What are the Christmas gifts that truly say ‘I don’t know you’?

By the time you read this, I’ll likely be well down the rabbit hole of at least one dreadful Secret Santa enterprise with people I’m not close enough to just ignore. If all goes to script, I will have left it for too long, and by now have worked myself into a blind, angry panic, trying to devise a creative gift — there’ll usually be a set budget of some cloying amount like 50 or 100 rupees (in this economy!) — for someone whose inevitable disappointment with my terrible gift I already resent them for.

Don’t overthink it!, a friend who supposedly knows me well said when I complained about this stringently regulated style of Christmas spirit. I thought that was the point, I replied. I am the owner of an ominous metal candelabra that needs two hands to lift, a five-pack of car fresheners (I don’t own a car), and an inordinate number of diaries because people didn’t overthink their gifts to me. The point, she continued very slowly, is that the holidays can be lonely and depressing and traditions like this one provide a small sense of belonging. And besides, she added, some people — *the briefest pause?* — could use the impetus to consider others’ feelings at least once a year.

I’m not convinced that Secret Santa does any of those nice things, but they are, incidentally, what a great gift does. In January this year, a close male friend gave me a weighing scale. The optics might seem troubling but it was one of the best gifts I’d ever received. You see, after years of struggling with my weight, I had discovered a new hobby in running a few months before and dropped nearly 20 kilos as a result — right in the middle of the body positivity revolution. I took care to drum up the new energy and strength and clarity of thought the exercise had brought me, and to speak of the accompanying weight-loss as merely a happy coincidence. Inside, however, I was wracked with fear about putting the kilos back on as well as shame about having such a culturally outdated fear. I badly wanted to track my weight closely, but every time I sat down to order a scale, I felt I was betraying…I don’t know…womankind. And then my friend texted me: “I know you want to check it. It’s okay.” I’ve used the scale a total of six times since, but tucked away at the bottom of my cupboard, it brings me comfort and the handy illusion of control. He nailed it.

A great gift makes you feel seen and heard, and if you’re very lucky, it makes you feel understood. A great gift is the product of the giver’s interest, attention and affection, coupled with their resourcefulness, patience, good online delivery times, and in their absence, money. Or then, pure fool luck — like stumbling on the long-lost copy of someone’s favourite childhood book inscribed by their dearly departed father, at a used-book sale. A great gift, it naturally follows, is a rare occurrence, but, I reckon, as satisfying for the giver as it is for the receiver when it does happen. A lot like love, you might say.

I don’t think I’ve actually ever given anybody a truly great gift, none that come to mind, tellingly. I tend to swim in the shallower waters of the good gift. Good gifts have all the feeling and sentiment of great gifts, but adjusted for the daily grind; relative ease and efficiency of procurement, along with a somewhat high guarantee of success, define them. Gifts that test well in this category: Things of failsafe utility — generous vouchers and envelopes of cash have been some of my most treasured gifts and I don’t care for the disdain they get. Things of failsafe indulgence — according to a study conducted by the University of A-Twitter-Poll-I-Once-Checked, almost 100 per cent of people would adore a day at the spa. Also, favourite things, and the things of shared memories (memories that preferably centre them and not you).

That brings us to the third category of gift, perhaps more widespread with an older generation: the terrible gift. The kind borne of courtesy, compulsion, account-keeping, or any other instinct than genuine thoughtfulness. Also, let me have it off my chest, travel souvenirs. Exactly nobody wants a wood carving of their name or a whalebone keychain that you’re almost 60 per cent sure came from a carcass (what a relief). If you’re trapped in this realm of gifting, you’ll love secret category number four and I encourage everyone to enlist: no gift. If we can all promise not to give gifts when we don’t genuinely mean them and to perhaps try and find other ways to show we care — spend time with your ‘giftee’, make them tea, listen to their longwinded dreams — or that we don’t; I might be spared from Secret Santa next year. And that will be the greatest gift of all.

Cheryl-Ann Couto is a writer, editor, and performer. She’s on Instagram as @coarsematerial.