Well, it's that time of year again. The gift-giving season kicks in Friday with Hanukah, followed by Christmas and Kwanzaa. It's hard enough to figure out what to buy for people you know and love, but the process gets really tricky when selecting a little something for everyone else on your list: teachers, babysitters and co-workers.
Which brings us to the holiday gesture, which is not a gift per se. It's a gesture, a small way of expressing friendship and appreciation. It's usually not expensive and no reciprocation is expected. It's simply a nice thing to do.
"I was just thinking about this: what I want to give my clients and what they give me," says Pat Aylor, owner of Studio 1025 hair salon in Georgetown. "This is going to sound really corny: I have everything I need, so I would like clients to give money to one of my favorite charities."
Sweet thought, except most gestures are tokens selected without a great deal of knowledge about the recipient. Aylor, for example, has received a number of Chihuahua-related trinkets because her customers have all met her dog, Rudy.
"Pins--those can be really good or really bad; I've gotten some really neat ones," says Aylor. Most of her clients, however, stick to the classic holiday gesture: yummy, fattening goodies. "I get way too much baked goods--with the exception of one client, who knows who she is."
Says Washington writer Ina Ginsburg: "I usually give money and a box of chocolates or cookies. Not just money, but always accompanied by some little gift--usually something edible that the whole family can enjoy."
Here's the problem: Talk to a hundred people, and you get a hundred opinions about what to give. Some people love anything, some prefer to limit gift giving and receiving to immediate friends and family. For every extravagant Santa, there's a back-to-basics purist. How on Earth can anyone know what to give?
Think small. A gesture can cost as little as $5 and seldom runs more than $20 (unless you are flush with new Internet bucks). The point is for people to feel remembered, but never obligated.
"Something like a little Christmas pin," says Shavon Robinson, manager of a McDonald's in Northwest Washington. Last year, her employees gave her a small angel brooch, because "I'm their angel. I was, like, ooohhhhh."
Many givers opt for seasonal decorations: ornaments, napkins with seasonal decor, candles, wreaths or poinsettias--all good choices likely to be used. This being Washington, many token gifts have a political or historical touch.
Julie Mason, who used to work in Hillary Clinton's office in the White House, is now a spokesperson for Shop@AOL, America Online's shopping service, and her gesture gifts have gone from high-status to high-tech.
"I would usually give stuff from the [employees'] White House store: everything from golf balls with the White House logo to pens and pencils," she says. "My favorite was the old-fashioned glasses with an etched White House."
Her new favorite thing is buying bottles of wine online for under $15. "I think that's the perfect gesture gift, much more welcome than an ornament," she says.
Food is the tried-and-true, all-gender token present. With the possible exception of fruitcake, holiday treats are seldom a bad choice, especially cookies, wine, liquor, nuts, coffee, biscotti or chocolate. Because people are celebrating 2000 this year, champagne will be appreciated.
Which brings us to the reason for all this: letting people know they matter. The babysitter who stays late, the teacher who takes extra care, the co-workers or employees who make the days a little nicer for you.
"I give a small bonus with a note: A handwritten note is more important than anything else," says a Washington publisher. The note thanks his employees for their efforts; he also sends spouses little gift certificates with a note saying he realizes how much time the employee has contributed to the job and how that affects the family.
Gregory Earls, president of U.S. Viewing Corp., makes a point of remembering his key employees: "Basically, I do two things: money and time off," he says. "And I always give a gift that's personal and that I select myself."
Linda Roth, president of a Virginia public relations firm, likes to give gift certificates for restaurants. "It's not too personal," she says, "and you can do it over the phone."
Truth is, the best tokens are no-hassle for both giver and givee. "When you're buying a gesture gift, you're looking for ease and convenience," says Mason. This is why gift certificates--once thought to be impersonal and tacky--are increasingly popular.
Certificates for bookstores, department stores, coffee shops, movie chains and video stores are all good ideas. The best presents from parents last year were "certificates to Starbucks, certificates for Old Ebbitt Grill," says Alison Dulli, assistant director of Lipton Corporate Child Care downtown.
That cute holiday coffee mug? Bad idea. "We have those here already," says Dulli diplomatically.
Which brings us to the last point: It's okay, too, if you think a gift isn't really necessary. Too many people complain that the holidays are exhausting and too commercial. There's a fine line between pleasure and obligation.
Historic preservationist Sally Berk never sent gifts to her children's teachers, "and my kids never told me they were embarrassed."
"People get so crazy about buying gifts that they lose perspective," Berk says.
But she has a tactic for showing appreciation: She picks up little gifts for friends whenever she runs across them. "You might as well do that all year long. Why wait until the holidays?"