Dear Mrs. Gift,
I have two nephews and a niece, but I don't live near them and have never been terribly close. Instead, I've always been much closer to my friends' kids. But I cannot give gifts to all of my friends' kids and my relatives' kids-it's just too expensive, time consuming and exhausting. How do I balance the familial guilt with my desire to give gifts to kids I'm not related to, but feel much more closer to, and avoid hurting anyone's feelings?
- Bad Uncle
Your good wishes are touching, especially since it speaks to an increasing desire to have holidays mean something rather than be empty exercises in present exchange. Why not do something with your friends' kids the next time you see them - a trip to the movies, a hike in the woods, even a home activity like baking a special food together? And the exact same approach could be used to make a closer connection to your nephews and niece the next time you see them.
I have a sad admission to make. I just don't care about the holidays anymore. My relatives, in their tireless inability to have any fun during the festivities, have finally beaten the joy out of me. A sense of adventure in the menu items? No! We must serve the same dull, overcooked, overbuttered standards year after year. (The only advantage to this is that I do not overeat.) I'm committed to slogging through the family get-together again this year, but outside of its miserable confines, how can I get my holiday mojo back?
- Wanna Be Startin' Something
It is impossible to overrate passive-aggressive helpfulness when it comes to infiltrating a stodgy family gathering. Offer to bring the sweet potatoes and therefore avoid the canned, marshmallow-topped casserole by infusing your fresh mashed ones with organic butter and Vietnamese Cassia cinnamon. Or sub the usual boiled vegetables with a snazzy roasted parsnip puree. If no one else partakes, take refuge in the old adage "more for you (to take home as leftovers in a used Cool Whip container)."
It truly is important to me to give a gift that the receiver actually likes. I try my best, but have a complex about appearing to be kind of a joke to the people I give to. This inferiority complex stems from the year I made it clear to my younger sister that if she didn't like the gift I gave her, she should tell me and she could take it back for something she preferred. She assured me she liked the gift, but less than six months later, I found it priced and on a table with other junk at her garage sale. Why didn't she just exchange it if she hated it so much? Just thinking about this makes me want to cry. How can I lose my fear of giving?
- Feeling Foolish
When your gift-receivers are congenital fibbers on this score, insist on a list - verbal, handwritten or pages pulled out of a catalog. Don't take "Oh, I like everything, get me whatever" for an answer. Many stores have web wish-list features; your picky giftee can easily browse local shop websites. Ask for links to specific items sent to you in an email. Get the links, choose your item, wrap the present and move on with your life. And if you find that floral handbag in the Goodwill load before next July, next time give "donation to a charity in your name" and do not look back.
Could you throw me a few pointers on the etiquette of what to do with food gifts? Because while I'd love to find a $7 organic Vosges chocolate bar stuffing my stocking, I'm much more likely to get a soggy fruitcake, Aunt Doris' famous canned brandied peaches, or some stale Pillsbury reindeer-shape sugar cookies.
- Won't Swallow
Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about this problem as a receiver, other than keeping an open mind that a gift of homemade food can be terrific - local jams and jellies, honeys and maple syrups, meats and cheeses. To food givers out there, be mindful of your recipients' likes and dislikes! If Dad hates onions, a jar of your pickled onions is a bad idea, no matter how delicious you think they are and how proud you are of having grown the onions in your own backyard garden. Your lovingly pickled goodness is unlikely to change his mind. Second, pay heed to freshness. Cookies are not likely to retain a lot of loft after the trip over the river and through the woods. The several winter farmers' markets (the Saturday Dane County Farmers' Market at Monona Terrace, the Sunday north-side market at Northside Town Center, for instance) sell locally made syrups, sausages, crackers and more. Local chocolates can be found all over the map any day of the week, from Madison-area chocolatiers like David Bacco, James J., Gail Ambrosius, Candinas, Maurie's and the Chocolate Caper.