Giving presents to the people you love is supposed to be fun, but coming up with truly thoughtful gifts for your family members can actually be really hard sometimes—especially if you don’t have much in common with them. At this point in your life, you’ve likely exhausted your supply of gift ideas based on the same ol’ hobbies and interests your relatives have always had (giving someone horseback-riding accessories for the 15th straight year in a row isn’t exciting for them or you). But what are you supposed to do when your parents say they’ll be “happy with whatever you choose” for them, or, worse, when your siblings’ tastes are the total opposite of yours?
It may seem impossible, but I know you can do better than giving your mom a gift certificate to her favorite store or your dad another fancy vase for his collection. Twenty years of birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions spent in a family of five forced me to come up with a crafty gift-giving trick: I make slight modifications to conventional gift ideas, transforming clichés into thoughtful personalized treasures. In the spirit of giving, I’m happy to share my secret methods of semi-lazy—but also totally meaningful!—gift-making with you. ’Tis the season or something, right?
I have no idea why homemade cards are generally considered little-kid territory—no one is ever disappointed when a loved one of any age makes an effort to create something especially for them. Store-bought cards are usually boring enough to be thrown away with the wrapping paper, but handmade ones are special keepsakes that the recipient will likely treasure for years.
Making a card from scratch is super-easy because you don’t even have to come up with your own idea. There’s a peculiar rule about cards: The same exact designs that make store-bought cards seem clichéd and tacky will look awesome on handmade ones—think flowers, hearts, stars, ribbons, and, of course, KITTENS. With this totally legit rule in mind, all you have to do is buy some banal card from the store and use it as a template for your personalized one! Just use the same aesthetic components to inspire your new version in a different medium, like watercolor or collage, and voilà.
If you’re up for a project that requires more of a personal touch, you can use a picture of yourself or the recipient (or both!) as the central part of your design. Childhood photos are exceptional for this because of the high cuteness factor, a crucial aspect of the art of card-making (see also: KITTENS), but you should double-check before cutting up old photos that might be irreplaceable. You can refer to Rookie’s Friend Crush illustrations for examples—I always use the same template when I make the artwork for these. I put the crusher’s photo in an oval, with an arrow pointing at a heart-shaped photo of the crushee. Just follow the same format with some pictures of you and your loved one! You can make your card even more special by including elements inspired by basically any part of the recipient’s personality, like their favorite color or song, their celebrity crush, their hobby or obsession, or an inside joke you share. Translating any of these details into visual form is a coded message that you at least try to respect and understand your giftee’s tastes, no matter how different your own may be.
I like to eat so much that a plain sandwich with a little candle on top would probably make me as happy as a birthday cake would, but people who are less passionate about food usually have a particular favorite treat. It’s not hard to figure out what that might be if you live with the person—it’s the thing that they sneak out of bed for in the middle of the night, that they celebrate a long Sunday morning with, or that your dad cooks to cheer them up when they’re sad. For some people, it’s a fancy sweet that might be too expensive or extravagant to eat on a daily basis, but in most cases you won’t have to splurge on Belgian pralines to make a loved one’s stomach happy—my dad’s most beloved food of all time is anchovies, for example.
If you like to cook, this one will be (perhaps literally) a piece of cake for you. But whether you expertly prepare a restaurant-grade T-bone steak or just bake some pre-made cookie dough for somebody, you’ll get extra points for actually making something. Those of you who can’t boil water can still make this present idea work: Your loved one eats avocados all the time? Cool, buy two pounds and wrap each one separately in a different color of wrapping paper. When you’re giving family gifts, goofiness always works in your favor.
By “practical” I don’t mean socks or a year’s supply of printer paper. I’m talking about stuff that actually serves the intrinsic purpose of all gifts: helping you bond with the people you’re giving them to. Like, let’s say you’re a comic-book fan, and your sister is a history nerd. You can use your deep knowledge of graphic novels to pick out a great historical book for her: Should it be Berlin: City of Stones, Maus, or Stuck Rubber Baby? Now you’ve got present that is interesting to both of you; it might even help you two develop a mutual interest.
My sister, the best present-giver in our family, invented this secret weapon. When I was its target for the first time, I actually thought the idea was kind of rude because of what I perceived as its obvious “hidden agenda.” But she never denied that the present was supposed to be fun for both of us, and this openness led me to the realization that it is, in fact, a GENIUS IDEA. Nowadays, the “practical present” is a favorite in my family, and you wouldn’t believe how many shared obsessions it’s brought into our lives. Figuring out a good one for you and your loved one is simple: Use the graph above and put your interests in one circle and the other person’s in the other one. Then brainstorm about what might fit in both circles. BAM: You’ve cracked the code of the ideal gift!
TIME (AND PATIENCE)
No matter how great your present is, it won’t magically make you best friends with a sibling you normally quarrel with from sunrise to curfew. There’s no point in giving someone a present just because you’re supposed to, then slamming the door to your room or getting into a fight over emptying a trash can a minute later. Of course, it’s hard to be nice and give someone a break even for just one day if you usually disagree on everything. Showing them an inkling of kindness may make you feel like you’re losing ground in your ongoing power struggle, but it’s worth it—everyone deserves one day of the year to be the center of the world, even if they’re insufferable for the other 364. So let your siblings steal your clothes, go out with you and your friends, or play their music as loud as they want—just for today. In the case of your parents, say yes when they ask you to run errands with them (or otherwise take part in whatever boring common activity they’re usually trying to force you to do), and don’t roll your eyes when they tell their favorite joke YET AGAIN, even if it’s as old as you are.
It might turn out that you actually don’t care that much about your sister wearing one of your dresses from time to time, or that when you treat your little brother like an adult, he acts like one. When my older sister invited me to a bar where she was celebrating her 21st birthday with her friends (I was 16 at the time), it improved our sometimes-rocky relationship more than hours of our mom’s pleading and negotiations ever had. This was equally fun for both the giver and the recipient—and that’s the whole point of gifts, isn’t it? ♦