A chicken. Yes, that would be perfect. A nice ceramic chicken. Ooh, and the top half comes off, revealing a space below for cufflinks and collar stays. What a bonus! An absolutely perfect gift for Cheryl’s husband for the holidays. She asks to have it gift-wrapped while shopping for additional presents for her spouse. Hmmm, a kaleidoscope. Definite possibility. A glass dove? Maybe too frou-frou. Ah, a glass paperweight with floating snowflakes. Lovely. Wrap it, please.
As Billy Crystal might say, let’s analyze this. Cheryl’s husband, Mark, is not a girlie man. He’s a bright, Ivy League guy who works out, plays on a club rugby team, has Saints tickets, and belongs to the Pickwick Club. He enjoys golf and twice-a-month poker games. Given this profile, is it likely that Cheryl’s choice of a ceramic chicken will endear her to him forever? Is it likely he will pause at work, while the market ticker moves quickly above him, to gaze into a kaleidoscope? And these days, who uses paperweights, for God’s sake?
Cheryl is shopping for Cheryl. She is buying what appeals to her, not to Mark. She is thinking that a chicken with colorful plumage would be a nice accent on their bedroom dresser. She is thinking how soothing it would be to ponder snowflakes in a paperweight. It is this kind of misguided gift—thinking that leads to a virtual warehouse of blue, blown-glass vases and cookie jars with faces of chipmunks and napkin holders with carved fingers and not-quite-clever cocktail napkins that say, “Bottoms here.” Most of these tchotchkes have a half-life of 45 minutes and wind up on the top shelf of the garage, destined for an eventual charitable tax deduction.
Women shopping for men should think about what men like. It’s not that complicated. Men, for example, like gifts that have bulk and physical presence and are hard to gift-wrap, like a Jaguar XJR, a home-theater system with surround sound and a 50-inch plasma monitor, a luxury box for Hornets games, or a spacious condo in Watercolor, Fla. Men also appreciate big gifts in small envelopes, like a certificate for five golf lessons with Tiger Woods, a confirmation of two weeks viewing wildlife in Amboseli Park near Mt. Kilimanjaro, or tickets to the Super Bowl and the Final Four.
Men also like clothes. Build a wardrobe for the poor guy. Pick out an Armani blazer and a couple of Zegna suits, half a dozen cashmere sweaters (four-ply, of course, and from Scotland, not China) and a few Turnbull & Asser shirts. It’s not so tough, ladies. Go into his closet, copy down the sizes, cash out a few of your Muni bonds, and spend half a day at Saks Fifth Avenue, Perlis and Jos. A. Banks.
Oh big deal, so these gifts cost a little more than the Jerry Garcia necktie you had been eyeing at Macy’s. Just think, however, of the delight they deliver, of the admiration—indeed, undying love—you will gain for striving for the spectacular, for breaking out of the conventional gift box. And after all, how many times do we wear this mortal coil? Once, right? (At least that’s the number we can confirm.) So do it. Go for the big one. Make your man happy.

What Women Want
Women are less ego driven. With women it’s the thought that counts, the sentiment. So guys, when you go out to do your holiday shopping, think tenderness, sweetness, kindness. There’s no point in popping for major carats, sable, or Louis Vuitton and Vera Wang creations. Those gifts would be seen as nothing more than a cynical, crass attempt to buy love and loyalty from your wife or lady friend. No, much better to purchase a single long-stemmed red rose resting on soft green paper in a long box. A red rose, after all, is the embodiment of love. It’s sensual but not flamboyant and yet it makes a powerful statement. Other options? You could challenge yourself and cook your sweetie a souffle (well, maybe brownies from a mix might be safer), take her for a picnic on a blanket in Audubon Park, give her a handwritten voucher for a massage (including the use of top-quality baby oil), or you could accommodate her private moments by presenting her with a small bottle of nail polish remover. Oh, and whatever it is, make sure you attach a card that has a syrupy, not smart-alecky, message, something like, “I love you today [open to inside] but not quite as much as I will tomorrow.” And when you sign it, include lots of Xs and Os. Maudlin? Yes. Corny? For sure. But she will appreciate that you are taking a chance and exposing your innermost feelings—your vulnerability—and she will cherish that card for decades.

Choices
The holidays do pose a number of questions. How many gifts for any one person? How much to spend overall? Gifts to friends? Tradespeople? Only close relatives? Ship gifts? When to start shopping? Gifts for Chanukah, as well as Christmas (father Jewish, mother Lutheran)?
Perhaps the most difficult category is choosing gifts for teenagers. If it’s your son, you must assume he already has his quota of T-shirts with dumb sayings, baggy jeans, caps he can wear backwards, CDs with incomprehensible music (better known as noise), an iPod and a cell phone that is never turned off. His room is plastered with posters that speak to a world of sports heroes, rap groups, and sexy women with impossible bodies and pouty expressions. What do you get this kid? A hardcover copy of The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers? The libretto for “Rigoletto”? A subscription to The Economist? Yes, this is definitely a tough category. We suggest you get your precious son 12 pairs of Nike tennis shoes and leave it at that. (No male teenager in the Western Hemisphere has ever had enough tennis shoes.)
Your daughter presents a different problem. Invariably, her bedroom is filled with animals. Her bed is hidden under a menagerie of stuffed monkeys with long arms, tigers with kind expressions, and bewildered bears. On her bureau she has mostly ceramic frogs and beatific cats with bulging eyes. She also has a jewelry stand that holds beads, bracelets and watches (with wide pink or purple bands) that long ago stopped running. The total value of her jewelry is $18. In a corner she has a CD stand that holds exactly the same CDs her older brother has. So what do you get your darling daughter? A copy of the South Beach Diet? A plunger to fix her balky toilet? A lunch date with Fletcher Mackel? Probably the best thing is a complete make-up kit with one of those funny up-close mirrors that makes her face look like it’s been injected with steroids.
It’s hard to know when to stop shopping. The ads are so enticing and the newspaper inserts promise so many bargains. “Buy this 8 megapixel digital camera for $9.95 and we’ll throw in a 256mb memory card plus a $7 mail-in rebate.” Or, “Holiday special! Sweaters woven from cashmere of specially bred Himalayan goats in Nepal! Only $39.99 with free gift-wrapping and a raffle ticket for a trip for eight around the world!” You tend to start shopping right after Thanksgiving, putting a few gifts under the tree. And then another shopping impulse hits you and you visit the mall again, telling yourself you have to get a coffee mug for the gas-station owner who adjusted your side mirror for nothing. And while you’re at it, you might as well get those gardening gloves for your husband and that apron for your sister-in-law, the one that says, “Shut up, I’m the cook.”
Our advice is to keep shopping until you drop or they come to repossess your car. And when you tire of fighting for parking spaces and waiting at the cash register, go on the Internet and click “Add to cart” until your fingers are numb. Just keep this formidable economic engine running. Keep spending. Jack up that tree and fit more presents under it. Enough is never enough.
Asher Rubin goes to shopping malls to buy hot dogs at the cutesy kiosks. In college he majored in Browsing. Every year he buys his wife kitchen utensils for the holidays; for his kids he gets movie passes for theaters showing foreign films without subtitles. He confesses to using too much Scotch tape when he wraps gifts.