People crowd for holiday shopping ahead of Christmas. (Bryan Mitchell/AP)

I blame the Three Wise Men. If instead of bringing gifts to the Baby Jesus they had, say, offered back rubs, this whole totalitarian you-have-to-give-presents-at-Christmas thing wouldn’t have taken hold the way it has.

And I am a very bad present-giver. Every year, without fail, I am one of those crazed people you see running through the mall on Dec. 24.

When a man is cornered, when a man is desperate, he makes bad choices.

For example, there was the year I got everyone on my Christmas list a sweater pill shaver. Remember those? Little battery-powered contraptions designed to shave the wadded up lint off your sweater? In around 1987, all the department stores had them, arranged in big piles as if to see just how stupid some shoppers could be. I was that stupid.

I scooped up an armful, little realizing at the time that giving a person a sweater pill shaver is tantamount to saying, “I think you’re a slob.”

I thought of that this year when I briefly considered buying a dozen home teeth-bleaching kits.

Part of the problem is that I live with a very good present-giver, My Lovely Wife.

Ruth picks up on clues all year long. If you offhandedly mention some random item — not fishing to get it, honestly — she squirrels that fact away.

She can intuit unexpressed desires, too, getting you things you didn’t even know you wanted. A few years ago, I opened her Christmas present to me. It was a blue wool suit, made by a tailor in Liverpool, an exact replica of the sort worn by the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was lovely.

Oh, how I hated her.

I hated her because that was the year I’d gotten her a dutch oven. It was a nice dutch oven — Le Creuset! — but I’d only gotten it for her because it was on her Christmas list.

That’s the sort of thing Ruth puts on her list: sauce pan, cutting board, wooden spoon, candy thermometer, replacement china . . . It’s like she’s compiling evidence in case she needs to divorce me: “And do you know what he bought me for Christmas one year, your honor? An ironing board.”

I, on the other hand, am easy to shop for. I don’t even need to make a Christmas list. I’m a man, which means I want everything and love everything.

But I find many of my family members, Ruth included, inscrutable. And so I reach a point where I start resenting the person I’m shopping for. Why can’t you have some interesting hobbies?! Why don’t you take up model-building or scrimshaw?! Why are your teeth sufficiently white?!

But what about diamonds, you ask? Doesn’t Ruth always ask for diamond stud earrings or a diamond solitaire necklace? Yes, she does. And I always refuse.

Why? Well, I once saw a TV documentary about how abundant diamonds actually are. They’re not rare. You can barely turn a spade in Africa without hitting a glittering, adamantine vein. But the diamond cartels control the world supply, keeping prices artificially high. I will not be a dupe of the diamond cartels! The year I give Ruth a chunk of compressed carbon is the year she should wonder what I’m trying to hide.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I’m a horrible shopper. The clock is ticking down. While you read this, there’s a good chance I’m sitting on the floor of a mall food court, rocking back and forth and trying to keep from sobbing.

A few hours ago, I walked past Brookstone, dismissing the heated aqua-jet foot spa and the aerating wine funnel. Now, I’m not so sure . . .

’Tis the season

I know a gift that’s perfect for anyone on your list: Make a donation in a friend’s or relative’s name to Children’s National Medical Center. I will send them a note informing them of your generosity. It sure beats a sweater pill shaver.

All of the money we raise during this annual Washington Post fund drive goes to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund. That’s money set aside to pay the bills of families without insurance. Many kids will be spending this holiday in the hospital. Your contribution will help ensure their parents don’t have to worry about how to pay for that.

You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to
or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

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