear you say, but! Custom art can be inexpensive from such a bounty of artists on Instagram and Etsy, and it’s meaningful to the max.
Here are some I loved giving:
Restaurants (or coffee shops, or bars, or soup stands) have provided the backdrop for every one of my best friendships, acting as an incubator for the warmth of our conversations.
Restaurants have their own energy, particularly in a city where their presence adds to the urban landscape—what would an evening walk through Manhattan be without peeking in to the fogged windows of candlelit trattorias?
Yet the truth is, restaurants are ephemeral. They close, even the ones we thought would always be there.
Portraits of Family
Especially as we get older, it’s so lovely to give gifts that mark special relationships with family.
When I was thinking of a 40th birthday gift to one of my best friends, I knew I wanted to commission a portrait that would speak to her family’s love for her. My first idea was to give a painting of her mom as a teenager, based off a sweet photo she once sent me via text.
Ultimately I decided on a painting of her beloved grandparents, and it turned out so beautifully. My friend says it’s the one item she’d rescue in an apartment fire—a true gift-giving success!
The painting above is by the outstandingly talented Sayaka Nagata, who I also hired to paint a picture of my kitty for Mr. Mari who loves our cat beyond vocabulary.
This pet portrait also features a watch that I bought him; it’s a nice idea to give a gift that reminds the recipient of another gift you gave them ;)
Not exactly custom, but I’ve loved giving these ceramic figures handmade by monks in California! You could choose a saint for a specific purpose, like the Patron Saint of Environmentalists, or an angel for a profession, like this Real Estate Angel. They are insanely cute and could make someone feel very special!
Speaking of restaurant matchboxes, my friend once gave his boyfriend a bowl full of matchboxes from their favorite spots as an anniversary present, and I thought that was just spectacular.
I keep napkins, ticket stubs, receipts, hotel stationery, and other momentos with hopes that some day they will trigger a glitter explosion in my heart for some deeply-lodged memory that erupts on the surface.
Wouldn’t it be so darling to frame a paper coaster from the dive bar that you and your friend love, or the delivery bag from the Thai place that once supplied most of the dinners you shared with your roommate?
One of my favorite gifts of all time was from a friend I met in middle school, who gave me the ultimate throwback when she gave me a star dome (inflatable planetarium!), the likes of which we used to sit in during 7th grade science class.
She made my 12-year-old paradise an adult reality: an inflatable dome, box fan, and star projector. Now I can sit in my living room, identifying Andromeda and Cassiopeia as I once loved to do, while the box fan hums next to me. Ridiculous, magical, perfect.
Give Help Toward a Goal
It means SO much when someone you love helps you with a passion or goal that they may not share, but they love because it’s yours.
For our last anniversary, Mr. Mari gave a donation to an animal shelter, which meant so much more to me than any object. We included donations to an animal shelter in our wedding registry, and we loved when folks opted to donate toward a cause that means so much to us.
Likewise, it really touches me when someone supports a goal of mine through a thoughtful present, like a chord notebook when I was learning guitar, a mini Spanish dictionary before I studied the language in Argentina, a guidebook for a country I dreamed of visiting, or a manicure when I decided to start dating again.
When my friend was intent on writing a novel in the next year, I gave her a writers-retreat-in-a-box: an Airbnb gift card, a candle, a copy of Bird By Bird, and some satchels of tea.
When another friend’s resolution was to take more time for self-reflection, I sent her a few guided journals to get her started.
Keep your ears open for longings like, “I wish I bought myself flowers more,” or “I should really join a gym,” or “All my socks have holes.”
Gift-giver: You can come to the rescue!
Give Food & Drink
I’ve been the recipient of some phenomenal food gifts: fresh-baked cookies by mail, a jumbo jar of Skippy Peanut Butter while living abroad, and a small jar of sea salt that forever changed my daily sodium intake.
I’ll pay it forward by offering a couple suggestions of my own in this standout category:
Fabulous Food Delivery
It’s a new tradition of mine to order a whole carrot cake for myself on my birthday, and wouldn’t it be marvelous to send an entire cake to your friend in another state for theirs?
Because I love the movie You’ve Got Mail, which features NYC legend Zabar’s Grocery Store, my friend once sent me a Zabar’s Gift Basket for my birthday, which was a BIG HIT!
Something to the Table
If you’ve been saying “Yeah yeah yeah” throughout this entire post and you feel ready to move on to the next level of gift-giving, may I suggest you…send something to the table?
I’ve only done this once—I sent a bottle of bubbly when my friend’s partner was visiting from out of town—but it was SUCH a thrill! I casually asked my friend about his plans for his partner’s visit and sneakily probed for the name of a restaurant they’d go to. I called the restaurant to ask about the reservation and asked that a bottle be sent during appetizers.
All day I anticipated the moment when the waiter would approach the table with “an aperitif, sent from Mari,” and I can guarantee I got greater joy from it than the table did!
If you have a friend celebrating an anniversary, promotion, birthday, whatever from afar, consider….sending something to the table. A dessert, a drink, whatever. It’s a tangible way to be with them in spirit, and an exciting reason to stay up refreshing your phone all night for signs that they received your A++ gift.
I send a box of Jeni’s Ice Cream to anyone who is experiencing grief, a move, a new baby, or any major life event that disrupts daily rhythm. My friends with a newborn told me it was the best gift they got when they couldn’t make heads or tails of time or meals, and a loved one who lost a loved one told me it was her one daily joy to choose an ice cream flavor for the evening.
We all have that one store (or section of a store) where we could easily spend ten million dollars if left to our own devices. For me, it’s any bookstore, the journal section, or Sephora (hair? makeup? skincare? It’s a miracle I can get to check-out in that store without going into debilitating debt!).
If you know what that store/section is to a friend, and you have ten million dollars, it’s such a thrill to spoil them with abundance! A few examples:
My friend loves buying magazines, so her husband bought a ton of magazines and stuffed them in their mailbox on her birthday.
I love going crazy at the bookstore. I once received five random books that my friend thought I’d like, and it felt like a grown-up version of going to the Scholastic Book Fair, overflowing with reading potential.
Art supplies are always so scrumptious to receive. I remember getting one of those gigantic Crayon boxes for a Christmas present when I was in 5th grade and I would just stare at them for weeks, elated by the possibility. For my 24th birthday, a friend gave me a box of colored markers, which ultimately led to my illustration career. I had a blast playing around with them every night, and in the meantime developed my little style.
Like a lot of people, I can’t stop buying journals. Wouldn’t it be fun to buy someone a few journals so they can allocate them for the correct purpose??
Last Christmas, my friend gave me six bottles of sparkling wine for celebrations in the upcoming year. Although they lasted, uh, maybe a month, it was such a gorgeous gesture and inspired me to give abundantly so that the recipient may think abundantly: All the champagne toasts yet to come, all the journals yet to use, all the books yet to read.
When you have more than you need of something you love, you feel like the richest person who’s ever lived. It’s amazing to make someone feel that way.
Give a Joke
I’m all about The Funny, so I’m all for giving a joke present. I don’t mean like….a whoopee cushion. I mean, expanding on a clever inside joke that will mean everything to the recipient, and nothing to an onlooker.
I’ve joked that my wedding name change will make me sound like a fancy pasta dish. As a wedding present, our friend sent a handwritten recipe for an original pasta in honor of my new name! Whether it was a transcription from the NY Times Cooking page or his own invention, I’ll never know, but it was such a sweet nod to a running gag and a no-cost wedding present that filled my whole heart with warmth.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in the most pathetic emotion spiral, highly sensitive to every little thing that I wanted and didn’t have. I was already ferociously tender when I entered a workout class, and then I saw that my Pilates teacher was wearing a sweatshirt saying “Future Mrs. ‘Future Last Name’” ahead of her wedding a week later.
When I exited the class, I sent a voice note to my friend Madeleine, sobbing for a million reasons, not the last of which that nobody had made me a sweatshirt that said “Future Mrs. Blah Blah Blah,” despite the fact that I made it clear I didn’t want any bachelorette presents or activities.
A few days later, I received in the mail a perfect pink sweatshirt embroidered with (literally) “Future Mrs. Blah Blah Blah” and it made me crack up and cry at the same time. It felt so, so good to be recognized for my emotion and my humor. Nobody else will understand the sweatshirt, but it makes me feel so loved when I wear it.
My friend and I love the line “Confidence, Cohen” from The OC. As encouragement for her new job, I’m giving her custom bracelets that read “CONFIDENCE” and “COHEN” so she can take courage with a smile and envision Seth Cohen whispering encouragement at her desk. Can you imagine?!
If you want to create something custom WITH an inside joke AND you have an extra $400 lying around, I love these custom sweaters embroidered with any text!
Give Something Old
This method won’t work on everyone (ask me about the time when someone stared puzzled at an antique compass I gave him and wondered aloud, ‘Do we have some inside joke about compasses I don’t remember?’) but it will work on your strange sentimental friends who don’t read too much into your motives.
You can give the first edition (maybe even signed!) of your friend’s favorite book, a collectible exhibition poster of their favorite artist, or some random old thing from eBay that they might appreciate.
Without knowing him very well, I once a gave a friend an antique magnifying glass, because he was so curious about the natural world around him. Turns out, he had very tiny handwriting as a child that his teacher would decipher it with a magnifying glass, so the gift was surprisingly prescient.
My sweet friend bought me an antique Victorian Tear Catcher, which was a loving symbol to acknowledge the grief we’d both felt that year and could commemorate together with this gorgeous old vessel.
Welp…that’s all I got!
If you have any other tricks up your sleeve for gift-giving, let me know!! I have a lot of fall birthdays, and going into the winter holidays, I could use all the tips I can get….even as a Present Person.