I think I started this on Black Friday (“As I type this, the annual obligatory shopping season has begun” was originally the first sentence) but of course I didn’t actually get it done, so HELLO FROM WELL INTO THE ANNUAL OBLIGATORY SHOPPING SEASON. Sorry about the procrastinating.
If you’re lucky, you don’t need this gift guide, because you’re only shopping for people you actually like, people you sincerely want to make happy with your gift. Stuck for what to get? There are gift idea articles all over the Internet for people looking for good ideas. My friends, that is not what I am providing here today! THIS shopping guide is different. THIS is a guide for all the people who are grudgingly buying an obligatory and hopefully inexpensive gift for someone they can’t stand. Given how popular this guide is, apparently it fills a need! And I live to serve.
I will note: I myself am lucky. I do not buy gifts for anyone I don’t like — although I’ve definitely given bad gifts on occasion out of clueless good intentions. For example, one time back in the late 1990s, I bought a Siberian husky angel ornament for my mother-in-law. (My in-laws trained and raced sled dogs.) My mother-in-law gave that ornament a deeply skeptical look and said “I’ve never met a husky who deserved that halo.” I mean. I tried. I thought, “huskies, oh, she likes husky stuff!” and that sort of well-intended swing-and-miss is sufficiently common that you can use it as camouflage for your own gift-wrapped calculated passive-aggressive gesture. I also do not scrutinize gifts I receive for hints that the person secretly hates me. (In general, I assume that everyone likes me, unless they block me on Twitter, and then I assume that I got caught in a blockchain because who would block me, I am delightful.)
On to the gifts!
Shall We Play A Game?
Giving games can be hazardous if you’re celebrating together. If you give a bad game in-person, especially on a long December day without a lot else going on, you run the risk of being roped in to playing it. So choose wisely.
If you’d like a game that’s fun to play (in case you’re roped in) but with a subtle “there’s a reason I picked this game for you” vibe, you could gift Guillotine (in which various figures from the French Revolution are sent to the guillotine) or Give Me the Brain (in which zombies attempt to fill fast food orders). (Both of these are good games, just to be clear: the passive-aggressiveness potential there is mainly in the titles.)
On the other hand, if you are absolutely sure you are not at any risk of getting stuck playing a round, there’s this “what if Hot Potato, but the potato gives you an electrical shock?” game: Lightning Reaction.
The Opposite of Fun
As a podcast listener, for a while I was constantly hearing ads for an electric toothbrush with the suggestion that an electric toothbrush would be a terrific gift. Electric toothbrushes are in fact the perfect passive-aggressive gift: it suggests that the person’s dental hygiene probably needs work, and let’s face it, tooth brushing is kind of the opposite of fun. (I brush my teeth every day — I feel like I need to be clear about this given the state of Hygiene Discourse on Twitter — and I in fact use an electric toothbrush. I bought it for myself, though, and I’m not going to pretend that it somehow made brushing my teeth fun.) If you do gift someone an electric toothbrush, the one that advertises on podcasts apparently has poor quality control and doesn’t work very well, and this one is cheap and breaks quickly. (Also, the weirder the off-brand, the harder it will be for people to get the replacement brush-heads.)
Anyway, if you want to go for something even less fun than a toothbrush here’s a toothbrush sanitizer, which has the added bonus of giving them a brand new thing to worry about.
Other “for the person who has everything!” completely unfun gadgetry: a sweater de-piller (per reviews, this actually works pretty well), a magnetic wristband that’s supposed to hold screws but doesn’t work, and for people in northern climates, a large, bulky, completely nonfunctional electric windshield scraper. If you want a cheaper dysfunctional windshield scraper here’s a heated one that has a review from someone saying they had better results using a spatula.
Terrible Kitchen Gadgets
I have been cooking for a really long time at this point so let me start with a short discussion of what makes something a good kitchen gadget. A good kitchen gadget needs to make some job easier. Ideally, it should make a frequent job easier. It needs to be comfortable to use and easy to clean. There should be a way to store it conveniently and safely. I’m not unalterably opposed to a cutesy design, but nearly everything I’ve ever tried that was cutesy was also much harder to use, clean, and/or store than the non-cutesy version.
But cutesy kitchen gadgets are, well, cute. And thus absolutely perfect bad gifts because the recipient will feel bad about getting rid of it.
For example, here’s a box grater that’s shaped like an adorable bear. Non-cute box graters have a handle on the top so you can hold down the grater while you’re using it. This one does not have that feature. Alternately, a pizza cutter that’s shaped like a circular saw! This is a little less frustrating to use, but you have to take it completely apart to get it clean and there’s no safe way to store it. (Pizza cutters frequently have that problem, but this one is also shaped in a way that makes it super awkward to put in a drawer.) From the same company that makes the bear grater, here’s a Vampire-shaped garlic press (this doesn’t look like it would actually be that much more annoying than any other garlic press — they’re basically all annoying) and a Ninja-shaped cutting board that holds a knife (so you can’t readily stash it with your other cutting boards).
If you’re Christmas shopping for a cooking enthusiast who’s less than a foot tall, these miniature (yet usably sharp) kitchen knives will be a terrific choice! … they’re cute and completely pointless for everyone else. (I mean, yes, in theory someone could use them as letter openers. No one will actually do that more than once: they will grab something larger and easier to handle.) For an even more useless item, the same people also make a tiny folding knife. I’m not sure how you unfold it but I’m guessing maybe you use the same tool you use to pop out your cell phone’s SIM card, if you can find it.
Books and Book-Related Novelties
Books are, as a general rule, excellent gifts, but they’re much better gifts if you choose them with the person’s interests in mind. For example, Meg Elison’s Number One Fan is a genuinely good gift for anyone who likes thrillers and doesn’t mind some body horror (I read it in two sittings, after tearing myself away at 1 a.m. because I really needed some sleep) but it’s also the perfect gift for your misogynistic brother-in-law who doesn’t need to know anything beyond “it’s like Steven King’s Misery in the era of social media!” H. Clarke’s books (Scapegracers and Scratch Daughters) would both be a genuinely excellent gift for someone who likes queer, witchy YA fantasy about teenage girls and a passive-aggressive gift for anyone who dislikes queerness, witches, or teenage girls. If you know anyone from the “we’ll just all move to Mars with Elon Musk!” school of global warming solutions, Ruthanna Emrys’s Half-Built Garden would be a highly personalized “get it together, bucko” message (but it’s also a good gift for people who are interested in hopeful science fiction and plausible utopias.)
There are also some interesting book-related novelties you could give someone headaches with. Like bookends. The thing about a bookend is, if you’re storing your books on bookcases, a bookend is only useful if you don’t have enough books to fully fill a shelf — which is a situation that most people I know handle by buying more books. A bookend masquerades as something useful, but is only going to get in the way.
You can gift one that looks like two halves of a cute vintage bicycle and according to the reviews, is too light to actually hold up books — so it’s also not useful for the person who’s storing their books on open shelves rather than a bookcase and actually needs an effective bookend to keep them on the shelf. This one incorporates a bud vase, because sure, you definitely want to keep a little test tube of water right next to your books. Here’s a set of oversized elephants that again, according to reviewers, will still slide to the side if you try to use it to hold books up that don’t want to stand on their own. Or maybe you’d like some slightly creepy disembodied hands!
If you truly want something they will have to find a spot for, there’s this one:
….which works its magic using a slanted bookend you slide into a book, and magnets. (The Amazon page has a short video that shows you how it works. Once again, it’s too light to hold up most books, but it’s solidly in the category of “for the right person, actually awesome?” so gift wisely.)
For other not-terribly-functional gifts for readers there are all sorts of elaborate bookmarks, including “looks like jewelry, is not actually long enough to stay in the spot in the book“; “a cute bookworm that is excessively fussy to put in place“; and “looks pretty nifty displayed on a shelf, super annoying as a functional bookmark.” You could also gift them a book light for reading in bed that has to be moved with every page flip and according to reviews gets scratched if you breathe on it.
What You Need is a Hobby!
Part of why it took me so long to write this piece this year is that I got a little hung up on this one. Apparently one path to de-radicalizing family members lost down a rabbit hole of horror that occasionally works is to find them a better hobby. So I started thinking, maybe I should suggest good hobby kits for people? Which turned into a lot of unnecessary pressure because as it happens, I do not know what sort of hobby your aunt might actually find absorbing enough to pursue, and also, “if I just pick the right hobby for my aunt, maybe it will restore her to the person I used to know” is a lot of pressure to pack into a holiday gift. Anyway: hobbies are actually great, but these kits are not.
- Gardening! These tools look fairly terrible, a bunch of them are really not useful, and they come in a case. You don’t actually want a case for garden tools; you want a basket or something. The case means you’ll have to clean them carefully after each use just to put them away. Pair this gift with a bunch of seeds that would have to be started indoors to be useful (for example, tomatoes if they live in Minnesota.)
- Latch hook! Remember latch hook? If you were a kid in the 1980s you probably remember latch hook. This kit is tiny, so they might actually finish it (unlike 99% of latch hook kits sold in the 1980s) but it also just does not look very good.
- Diamond Painting! This is a craft that involves painstakingly sticking down lots of tiny sparkly beads. The people who like it say it’s relaxing. This kit has a very boring picture that doesn’t really showcase the sparkly.
- Birdwatching! Here we have a pair of absolutely terrible binoculars. Pair it with a bird identification book for the wrong part of the country. This series is fantastic. (I mean, it’s genuinely fantastic. But it’s also regional, so you could get someone the wrong region. “I didn’t see one for Michigan, so I bought you the one for Minnesota since both states are in the midwest.”)
So Horrifying it’s Arguably Awesome: Clothing
Alas, my friends, I procrastinated on this so much that the sweatshirt on which Jesus is ministering to a bunch of cats in heaven is now not going to arrive in time if anyone orders it.
Fortunately, you can still get a t-shirt of cats doing the Titanic pose as they pop out of a space nebula, “Three Wolf Moon” but with cats (who are howling, I guess?), sweatpants covered in extremely alarmed looking cats, and a sweatshirt with a brightly colored glow-in-the-dark cat peering out of it. Those would all arrive by Christmas.
So Horrifying it’s Arguably Awesome: Home Decorating
To start with, I have for you (or someone who deserves it, for whatever reason) a solar-powered multicolor light up yard peacock. Also a less flashy (it’s not as colorful) but still somehow horrifying solar powered light-up squirrel. Or a very colorful solar-powered rose garden.
This probably happened a while ago and I just failed to notice, but we crossed some threshold with solar power where they can just make things light up that did not used to light up at all. Like wind chimes, available in both light-up hummingbirds and light-up cardinals. (Wind chimes are one of those things a lot of people hate anyway. Random tinkling noises are pleasant to some people, super grating to others.)
For some indoorsy items, here’s a cute little tabletop fountain with a motor that within a month or two will make a grinding noise that drowns out the soothing sound of trickling water. Alternately, remember the joys of “some assembly required” children’s toys? Here’s a lamp that comes as a “puzzle” (but you can plausibly claim it just looked like a lamp on its Amazon page.) Finally, here is a novelty computer mouse that looks like a car. I bet it is a lot more annoying to use than the boring sort of computer mouse.
Passive-Aggressive Charitable Gifts
I was thinking a few weeks ago about how symbolic animal adoptions tend to focus on cute animals with wholesome reputations and wondered if there were any insect-focused zoos that might offer virtual adoptions of bugs. A google search for “insect zoo” quickly turned up the St. Louis Zoo’s Insectarium. I got all excited, checked out the website – you can, of course, adopt any animal at the zoo – went looking for a list of the insects at the Insectarium and turned up nothing.
No problem, I thought, I will simply send an e-mail!
In retrospect, I think my mistake was in providing context (including a link to last year’s gift guide) rather than just asking for a list, because no one has replied to my e-mail even though I was very very clear that what I wished to do was send them donors. (I mean, to be fair to them: it’s also possible that the person who would normally have replied to my e-mail is out with Long COVID. But I sort of suspect that’s not it.)
Anyway: I’m going to direct you this year to the Minnesota Zoo, which allows you to adopt any animal at the zoo and has hissing cockroaches, although it does not list them on its page of animals. If a cockroach (even a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach) would be just a little bit too on the nose, I’ll note that they also have wolverines (which have cool associations thanks to sports teams and Red Dawn but are in fact stinky and mean); trumpeter swans (loud, decorative assholes); and sea dragons (like their less-badass-sounding cousins the sea horses, the males are the ones who get pregnant). Oh, and fruit bats. I think fruit bats are adorable but mileage definitely varies on that. You can do a virtual adoption of any animal at the zoo.
For years, my suggested fallback charitable option was charitable gifts through Oxfam Unwrapped, which let you give someone crabs, worms, or *cough* manure. Imagine my dismay when I went to check on the links and discovered that the entire Oxfam Unwrapped program has been discontinued.
“Have them give malaria nets,” my kid suggested. “If you give someone a malaria net and say ‘this made me think of you,’ and they weren’t already interested in malaria prevention, there is basically no way to interpret this that isn’t insulting. Are you saying they remind you of mosquitoes? Of malaria? Either one is bad.” A friend suggested the Biogas Stoves from Heifer Project (or shares of them), since that’s symbolically representing coal or possibly suggesting “you are simultaneously full of both hot air, and burning animal feces.” One of my personal favorite charities is the International Medical Corps, which in fact has a gift catalog but most of their gifts are just nice things that people need and don’t have any particular double meaning like “crabs,” alas. (Maybe I should write in and suggest they offer some options like that for next year.)
Have You Considered Giving Someone My Books?
I had a book come out last year — Chaos on CatNet, the sequel to Catfishing on CatNet. I also have a short story collection called Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories, and I had a short story appear this year in an anthology called The Reinvented Heart.
You can usually find signed copies of my books from Dreamhaven Books or Uncle Hugo’s, both of which do mail order. When Amal El-Mohtar tweeted about Catfishing on CatNet she said, “Do you know a queer teen? Are you a queer teen? Are you an adult who misses an internet that felt kinder & purer? Did you love the Hugo-winning short story ‘Cat Pictures Please’? PLEASE do your heart the gift of acquiring & reading this beautiful book.”
So if you want a good gift you could totally give someone a copy of my book. And just from Amal’s description you can probably figure out exactly which of your relatives this would be a bad gift for. I’ll note that there’s nothing on the book jacket that will give away, for example, the scene where the main character and her friends hack an instructional robot to provide accurate sex ed, so if you want to pretend ignorance later, your plausible deniability is covered. You could also buy any or all of these for yourself — if you’ll be spending time this holiday season around highly stressful family members, there’s no escape like a good book. And if supply chain issues have made print copies difficult to find, I am just as happy when people read my books on their e-reader as when they read print copies.
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)
Gifts for People You Hate, 2017
Gifts for People You Hate, 2018
Gifts for People You Hate, 2019
Gifts for People You Hate, 2020: Pandemic Procrastination Edition
Gifts for People You Hate 2021: Supply Chain Mayhem