Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Helping You Find the Perfect Gift
Zak Bickel / The Atlantic
Show Description +

Who’s the hardest person on your holiday gift list to shop for? Readers sent us descriptions of their tricky recipients, and our staffers brainstormed some custom ideas. Read on for some last-minute inspiration. Got another suggestion for what to give these folks? Send us a note—hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 2 Newer Notes

Age: 56

Place: Florida

Relationship: best friend

From the gift-giver:

Retired and wealthy. I am neither. I met my friend because we both enjoyed foxhunting. Now that we are older we no longer ride, but have remained friends for 30 years now. She and her husband moved to Florida 13 years ago to look after her aging parents. While she lived in Michigan she owned a plumbing store. She is generous and helpful to family and friends in need.

Her home is beautifully decorated in a Florida fashion—lots of citrus colors. She enjoys cooking and we have often cooked together. She loves the Food Network. We exchange recipes often—she has all of mine. She golfs and plays bridge, and loves to entertain. I live in Michigan and I visit her at least once a year; she comes up here once a year. When I visited her recently, she rented a limo for us and five of her women friends, and we went shopping and out to dinner. This is an example of what she likes to do for fun. I guess you could say that we are best friends. I love her and I like to show that in the gifts that I give her.

Any gift they’ve loved?

Some of the favorite things I have given her are things for the kitchen such as trays and gadgets. But she really likes it when I send her cookbooks.

We recommend: Ruth Reichl’s new cookbook ($35) and a sweet apron ($32)

Your best friend may live in Florida now, but the way you describe her reminds me so much of what I admire about my dear friends from Michigan. They seem to do everything well—and joyfully. Your friend's enthusiasm for cooking and generosity of spirit calls to mind, too, some of my favorite writers—Nora Ephron, Ruth Reichl—women I always wished I could hang out with, in part because they remind me of my best friends.

Reichl, who has a new cookbook out, talks about how the act of making a meal is its own meditation, something to be savored (almost) as much as the resultant dish. In My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, Reichl catalogues the months she spent cooking and finding joy again, after the magazine she edited, Gourmet, unexpectedly folded.

And you might pair that with an apron—not the kind you put on just to protect what you're wearing underneath, but one that makes creating a meal feel even more festive. I like this one from Anthropologie.

Other ideas:

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Age: 43

Place: Austin, Texas

Relationship: boyfriend

From the gift-giver:

Loves: movies, cocktails, cycling, anime, Fallout (video game), physics, Nikolai Tesla (he's an electrical engineer by training, consultant to microchip designers by profession). He loves doing iPhone photography, but I bought him some really nice lenses for that before, and he never uses them. He loves mid-century style and wouldn't mind if his house looked like a Mad Men set and/or his wardrobe did! His favorite comic book writer/illustrator is Alex Ross. He has two children: a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. His favorite color is the deep orangey-red of an intense sunset. He's obsessed with taking photos of sunsets. He makes a lot of money and buys himself anything he wants. (Well, anything that I could actually afford to buy him, anyway!)

Any gift they’ve loved?

His daughter bought him a vest for Christmas last year—a gray suit vest with four buttons and he wears it all the time under his jackets. He loves wearing jackets in winter.

We recommend: graphic novel painted by one of his favorites ($99.99)

Your boyfriend sounds very visually oriented from your description, so it's not surprising he's an Alex Ross fan. DC Comics publishes its "Absolute" series of high-quality collections of their most popular comic storylines, so I'd suggest getting Absolute Justice. Ross's paintings for Justice are among his finest, and even if he already owns these issues, this collection features them in a larger-than-the-original hardcover that's both more durable and more readable than their first printing.

Other ideas:

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Age: 64

Place: Winnipeg

Relationship: mother

From the gift-giver:

This is a tough one. Mom is picky, and she's moving in the next couple of years so she's downsizing "stuff" out of her house—she doesn't want dust-gatherers, knick-knacks, etc., but she wants something tangible from me because we live in different cities, so no tickets, spa days, etc. She doesn't want books, appliances, garden stuff, flowers/arrangements (they're impersonal—you'll see a theme here), or food of any type (she finds gift baskets impersonal). She has all the DVD sets and music she wants. She's weird about other people buying her clothes/scarves, and she finds gift cards impersonal.

She doesn't like Christmas-themed gifts because then you have to put them away immediately. She doesn't like pajamas or robe-type things because she tends to run warm. Her brother usually includes a calendar in his gift package. Her birthday is two days after Christmas and I bought her beautiful, one-of-a-kind jewelry so I don't want to do jewelry for Christmas also.

She's a great cook and baker, loves classic rock (especially the Beatles and Stones), enjoys the ballet and theater, movies, tea, and wine. She has a ton of loose leaf tea, good kettle, pots, teacups, and mugs. She doesn't drink coffee. She enjoys reading and gardening. She loves her iPad (has a case for it she really likes). She likes trying new kinds of food and restaurants. She has a lot of nostalgia for her blue-collar roots and her self-made present. She's a reading and behavior specialist in an elementary school. She loves the Muppets, Ten Thousand Villages-type stuff, callbacks to her northern Ontario upbringing, and Newfoundland and Ukrainian history of the family. She has fond memories of going to Cuba with me for her 60th birthday. She's thinking about moving to Ontario to be closer to me and the rest of her family sometime in the next couple of years.

Any gift they’ve loved?

Gift subscription to a newspaper she loved at the time but no longer reads; The Thorn Birds and 1980s series Beauty and the Beast on DVD; Waterford Crystal clock; when I digitized her photos and made photo books of major events.

We recommend: indoor tea garden kit ($37.99)

As someone whose mom only wants him to move back home to Texas tonight, get married tomorrow, and have 12 children next week, I understand the perils of shopping for a picky mother. May I humbly suggest, then, the best of all worlds for someone who enjoys gardening and tea: an herbal tea herb garden starter kit. For a paltry $37.99 (plus free shipping!), there’s a mini-greenhouse, soil pellets galore, and 12 kinds of seeds to tend. Once the herbs are all grown, she can pack them in the provided bags, and boil them to her delight. Plus, y’know, bonus tea infuser. The greenhouse is also reusable so once the tea is gone, she can do it all over again. What Stones fan doesn’t love a little tea and sympathy?

Other ideas:

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Age: 71

Place: Idaho

Relationship: father

From the gift-giver:

My dad is the quintessential grumpy old man, and a total redneck in his politics and proclivities. He is a crass, badly dressed, Fox-News-watching, red-meat eater. I used to buy him The Far Side calendar every year and go through it and write him notes, and in the years since it went out of production I've tried to find a worthy substitute, but all have fallen short. He likes baseball, trains (especially model railroads), bluegrass and country music, the occasional beer, Navy memorabilia (he's a Vietnam vet), and things that feed his nostalgia for West Virginia. He is sentimental and likes the unapologetically schmaltzy. He reads a lot of spy novels. He is crazy about animals (especially cats), and they are crazy about him. He worked for the Forest Service for many years and loves all things outdoorsy as well.

Any gift they’ve loved?

He loved The Far Side page-a-day calendar, and he loved a Russian Blue cat that was given to him by his favorite former boss. (He actually wound up getting another cat that looks just like the one that was given to him, and he even gave it the same name, Spooky.)

We recommend: Omaha Steaks Steak Club ($69-$119)

You ever notice how nobody sends mail anymore? (I am channeling grumpiness in the spirit of your dad). Getting mail at all in this digital world is exciting—getting a carton of meat in the mail even more so. Omaha Steaks will do just that. Depending on your budget, you could recreate the year-long fun of your gift with one of their Steak Clubs—new steaks quarterly, or every month. Or you could do a one-time shipment of some filet mignon (or whatever kind of steak he likes—you can also make your own combo), and cook them together, so the gift includes an experience, too. (By the way, the steaks come packed in dry ice, so for a real experience, put the dry ice in the sink and run some water on it—your kitchen will fill with fog, which is pretty fun. Not that I’ve ever done that.)

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 23

Place: Ohio

Relationship: boyfriend

From the gift-giver:

My boyfriend is the hardest person to shop for. He only wears black and gray. He isn't "fashion forward." He likes guns and ammo (but obviously wants to buy them all himself). He doesn't like chocolate or sweets. He doesn't read. He doesn't use hair products and shaves his head. HE'S IMPOSSIBLE! He does, however, like tequila and beer (but his palette is very plain). He likes to work on cars and is a combustion engineer by day. He's an outgoing socialite but also enjoys spending some nights in binge-watching Netflix. He likes humor and action! He occasionally plays Call of Duty to pass the time but by no means is he a "gamer."

Any gift they’ve loved?

Well, I have given him some clothes from Express (in black and gray, of course) and he really seemed to like them. But, boy... how impersonal for someone who is my BEST FRIEND! I guess he likes peanuts and peanut butter and surprise dinners in the crock pot... but doesn't cook often. HELP!

We recommend: beer-making kit ($64.95)

A beer-making kit touches on a few aspects of your description: The engineer in him might enjoy tinkering with recipes and flavor variations that suit his palate. The socialite in him would have a nice accompaniment for hangout sessions with friends, one that pairs nicely with a good Netflix binge or Call of Duty mission. The beer-lover in him would get, um, beer. And there are a few bonuses for you as well: Beer-making night could be a lovely stay-at-home date. Plus, you can choose a gift that matches your budget, from a $36 Mr. Beer deluxe kit to kits as costly as $189.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 30

Place: Ohio

Relationship: friend

From the gift-giver:

She is really into home improvement/interior decorating—every time I visit, she and her husband have changed another room in their house, and it always looks amazing and they do it themselves (except the kitchen). She enjoys science fiction and fantasy books (Orson Scott Card and George R.R. Martin are a couple favorite authors I know of), but has also been known to read young adult fiction like Hunger Games, etc., when she needs something light. She is currently working on her dissertation for a PhD in electrical engineering. She has a two-year-old daughter, and is expecting twin boys, so her life is about to change dramatically.

Any gift they’ve loved?

I got her flannel pajama pants one year and she said loved them so much that I ended up getting her another pair a few years later. This feels pathetic to me because she's such a good gift-giver. When I learned I'd be moving across the country for my husband's job, she got me three handmade luggage tags, each with a map centered on a different place: my hometown, my husband's hometown, and the new town we'd be calling home together. Flannel PJs seem rather silly in comparison, but she said she loved them. I clearly could use some help.

We recommend: Welcome to Night Vale: a Novel audiobook ($22.72 for a CD, $27.99 for download) and bluetooth headphones ($34.99)

Since your friend’s life is changing dramatically, immersion in something even more dramatic by comparison could actually be grounding. (It reminds one that stranger things can happen.) The podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” rests comfortably in sci-fi, fantasy, and YA fiction, and documents the weird citizens of a weirder town in a desert somewhere in the southwestern United States. It’s frightening, witty, surprising, and energetic, and yet—you could probably meditate to it. (This owes much to the deep, dulcet tones of narrator Cecil Baldwin, but also, one of the story’s themes is that there are lovely, soothing things to be found in a chaotic future. A sample quote: “While the future is fast coming for you, it always flinches first, and settles in as the gentle present.”) Since she’ll soon have three small children on her hands, get her a nice pair of comfortable Bluetooth headphones—no cord for the babies to grab—and the audiobook for the just-released novelization of the podcast. Hopefully she’ll feel right at home in Night Vale.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 46

Place: Michigan

Relationship: wife

From the gift-giver:

Interests are her teenage boys. One is a senior who will be moving out in August. The other is a sophomore. She likes coffee, and Oprah's Book Club (but wishes she had more time to read). Busy being part of the sandwich generation—taking care of kids and her parents. She dreams of leaving Michigan for somewhere warmer, or at least a vacation to get away and recharge, but can't as it's not affordable now.

Any gift they’ve loved?

Something thoughtful. Pandora beads with a meaning behind them.

We recommend: coffee subscription (from $16/shipment) and copper coffee press ($39.95)

A perfect cup of joe is no Hawaiian getaway, but it brings its own kind of warmth and tranquility—especially when spiked with just the right amount of coconut liqueur, and served alongside breakfast in bed. You can tap into your wife’s love of coffee with a monthly subscription from Stumptown or Craft Coffee. For bonus presentation points, pair it with a beautiful copper French press from Bodum (and maybe a mini-bottle of Kahlua). Not only does the coffee subscription offer her a new flavor every 30 days, its monthly arrival can serve as a regular reminder for you and your sons to pamper your wife, so she can unwind with a good book.

Other ideas:

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Age: 82

Place: Chicago

Relationship: grandfather

From the gift-giver:

Youngest of 18 children; his father died when he was 9 years old so my grandfather dropped out of school and began working to support his family. He worked in sugar cane fields and as a police officer, and after bringing his wife and children to the United States, he worked in multiple factories, nearly severing a thumb in a machine accident once. He didn't retire until his 70s. Many of his brothers liked to sing, as does he, but he insists he's no good at singing (which isn't true). He enjoys telling stories about his siblings, he loves watching boxing matches, he doesn't smoke or drink, yet bizarrely, people outside the family would always give him bottles of wine for Christmas for years, so he has a storage of unopened booze in the basement. He has a poodle/terrier mix he rescued named Spike (definitely NOT named by me after a Buffy the Vampire Slayer character).

He cooks and is very, very good at it even though he usually can't eat most of the best things he makes due to recent health issues, and therefore has to have the toned down no-salt option for everything. He does not speak English despite having lived in the U.S. for nearly 50 years and owning a full set of Ingles Sin Barreras tapes for nearly that same amount of time. When I was growing up, my parents didn't speak Spanish at home so I was never able to understand him or communicate with him, which caused some distance between us. I had to learn Spanish in high-school classes; because of this, I didn't learn until I was a teenager how funny my grandpa is and that he really enjoys puns and jokes.

Any gift they’ve loved?

I believe he liked a domino set I purchased for him a couple years ago, although admittedly I've never seen him play it.

We recommend: Guillermo Álvarez Guedes “best of the best” CD collection ($59.94)

Grandpa sounds like a hoot, so an audio comedy extravaganza could tap right into that. He might already know Guedes’s material well, in which case the CDs will be a nostalgic treat. Even if he does, listening to them with you would be a whole new experience. The experiential presents are often the best, especially with older friends and relatives. You can do this one with him from the comfort of the couch, in the kitchen mid-meal prep, or while on a drive around his favorite Chicago haunts. Bonus: Listening with Gramps gives you a chance to work on your Spanish swear vocabulary.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 23

Place: Boston

Relationship: girlfriend

From the gift-giver:

She likes Bob's Burgers, Parks and Recreation, and Archer. She wants a puppy but can't have one right now because of the costs, and she doesn't want to ignore the two cats she already has. She enjoys traveling, cooking, and animals, and she loves Future and Drake.​

Any gift they’ve loved?

We've only been dating three months, and her birthday has passed. I got her a Li’l Sebastian T-shirt and she loved that, but I know I have to step my game up.

We recommend: couples cooking classes ($150)

As much as I love Li'l Sebastian (may he rest in peace), you’re right: You should step up your game for the first big holiday you’re celebrating together. I tend to think experiential gifts are the way to go when a relationship is new. What about a date-night cooking class? Since you’re in Boston, check out The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, which offers sessions on tapas and classic French cuisine. Another, pricier option in Boston is Stir ($165-$225 per person), the former home of Top Chef’s Kristen Kish. The January schedule isn’t up yet, but you might be able to squeeze into “Classic Trattoria Cooking” at the end of December.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.

Age: 19

Place: Saskatoon, Canada

Relationship: step-nephew

From the gift-giver:

My brother’s stepson seems to be a typical 19-year-old in many ways. He likes video games, hanging out with friends and drinking with them. But the problem is that I don't really know him all that well—which is why it is so tricky for me to buy for him. I need to find him something relatively inexpensive (looking for under the $25 mark), but something that a kid his age would like.

Any gift they’ve loved?

Not really... I mean, I know that my brother and his wife once set up an entertainment center in his room (TV, speakers, video game console, etc.) as a gift for one of his birthdays. He loved that, but who wouldn't love something so extravagant?  I don't know about any inexpensive, small gift that he loved. My mom once gave him a pan of S'mores cookie bars that she made that he really liked. But, ever since then, many people have given him versions of S'mores and I think he's a little sick of it.​

We recommend: the Pickpocket ($25)

Ahh, a typical 19-year-old boy—in other words, one of the most opaque kinds of humans there is. Since you mentioned he likes to drink with friends, I thought a cool bottle opener might be cheery—every beer lover could use one on his keychain, and they can be kind of fun to play with. The Pickpocket is versatile and only costs $20—it's got cool jagged edges and could possibly be used to pull apart a melting S'more, if he wants to double up on how he puts it to work. It's also a gift that will grow with him—sturdy enough to last, subtle enough to not seem immature, fly enough to inspire envy at bonfires, or whatever it is that 19-year-olds do for fun.

Other ideas:

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Age: 36

Place: Los Angeles

Relationship: younger sister

From the gift-giver:

Beautiful home, not a lot of storage space, often Airbnb's it—no room for tchotchkes or housewares others have picked out. No kids. One dog and one husband (who is easy to shop for!). Great shopper for clothes and would not like anything I picked out. (Have tried.) Don't think she uses cookbooks. Latest novels are great but blah from me every year! Excellent taste. Tight budget (mine). Would like to make or get her something fabulous that won't bust my budget, and something she would actually like. That is the tough part.

Any gift they’ve loved?

Not sure I have every succeeded with a gift for her, come to think of it. Now I feel terrible.

We recommend: gift certificate to a Korean day spa ($15-$130)

Well, it wouldn’t be the holidays if we didn’t feel inadequate. Don’t fret! Chic younger sisters are tough (trust me—I am one). All the savvy Angelenos I know rave about this Korean day spa, located in L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood. You might not be able to channel her style perfectly, but you can certainly get ahead of any stressful days she’s got down the line. The spa rituals, though on the pricier end of the spectrum, sound heavenly, but she’s also bound to appreciate a free mani, pedi, facial, or massage from her thoughtful sis.

Other ideas:

Got another suggestion for this recipient? Send your ideas to hello@theatlantic.com.