How to master the art of giving genuinely good Christmas gifts

’Tis the season: buying gifts for your nearest and dearest can be a logistical nightmare (Getty/iStock)
’Tis the season: buying gifts for your nearest and dearest can be a logistical nightmare (Getty/iStock)

It’s the same every year. You vow that this will be the Christmas when you absolutely nail the gift buying, painstakingly sourcing the perfect present for your parents, siblings, best friend, and whoever you’ve got for the office Secret Santa. And then, somehow, it’s the middle of December and the panic is starting to kick in. Wasn’t this so much easier when everyone used to just circle what they wanted in the Argos catalogue?

Gift-giving should be a joy – but often, it’s a bit of a nightmare. We all have at least two people on our to-buy-for lists who claim they’ve “got everything they need” but would be less than impressed if they were left empty-handed come 25 December. Or worse, that family member who always gets it so right when it comes to presents, making your last-minute offering look frankly woeful in comparison.

So how can you stop the search for the perfect gift from causing headaches and – whisper it – turn it into an easy, even enjoyable process? Here’s what to bear in mind (and a few present-buying pitfalls to avoid…)

Pay attention

It might sound like stating the obvious, but the easiest way to choose a meaningful gift is to listen carefully when someone is telling you about themselves. Have they picked up a new hobby recently? Or booked a holiday that might require some specific bits of kit? Once we’ve moved past writing letters to Santa, most of us clam up when we’re put on the spot and asked to list our Christmas present preferences, but our conversations are littered with potential clues. The best gifts aren’t necessarily the biggest or fanciest, but the ones that show that the gift giver has been paying attention to you (the worst, conversely, are the ones that make you ponder: “Do they really think I’m that person?”).

Take something they use, then upgrade it

Another relatively straightforward gifting tactic is to think about the stuff your intended recipient uses in their day-to-day life, then source a fancier version – the sort of thing they’d never buy for themselves. If they’re someone who loves hosting dinner parties, get them some posh cookware. If they’re always sending you weird sheet mask selfies, buy some top-of-the-range ones. Maybe there’s a type of T-shirt or jumper that they constantly have on rotation – try to track down a version in a more luxurious fabric.

Practical presents aren’t always a red flag

Box clever: a practical gift doesn’t have to be boring (or pass-agg) (Getty)
Box clever: a practical gift doesn’t have to be boring (or pass-agg) (Getty)

I’ve just moved into a new flat and am in the process of realising that I own lots of books, half-burnt scented candles and novelty mugs, but very few useful bits and pieces. Long story short, I would be quite thrilled to receive one of those heated clothes airers for Christmas (hint, hint).

Practical presents are all about context. If the person you’re buying for is settling into a new place, or they’ve just bought a pet, or their new year’s resolution is to cook more and Deliveroo less, they’ll probably welcome a functional gift. Ideally, this might be something they’ve mentioned in passing before, otherwise there’s always the risk that they might interpret it as some sort of passive-aggressive statement. That said, there are a few items that just shouldn’t be given as gifts. Hoovers. Bathroom scales. A pack of WH Smith biros (this one has gone down in family legend). Use your common sense.

Don’t go all-in on personalisation

Embossing a name or a few initials onto an item doesn’t automatically make said item a great present. You’ve still bought a pair of oven gloves –  they just happen to have some letters embroidered onto them. And most grown adults don’t want to drink from a glass that has their name written on it in that squiggly Live Laugh Love font (it’ll only trigger traumatic memories of hen dos if your intended recipient is a millennial woman, too). Before you start madly monogramming everything and anything, consider whether you’d buy this item as a standalone prezzie, lettering aside.

Try something sentimental…

There are plenty of other ways to give a gift that feels personal rather than sticking their name on it (and they tend to be relatively affordable, too). A photo album or a nicely framed version of a favourite snap is always a lovely gesture, or perhaps you’ve held on to some mementoes from a trip or a day out that you can transform into a keepsake scrapbook. Just the promise of sharing your time with someone can feel special, too, whether that’s by booking tickets, blocking off a weekend to spend with them, or giving them a festive version of an “IOU” for a homemade dinner or just a night on the sofa watching bad films.

A funny present needs to have some kind of personal significance

...or something that will make them laugh

If you’re on a tight budget, and you know the recipient well, you could do a lot worse than doubling down on an in-joke (a funny present needs to have some kind of personal significance, otherwise it will inevitably join all the other “hilarious” festive slogan jumpers in the charity shop come January). Are they always “borrowing” slash stealing something from you? Do you always tease them over their love of a particular food/drink/ film/team? Is there a niche childhood memory that only makes sense to the two of you?

Get organised (for next year)

This might not be what you want to hear come December, but it’s worth bearing in mind for Christmas 2024: truly superlative gift-buying is not just something for the festive season but a year-round pursuit. So if you see something that makes you think, “Oh, so-and-so would love that” in the middle of August, grab it while you can. Your future self will thank you for it. I have one scrupulously organised friend who keeps a running list of potential present ideas in her iPhone Notes app, which is another relatively low-effort way to organise any brainwaves that come to you out of season.