Welcome, my friends, to my annual guide to passive-aggressive gifting.
In a better world, no one would feel like gift-giving was an unavoidable obligation, and certainly no one would find themselves resentfully shopping for someone they actively dislike, but we’re not in that world yet, and across the globe in December (or November, especially when Hanukkah comes early), people resentfully head to the mall to try to select something acceptable yet inexpensive for their mother-in-law, their neighbor, their obnoxious cousin, or their least-favorite coworker who they unfortunately drew for the office Secret Santa.
And I’m here for you! Once again, I have assembled a selection of inexpensive items that will look like you cared enough to send the very best, while in fact giving people the gift of wasted time, wasted space, frustration, annoyance, etc.
As always, I want to take a moment to emphasize that I don’t buy gifts for anyone I don’t like — if I’ve given you a terrible present, I like you and it was clueless goodwill and not passive-aggression (the very sort of clueless goodwill the rest of you can use as camouflage). I also do not scrutinize gifts I receive for hints that someone secretly dislikes me. (I cheerfully assume that everyone likes me, and occasionally discover that I’m wrong, and then usually forget that the person dislikes me and embarrass us both the next time I see them in public and give them a hearty hello while they’re trying to avoid eye contact.)
Anyway. I’m doing this guide very early this year for two reasons: (1) Hanukkah starts in November (we almost got another Thanksgivukkah) and (2) SUPPLY CHAIN ISSUES. As everyone knows, supply chain issues are wreaking havoc everywhere, on all the things, and this is a particular subtle bonus to passive-aggressive gifters as you could buy something completely bizarre, like you could give the person from your office gift exchange a Bob Ross Chia Pet or an Archie McPhee Yodeling Pickle and then shrug and say “you know, supply chain issues!” and they’ll be forced to assume that the shelves at Walgreens were otherwise picked bare and you did the best you could.
(The shelves are not actually going to be bare. There will be tons of stuff, you just won’t be able to find the item you want in your size, which is always true, but it’ll be more true this year. Also, print copies of your friends’ books may be hard to find, so if you haven’t bought all your friends’ books already, get on that or resign yourself to ebooks.)
Let’s talk about some bad gift options, shall we?
What you look like you need is a new hobby!
You know what your sister-in-law needs? Something more productive to do with her time than reading OANN links on Facebook. Maybe she could take up bonsai. Bonsai is a great hobby, but usually when you gift someone a bonsai, you give them a tiny tree that they can mold and trim. This kit gives you seeds. Do you know how long it takes to grow a tiny tree from seeds? It takes years.
Alternately, here is a kit where you make tiny bowls out of embroidery thread. Per reviews, the glue soaks right through the thread so it’s almost impossible to get it off the plastic shell included to form the bowls on. In the event that your recipient gets it to work, the result is a tiny bowl made from embroidery thread, which can’t be used for much of anything useful. So you can give someone both a time waster and a tchotchke.
For a mere $10, you can buy someone a reasonably nice pocket set of watercolors that comes with brushes and a brush holder. Of course, your recipient will need some watercolor paper. You can then buy them 14 sheets of high quality, large sheets of paper, so that they’ll worry endlessly about wasting it. Alternately, you can buy a similarly thin pad of large, cheap paper. (That one telegraphs “for kids!” though — for maximum psychological pain, a tiny high grade quantity of a key consumable is a good way to make a new hobby feel painfully high stakes.)
Or perhaps you can pretend that you think they’ll enjoy a paint-by-numbers technicolor Darth Vader. (There’s a whole range of paint-by-numbers kits, so if Vader is actually up their alley you could instead get them something with more of a Thomas Kinkade vibe.)
Gifts that seem useful, but really aren’t.
If you know someone who likes to think of themselves as a rugged, self-sufficient type, you could give them a survival kit. There are lots of pre-made survival kits with various types of gear; this one is very small, and very cheap. (A cautionary note for anyone thinking about giving it to a person they dislike but would rather not see actually die in an actual emergency: the flashlight comes without batteries.)
Speaking of batteries, apparently some people find it helpful to take them all out of their packaging and carefully load them into this elaborate case. Definitely give this to someone you don’t like who already has a perfectly reasonable battery storage solution.
There are many people who find compasses to be useful. They probably would not actually want to take this large, showy, decorative compass into any situation where a compass might be useful. (It weighs almost 12 ounces! Imagine using it to orienteer your way through the woods!)
Have you ever tried to fix something while holding a flashlight and encountered the “not enough hands” problem? Maybe you think this problem would be solved by building LED flashlights into a pair of fingerless gloves. According to several reviewers, this problem is solved a whole lot better by a head lamp, since that points where you’re looking and your glove flashlight might or might not.
Most people these days get the bulk of their weather forecasting information via a phone app. It can be nice to have an indoor-outdoor thermometer but the dial kind is a lot easier to read than the classic “mercury is rising/falling” style (which are made without mercury, FYI). You can also buy some very attractive barometers, at various price points, one of which seems to basically be a snow globe for grownups. In other words, a gadget that purports to be useful, isn’t particularly, but IS fragile and attractive so they can’t just shove it in a closet: the perfect bad gift, at least for someone who, if they need a weather forecast, is going to look not at their fancy glass barometer but at their phone.
Would your recipient enjoy owning a fitness tracker? I know a lot of people who enjoy fitness trackers but none of them have fitness trackers with an alarm that once you’ve turned it on, you will never be able to shut off or reset, which according to the reviews is a feature of this budget-priced model. It also only works in metric, and despite being mainly a step counter, is incredibly unreliable about counting steps.
(Almost forgot to include this one!) Via the Black Friday Sales, how about a toaster-style hot dog and bun cooker? All the counter space of a large toaster but so much more pointless.
Let’s Gussy Up Your Home Office
Is your gift recipient still working from home? A ring light is a gadget that lights your face so you look better on Zoom calls. There are plenty of inexpensive, reliable models, but this one is significantly cheaper, provides inadequate light, and will break almost immediately.
There are also a ton of desk accessories that could be either horrifying or awesome, it depends a lot on the recipient. For example, this tape dispenser with a monkey that claps cymbals as you pull out tape. (I love how product descriptions for this sort of thing always call a “conversation starter.” Entirely accurate for conversations that begin with, “what the hell is that?”)
Alternately, you could get this kind of amazing skull desk organizer. It has two holes in the back of the head for you to put your pens and pencils in, but also the mouth is open and you can use it to store paperclips and stuff like that. If that’s just a little too far over the line, this motorcycle design is less gory but takes up way too much space for a pen holder. This dragon pen holder is also very large. The Knight Pen Holder is less overall bulky but it also holds a single pen.
There are a whole range of unique decorative staplers, including dragon, T-Rex, and carved wooden animals. None of them are particularly well-reviewed as a stapler, but the carved wooden deer looks particularly difficult to use because of how the head gets in the way of your hand, and it looks to me like the staples you’d have to use in that one are the mini kind, which are both harder to find and really useless.
Finally, let’s talk pens. Fountain pens can be really excellent gifts, and FTR, I’ve bought Jinhao fountain pens and despite their low price, they’re nice pens. But some really emphasize form over function, with sculptural decorative bits right where you’d kind of want to hold the pen. They have various sculptural rollerball pens as well as fountain. Oh, here’s another one that’s really neat to look at but has literal dragon spines where you’d be holding it? (If you’re in a situation where two people need to give separate gifts, you could pair the knight pen holder with a fancy, unusable pen!)
Magazines: The Gift That Keeps On Giving
A magazine you’re interested in is something you can enjoy all year. A magazine you are not interested in is junk mail that endlessly piles up and makes you feel guilty for not reading it!
Smithsonian magazine costs $12/year, comes with a tote, and supports the Smithsonian Institution. This would be a good gift to people interested in American history and historical research. This would be a terrific gift to people who have loud, angry opinions about “heritage” but mostly seem to have gotten their history education from right-wing Facebook memes. (ETA a quick warning: that subscription comes with auto-renewal! So be careful about that.)
The Nib sells print subscriptions that send out 3 issues per year. It’s a magazine that does comics and cartoons — who doesn’t like that? (You don’t have to tell your recipient that you do know it’s left wing comics and cartoons.)
There are several science fiction and fantasy magazines that still publish in paper. including The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction ($39/year), Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine ($36/year), and Analog Science Fiction and Fact ($36/year). If you’d prefer to clutter up their inbox, you could gift them a 12-month digital subscription to Uncanny, Magazine for $24, a 12-month digital subscription to Clarkesworld for $36, a 12-month digital subscription to Apex Magazine for $24… Just to be clear, these are only a bad gift for someone who dislikes science fiction and fantasy! If someone likes science fiction and fantasy and you want to give them a bad gift, look for a magazine that publishes something they don’t enjoy reading. For example, for $35 you can gift a year’s subscription to the Kenyon Review, which publishes literary fiction.
Finally, if you’ve got someone in your gift-giving circle who’s fond of the phrase “I’ve done my own research,” for $26/year you could support their research interests with a subscription to Scientific American!
From the Department of Either Nightmarish or Awesome, Could Go Either Way
Would you like to give someone a sweatshirt with a picture of a sloth riding a T-Rex with lasers shooting out of its eyes? Or maybe you’d prefer a housecat riding on the head of a swimming tiger? Or maybe you’re nostalgic for that old “three wolf moon” t-shirt design but you really want four wolves and also for it to be on pants (that one’s particularly great because there’s a wolf nose lined up with the crotch.) You could also get pants on which a cat in a cowboy hat is riding a shark that’s vomiting a rainbow.
This absolutely awesome t-shirt has cats striding across clouds out of some sort of orange whirlwind with a cat in the background that’s maybe supposed to look like a feline version of a wolf howling but instead kind of looks like it’s yakking. And I think this cat is doing “Warrior Pose 2” in a yoga class but I’m not 100% sure.
They’ve really expanded the stuff with this sort of hyperrealistic printing and you could also gift someone a laser-cat apron, a jumpsuit that looks like an astronaut’s space suit, a one-piece adult romper with a space kitten, and socks that looks like horse’s hooves.
All of this is the sort of thing that is perfect for some people, absolutely atrocious for other people — you could potentially gift the exact same t-shirt (or hoodie or apron) to your best friend and your worst enemy, and get the reaction you’re hoping for from both.
Finally, this one isn’t clothing, but is an object that would be delightful to the right person, horrifying to the wrong person: a glowing, color-changing dragon lamp. (They’re marketing it as a night light, but they also claim it’s a dinosaur. Anyway: someone in your life might need this, either because they’ll love it or because they’ll have to pretend to love it.) Llama and Unicorn are also available.
One of my favorite passive-aggressive charitable gift options is to symbolically give someone an animal that offers a subtle negative comment on their looks, hygiene, or personality. This would be easier if more zoos included all their animals as opposed to just the notably cute ones. I did find a useful article that lists the 19 dumbest animals on earth, though, and there’s a decent chance that a zoo near you will have giraffes, flamingos, sloths, ostriches, komodo dragons, or slow lorises available for adoption. Great Horned Owls are also on offer — owls have this great reputation for wisdom but are incredibly dumb, kind of like certain conservative NYT columnists.
The Minnesota Zoo notes you can sponsor any animal at the zoo for $100 and get a certificate and a fun book if they don’t have the appropriate stuffed animal. Mystifyingly, despite having a “name a hissing cockroach after your ex for $10” promotion for Valentine’s Day at least once, they don’t list their hissing cockroaches. (I bet they’d do it for you if you called.) They do list giraffes, flamingos, and sloths, as well as porcupines, pigs, and sheep.
The St. Louis Zoo offers $25 adoptions and will also let you adopt any animal at the zoo (for $35, you get a picture of the animal), and in addition to the usual stuff (everyone has giraffes), they have tarantulas, a wild ass, and cobras.
Branching out from zoos, the Friends of Saguaro National Park will let you symbolically gift someone the adoption of a Saguaro Cactus! ($35, and you get a certificate.) And the Wetlands Institute of New Jersey lets you adopt a horseshoe crab. ($25 and you get a digital certificate and a digital photo of a horseshoe crab. You could always print it out for them.)
For more animal gifts with negative personality implications, Oxfam Unwrapped has sheep, pigs, and chickens, and they still let you give people manure, toilets, and highly-efficient stoves (if you’d like some symbolic coal). You could also suggest that someone is not merely annoying but potentially dangerous by gifting a mosquito net to prevent malaria in that person’s honor.
Have You Considered Giving Someone My Books?
I HAD A BOOK COME OUT THIS YEAR! Chaos on CatNet, the sequel to Catfishing on CatNet. I also have a short story collection called Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories. You can often find signed copies from Dreamhaven Books or Uncle Hugo’s, both of which do mail order (Uncle Hugo’s is currently exclusively doing 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