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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 1.0° F  Fair
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Ask Mrs. Gift 2012
Our annual guide to the proper replacement of misplaced holiday sentiments

Credit:Carolyn Fath

Mrs. Gift:

Every year our office does a "Secret Santa" gift exchange. Every year, I am assigned someone whom I know little-to-nothing about, and don't know what they would enjoy. To add to the challenge, we have to keep the price under $20. Does that mean I could use $20 in materials, hand-make an item, and give an item that would end up with a value higher than $20? Or if I found an item that was "greatly reduced" to $20 in the store, is it okay to give the gift?

- Miss Appropriate

You seem to be asking, or not quite asking, two different questions. First you express befuddlement as to how to ascertain what a coworker could possibly enjoy as a gift. And then, without figuring that out, you ask if it's okay to make something as long as the price is right, or to buy something that's on sale.

Let's tackle the perplexing personality question first. Secret Santa gift exchanges are not just a business' way to get employees spending money in the local economy. They are team-building exercises just as surely as that "human spring" dealio that managers love to trot out. As with team-building exercises, though, there's a right and a wrong way to do Secret Santa - focus on the purpose. Don't know your coworker? Get to know your coworker. Because employees who know each other can invest more in each other's work.

Start up a conversation in the break room. You may learn that your Santee would love a gift certificate to the bistro across the street, or could use coupons for a deluxe car wash because she has a fantastically messy car.

Do a little discreet spying; it's easier than ever with a Google search. Your Secret Santee could have her own dressage Tumblr - you're never going to know unless you look. So you find a nice leather dressage browband studded with crystals - it's for the horse, of course - and it's on sale for $20, so that's okay, and everybody wins.

Chances are you will not discover your Santee secretly wants a pair of your hand-knit bedroom slippers. So forget that. No matter how much you plan to spend on the yarn.

Dear Mrs. G.,

I am vegetarian, now almost vegan. In the family, this causes no end of trouble at holiday gatherings, as no one in my extended family cares enough to make me anything much I can eat. Usually I am stuck with the fruit plate and maybe macaroni and cheese, which, this year, I would really prefer not to eat. Would it be rude to buy my aunt, who is usually the family member in charge of the cooking, a vegan cookbook this holiday season? Yeah, it would be a little elbow poke, but then, so would bringing my own food to Christmas dinner.

-Tired of Pineapple Chunks

The vegan cookbook is obviously much more of a shot across the bow than bringing a nice fennel-farro salad to eat at dinner would be. Make something festive that you would like to eat, and that you think others might want to try. Bring enough for everyone, and bring a container to take home the leftovers, because you might well have a lot. But leave the chip on your shoulder and the vegan cookbook on the store shelf.

Missus G:

I have a niece, 13, who "has everything." What's more, she is the only niece among three sets of aunts and uncles. Three. Grandma always buys gifts too, and her parents are probably the worst offenders by ultimately buying her everything she wants, and more, even before the holidays. She doesn't seem spoiled in character, but I recoil at another Christmas of simply "buying more stuff." The poor kid becomes bored and embarrassed on Christmas with the mountain of presents she has to wade through. What is an uncle to do?

- Uncle Not-a-Scrooge, but Getting There

Mrs. Gift has often expressed her enthusiasm for the experiential gift. You don't mention how close you live to the niece in question, but if there's proximity, spend some uncle time with her. If she's an active sort, take a snowboarding lesson or rent some snowshoes for a powdery plod together. If she's indoorsy, see a movie, with food for afters. Sign the two of you up for lessons - pottery (Higher Fire, Midwest Clay Project, for example) or lockpicking (Sector67).

If you don't live near each other, get the rest of the clan to lay off some of the physical gifts and chip in for a plane ticket for a long weekend in the exciting city where you live, visiting museums and taking in plays. You do live in an exciting city, right? If the answer is no, you may need two airplane tickets.

Dear G-Woman,

I came up with this eco-friendly strategy to skip all the holiday grief. As travel to see my family greatly enlarges my carbon footprint, can I forgo the trip on the theory that it is killing the planet?

-Too Green for a White Christmas

This will work only if you are related to Al Gore or Bill McKibben.

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