Ebenezer Scrooge may have had the only workable attitude towards Christmas gift--giving. A little "Bah, Humbug" and you were in the clear; no tramping through slush-soggy streets, no jostling battle-cruiser-esque matrons in Filene's basement, no running up six figure bills at the Coop.
You could adopt this salutory way of thinking, you could save your money for a ski trip, you could stop giving bath oil to your maiden Aunt Sophie, you could smoke hash on the street, but noooooo! You have to go out and buy Christmas gifts for everyone and his cousin, including all those relatives you hardly even recognize, let alone well enough so that you can buy then something intelligent and semi-thoughtful.
Admit it, you've been giving cufflinks to your uncle for the last five years. He's bored with cufflinks and he's probably gotten too paunchy for his French cuff shirts anyway. It's time for something new. Perhaps you could try getting him something to read. You could get him Gunther Grass's novel Flounder which is all about food and the history of male-female relationships since pre-historic times. I imagine that it would help if your uncle happened to be a Freudian psychologist, all that food-sex imagery, but what the hell, he'll probably never read it anyway.
Not everyone is into long novels, so you could get your uncle a book he could just look at, like The New Yorker 25th Anniversary Album which contains, among other things, lots of funny cartoons. Not only that, but think of the snob appeal this nicely done book will have when it finally comes to the Elephant's graveyard of Christmas book gifts--the coffee table.
But perhaps you are more interested in getting a book that will not only be appreciated but even read multiple times. Then take this year's sure fire suggestion. Which is the same as last year's sure fire suggestion and the one the year before that: to wit, a sex manual. Now you may think these are prurient and dumb, or you might think they are useful. Either way, it makes a great joke under the tree.
A major school of Christmas gift giving holds that it is not the thought that counts, it's the cost of a gift multiplied by its value on the Total Uselessness Continuum (TUC) which determines its success as a crowd pleaser. For example, if your giftee does not own any sort of boat and lives in Central lowa, you can given him or her a brass ship's wheel which costs about $550 in the Quincy market. On a Total Uselessness scale from 1 (relatively useful), to 10 (no earthly reason why anyone would need this object), a ship's wheel rates about an eight. Put it all together and the brass wheel comes out a big winner. Not only will the recipient be struck speechless with gratitude, but you will look like the kind of person who knows how to give a great gift.
If you really want to non-plus the people on your gift list you hunt around the Quincy Market until you find the store which sells nothing but seashells and related items in the line of maritime oddities. Think of the look on your Grandmother's face when you present her with a carefully--wrapped, three--feet across chunk of purple brain coral. If this sort of thrill is worth 125 clams to you, go ahead. If you're a bit more modest you could send her a shark tooth necklace or even a complete shark jaw for a reasonable amount. But if Poverty is your middle name, you could send out a fleet of 99 cent Knobby Urchins to the candidates on your gift parade.
If the thought of being associated for the rest of the year with Knbby Urchins leaves you cold you might try a stuffed animal; a penguin, a poodle, or maybe a seal. (These gifts are for grown--ups, can't you get real?) Come on, why not? There's a store full of them on Brattle Street. If you don't like them, you can go next door to J.F. Olsson and get a battery operated skeletal mommoth. Just the kind of thing to send the love(s) of your life to yet them know how you feel about them, heh, heh.
Skeletons may happen to be a real hobby of someone on your list and you could get them a charming book entitled Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M. Gould, M.D. and Walter C. Pyle, M.D. Apparently this book discusses the lighter side of the profession everyone wants to get in on. Give a copy to your lab partner.
Still, the more conventional avenues of gift buying will probably leave you choking on Cuteness and clutching painfully at your wallet. To relieve ennui, try shopping in untraditional places; like Sanborn's Fish market near the Quincy Market. A sign outside advertises "Whale Steaks" but the man inside insists, "that's a lot of horseshit. We donot support the slaughter of whales!" Nothing like giving with your social conscience clear. Oh well, failing that, maybe someone you know would like to get a crate of lobsters for Christmas. And maybe the Post Office will get them there before July. And maybe I'm Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Speaking of red noses one of the classic Christmas gift non-ideas is still a bottle of liquor. You know, get a half gallon of Chivas for your Aunt Minnie who belongs to the Women's Christian Temperance Union and then visit her house a lot. (Got anything to drink? Why, lookee here! Haw, Haw, Haw!) Assuming no one is really that crass, it's best to reserve bottle gifts for people like your boss, your roommates or the police man who let you off the hook when you were doing 75 down Main Street this Thanksgiving. Of course, there's no reason not to give yourself a little flagon of cheer this Christmas. After what you spend on gifts it'll be about the only affordable thing left