Every year I sit down to write this and think, “what am I even going to come up with this year? I have used up all possible Bad Gift Ideas and am doubtless in reruns at this point” and then I start poking around looking at what’s available for purchase on Amazon:
And I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of astonishingly terrible objects that one could give to those people to whom one is required by circumstance and etiquette to give gifts.
Maybe your office has a Secret Santa exchange, and you don’t officially have to participate except at your last performance review you got dinged for “not being enough of a team player, so you kinda do have to participate, and then you get assigned to buy a gift for that person who puts all their calls on speakerphone and leaves dishes in the office sink. Or maybe you’ve tried to talk your family into just exchanging festive greetings and this resulted in DRAMA so you’ve resigned yourself to buying gifts forever for that family member you try not to get stuck next to during the meal.
Sometimes you’re shopping for a gift because it’s worth that $15 to keep the peace and even though you know that, you resent every moment trying to figure out what would please this person. And that’s where my shopping guide comes in! Free yourself from the burden of trying to make an asshole happy, and embrace the idea of giving them something that won’t.
There are certain basic principles that apply every year. It should be cheap, but untraceably cheap. (Buying them a hand-crocheted who-knows-what for $2 at a thrift shop and pretending it came from a craft show is a terrific idea but you will need to make sure it looks new and doesn’t have that distinctive, identifiable Smell Of Savers wafting from it.) It should be easy to get, and it should look like a gift you might honestly have picked out because you thought they’d like it.
(And a final disclaimer: I don’t actually buy gifts for anyone I don’t like, so if I have given you a bad gift in the past, I promise this was not an intentional slight!)
ON TO THE SHOPPING.
The Gift of Crowded Kitchen Counters
Most people have less space in their kitchen than they would find ideal. They don’t really have enough space on their counters; they don’t really have enough space in their drawers and cabinets. Single-purpose appliances allotted counter real estate usually do something genuinely critical, like brew coffee.
So I find it sort of weird how many overspecialized appliances are out there. Like, I will grant you your rice cookers as opposed to a pot with a lid, but who makes so many quesadillas that they really need a specialized quesadilla maker instead of a large frying pan? Is it really enough of a challenge to hard-boil eggs in a pot that you’d want to devote space to a gadget designed to cook eggs in the shell? (There are egg-cookers that will also poach eggs — that one only cooks them in the shell, although it claims you can also use it to steam other things, like bread, corn, and sweet potato.) An electric potato peeler is arguably useful for people with arthritis in their hands but probably more of a hassle than just using a manual peeler for anyone who doesn’t. Professional crepe-makers all use this enormous flat griddle to make them on, and now you can buy your own miniature version, which requires just as much skill to use properly as a skillet, takes up more space, and (in this case) will probably stop heating properly within a week. All of these things are the sort of kitchen gadgets that you can hand over with a smile in the knowledge that they are just useful enough that the person will hesitate to get rid of them, and so they’ll hang out in the kitchen, gathering dust and taking up space, for a good long time.
But even if you can think of a reason that someone would want a crepe-maker, there’s probably no one out there who sincerely wants an egg tray that holds 14 eggs and comes with an app that’s supposed to track how many eggs you have and how fresh they are. Unnecessarily complicated containers for things that already came in a container are classic bad gifts: there’s also this honey dispenser, and how this is better than a squirt bottle I’m not sure.
Did you know that you can buy a toothpick dispenser that looks like a Faberge egg? I had no idea that you could buy a toothpick dispenser that looked like a Faberge egg. The thing about a Faberge-egg-style toothpick dispenser is that you have to unbox your toothpicks from the boring-yet-functional container they came in and stick them in the Faberge egg. This bunny that dispenses cotton balls through its butt has a similar problem, plus I’m looking at that bunny and thinking about how many cotton balls come in a bag and realizing that anyone using this will have to find a drawer in which to store their unused cotton balls and they’ll have to reload the bunny. Similarly, this gadget holds about 30 Q-tips and I’m pretty sure that you’ll spend at least 5 minutes trying to arrange them properly to actually get them to look like a cute little lotus flower like in the picture. Which means you’re not only giving someone a waste of counter space, you are also giving them a tedious and unrewarding chore that will renew itself every 30 Q-tips. (Okay, these aren’t countertop-wasting kitchen gadgets; they’re sink-top-wasting bathroom gadgets. Let me refocus.)
Almost everyone has a timer in their kitchen: they have one on their microwave and they have a phone in their pocket that will work as a timer. So any timer you give them is probably already redundant. From the Department of YOU HAD ONE JOB, here is a kitchen timer that looks like an owl but does not ring when done. If that’s not quite annoying enough, this one looks like a rooster and (a) doesn’t keep time accurately and (b) rings either 1/2 the time or 1/4 of the time.
A lot of people have nuts around during the holidays. This large, impressive, specifically-for-pecans nutcracker is probably worth keeping around if you literally have a pecan tree growing in your yard; no one else is going to crack enough pecans to justify keeping it around. Cuter and less-functional is this nutcracker that looks like a squirrel. (You can package it up with a basket full of nuts, which are cheap and available at the grocery store. Maybe throw in a weird-looking stuffed squirrel or glass squirrel paperweight to make it a themed gift with bonus useless dust-collectors.
That awkward-looking unicorn I showcased at the top (okay, okay, I’m just going to say it: it looks to me like this unicorn is deep-throating that wine bottle in some S&M scenario where it’s seriously considering using its safeword) is also available as a horse, a labrador retriever, and a German shepherd, all with a similar “not really drinking the wine per se” pose.
Wal-Mart Black Friday Bargains
I’m writing this the day before Thanksgiving, which means that if I get this done quickly, in theory you could hit the Black Friday sales for bargains. I looked through the Black Friday ads online, and Wal-Mart in particular had some really truly terrible items…
Behold, the “SmarTab.” It’s a tablet computer for $28 (normally it’s $50). This is a new model, so who knows what it’ll be like, but the previous model, according to reviews, (a) went through its battery in 2-3 hours even if you were just reading something, (b) came with an obnoxiously short charging cable so you couldn’t use it while it charged (and it had its own unique charging port so you couldn’t just swap in a less-annoying charger), (c) was slooooooooooooooow, (d) had a screen that sometimes just spontaneously cracked, and (e) got untouchably hot. (And this is just a selection of fun quirks.)
They’ve probably fixed at least some of these problems but odds are high that they haven’t fixed all of them.
There are a whole lot of terrible movies in this ad. Based on the Rotten Tomato ratings, it looks like Fifty Shades Darker is probably the absolute worst of any of the movies in here, but I do not recommend giving it to your mother-in-law, especially if there is any chance that she’ll pop it in while you’re still visiting. Warcraft is also supposed to be pretty terrible and the best anyone can say about the Angry Birds movie is that it’s better than you’d expect of a movie based on this video game. If you’re willing to splurge $8, The Emoji Movie (shown in a different section of the ad) was heavily regarded as the worst movie of 2017. For $10, you can get it on Blue-Ray!
Based on the picture of this tent, the fact that it is $38, the fact that it is for sale at Wal-Mart, and the fact that a tent from this brand with a similar description (if a radically different picture) is reviewed on Amazon by someone who says it’s the worst tent they’ve ever owned, I’m pretty confident this is a terrible tent. (Also, “easy 30-second setup” is never not a lie.) Either they will take it camping and have a horrible time putting it up, or they will never take it camping and it will take up space in their closets.
Multitools can actually be a good gift rather than a bad gift. The most obvious bad multitool option is a flimsy one that breaks, but to my surprise, even the cheapest multitools seem to mostly be fairly solid these days. A bad multitool usually has one of the following points of failure:
- It’s packed with tools that just will not function properly when miniaturized.
- It emphasizes tools that you’re never going to just randomly need. For example, I’m never going to spontaneously decide to fix someone else’s bathroom sink; therefore, I do not need a pipe wrench on my hypothetical multitool. If I’m at home, I have a real pipe wrench and it’s going to be worth getting it for a sink repair.
- It’s entirely the wrong suite of tools for that person.
This one pretends to be a hatchet, and does a crap-ass job of being a hatchet (or hammer) because you need a properly sized handle and reasonable heavy head for a functional hatchet that’s not a complete pain in the ass to use. (“I received this as a thoughtful, well-inentioned gift,” one of the one-star reviews notes.)
This one’s a multispork. Ever said to yourself, “if only I had a spork”? There are people for whom this one’s a good gift; if you’re buying for an ultralight backpacker you can’t stand, there’s a world of inappropriately heavy camping gear you can get them. Or a Hiker’s Journal. Hardcover, if you can find it.
This one’s a pencil with a built-in screwdriver, ruler, and level. I look at the level and think, “either you have a level — a better level than this one — or you’re in a situation where eyeballing the item is fine.” Again, there’s a person out there for whom this is a perfect, perfect gift: it’s the person who compulsively straightens their friend’s artwork and would love a level they can keep in their pocket so they don’t have to eyeball it.
If you’re just looking for a cheap gift that seems “manly,” here’s a set of two knives for $7 (the pictures show someone using the corkscrew to drill a hole in a wine bottle, but the reviews seem to mostly think these are fine.) The flimsiest I found: a knock-off of a more expensive credit-card-sized multitool. Several reviewers say that the tools break and don’t want to go back into their holders.
Finally, multitools have a tendency to get lost — here’s one that will tell you that you should carry it on your keychain, but according to the reviewers will reliably fall off your keychain.
Weird Yard Decor
The downside of yard decor as a passive-aggressive gift is that it takes up a spot in their YARD, which has probably got more free space than their HOUSE. But there are some deeply skeevy yard decorations out there. Like a whole line of tasteless garden gnomes, many so far over the line that you’re not going to be able to pretend that you thought the recipient would Just Love It. (I mean, I totally know people who’d put out a garden gnome flipping everyone the bird, but nearly all bad gifts are a good gift for someone.)
Beyond tacky gnomes, there’s a lot out there that’s just ugly, like this solar-powered owl with glowing eyes. Or this solar-powered owl with light-up holes in its abdomen. Or this light-up mushroom. Here’s a ladybug-shaped hanging solar light, which has the additional bonus of, they’ll have to find a spot to hang it up.
Solar lights at least have some functionality to them, though, whereas gazing balls do not. I actually think gazing balls look kind of cool but this one is really pretty terrible and also only $20.
Apparently this bloated cardinal functions as a birdhouse? I find that kind of implausible since it doesn’t look like you’d hang it up? The frog in the same series functions as a key hider, which actually gives it a reason for existing. Then again, this guy functions as a thermometer and I’m not sure that’s a sufficient excuse. Speaking of birdhouses, they are a cutesy, not particularly functional item that people have to find somewhere to hang: here’s a cheap one. (Do birds ever actually take up residence in these? Since I’ve never gotten around to hanging one, I’m honestly not sure.)
There are a ton of very practical bird feeders out there. This one will be a pain to hang, holds about 1/4 cup of bird seed, and is really more of a squirrel feeder.
I still think it’s too bad that Oxfam no longer lets you give people “crabs” or “worms” but you can still give the gift of literal poop, so there’s that. You can also give a pig, a toilet, or an energy-efficient stove (which you can think of as being a symbolic way of giving someone coal). Over on UNICEF’s site you can give de-worming tablets.
In the Symbolic Animal Adoption world, you can adopt a blue crab or a three-toed sloth for a subtle comment on someone’s personality. Or a warthog. If you’ve had a lot of fights about gender roles with some relative you could gift that person a seahorse adoption, which will probably come with some interesting information on seahorses like the part about the male ones getting pregnant. Tasmanian Devils are known for their foul smell, ferocity, and “extremely loud and disturbing screech” (thank you, Wikipedia). The hellbender salamander is apparently sometimes known as a “snot otter.” Tarantulas probably need no explanation. Gifting someone a sulfur-crested cockatoo adoption is a way of saying, “you are someone who never shuts up.” Finally, from the Department of Uncute Animals, the National Zoo is fundraising for a new Naked Mole Rat exhibit and for $100 you can have your recipient recognized on the zoo webpage. (For $2500 you can have them recognized on the wall of the new exhibit, but you’d have to be either really rich or really petty for that to be worth it just to annoy someone.)
Happy holidays, everyone, and don’t let the bastards grind you down. (And if you’re thinking about non-passive-aggressive charitable giving, don’t forget that I’m doing a fundraiser for The Bridge, which provides services and housing to homeless teens in the Twin Cities area.)
Passive-Aggressive Gift Giving Guides from Previous Years:
2010: Beyond Fruitcake: Gifts for People You Hate
2011: Gifts that say, “I had to get you a gift. So look, a gift!”
2012: Holiday shopping for people you hate
2013: Gift Shopping for People You Hate: the Passive-Aggressive Shopping Guide
Gifts for People You Hate 2014: The Almost-Generic Edition
Whimsical Gifts (for People You Hate) 2015
Gifts for People You Hate 2016 (the fuck everything edition)
My Twitter feed: @naomikritzer
And my fiction that was published online this year:
Waiting Out the End of the World in Patty’s Place Cafe, Clarkesworld, March 2017.
Paradox, Uncanny, June 2017
Or last year:
Zombies in Winter, Persistent Visions, December 2016.
You could also order my new short story collection, Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories.