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The ultimate gifting guide: how to give the perfect present every time

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The Stylist web team
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Nothing is more deflating on Christmas day than seeing your family feign joy at your gifts. Here’s an expert’s guide to being an excellent present buyer

Words: Edwina Langley

Gift giving is easy, right? You find a present for someone, you offer it forth, they love it. Easy as pie. Only what happens when it’s not easy? When you get to the bottom of your Christmas list and shiver at the words ‘AUNTY SUE’ capitalised and underlined in red. When you excitedly hand over the 24-month aged comté you bought for your sister-in-law on Christmas Day, only to be met with a frosty eyebrow raise and a murmured, “Thanks, I guess” (you forgot she went vegan in November). Containing your own feelings of dejection takes some doing, but it’s also a sharp reminder of how hard finding the perfect Christmas present can be. And on an occasion as fuelled by familial one-upmanship and competitive giving as Christmas Day, there’s a lot riding on getting it right.

Of course, there are those decidedly elf-like people for whom ‘getting it right’ is an inherent skill. These are the people who keep ‘present boxes’ in their cupboards all year round and boast carefully curated Christmas present Pinterest boards. Their beautifully wrapped gifts (lino-printed by their fair hands) bring a tear to every receiver’s eye – so personal, so thoughtful, so exactly what they wanted but didn’t even know it! So how on earth, amid the frenzied last- minute shopping, thumping festive hangover and kitchen full of half-made canapés can we get it right? Calm your Christmas baubles, we’ve consulted gifting experts for their definitive guide to how to become the best present buyer ever…

Put their name on it

It’s A Wonderful Life is on the telly, Aled Jones is ringing out of the radio – it may seem a little manipulative to play on the narcissistic instincts of your nearest and dearest right now, but believe us, it works. Personalised gifts stamp whatever you’re giving with a little bit of the receiver – their name, their initials, their picture – which is an easy way to make it seem like you’ve put real time and effort into the gift, whether that’s an engraved Monica Vinader pendant (from £35; monicavinader.com) or a monogrammed bauble to brighten up their tree (from £12; twenty-seven.co.uk). Elaine Shar, Elfridges manager at Selfridges says one of the key trends this Christmas is “anything personalised”, and really, the options are almost endless. Gone are the days of headed paper; these days you can monogram Burberry scarves and fragrance bottles (uk.burberry.com), leather iPhone cases (uk.monpurse.com) and even covetable Frends headphones (selfridges.com). So everyone in the family can make a name for themselves this Christmas.

Christmas gift

Get what they asked for

Sure, this might seem like an obvious point, but it’s so often ignored. Because when your dad asks for a humble pair of M&S socks, the temptation to get him something far more imaginative – far more reflective of how creative and caring you are as a person – is irresistible. But if you want to be an excellent present-giver, resist it. “It’s all about understanding who you are gifting,” says Shar. “Listening is key. People also drop hints unknowingly – what makes a person tick, what are their hobbies, what have people suggested they need?” It might be hard to understand some people prefer practical presents over exciting ones (a beautiful water carafe from Mud Australia – £53, mudaustralia.com – for example), but hear them out, because ignoring their wishes could spark the ‘annual Christmas row’. A 2011 study on gift-giving found recipients can get frustrated when givers do not take note of their suggestions. “Recipients will likely consider gifts they requested as more considerate of their needs, than those not requested,” says study co-author Francesca Gino. So suck it up, put your creative aspirations on pause and get dad the socks.

Christmas gift

Don’t gift bundle

Ever found yourself anguishing over how you’ve got your sister one big, expensive present, and your mum lots of little ones. It’s easy to chuck something small in with the lone gift to try and ‘pad things out’, right? But the experts say doing this actually devalues the original gift (the novelty mug making your beautiful cashmere jumper seem embarrassingly cheap). “When people are presenting a gift, they think ‘add-ons’ will make them seem more generous,” says Stephen Garcia, an associate professor of psychology and organisational studies and co-writer of 2011 paper The Presenter’s Paradox. “However, from the perspective of the recipient, a gift box containing a cashmere sweater alone is perceived to be more generous than a gift box containing both a cashmere sweater and £15 gift card.” It’s a bit like your partner giving you jewellery and also a book voucher; you might question whether they felt the need to ‘bump things up’ slightly because the jewellery was on the ‘budget’ side. Make your choice, stick with one thing (we want the Bella Freud sparkle 1970 jumper – £290, bellafreud.com – under our tree FYI), and have faith that your gift is so brilliant it doesn’t need any accompaniments.

Christmas gift

Organisation is key

Present givers can loosely be split into two camps – those who make lists and smugly wrap their presents mid-December, and those who make that Supermarket Sweep dash to Liberty at 3pm on Christmas Eve. Unsurprisingly, the latter leads to less-than-splendid gift-giving. Sally Bendelow, creative product director at notonthehighstreet.com suggests keeping notes, throughout the year, when inspiration strikes. “Keep an on-going list of any ideas you have, even if they seem random – for example, that time your best friend mentioned how much she loves rose gold [get her the Alex Monroe rose gold bumblebee necklace, £165; liberty london.com]. Keep your list in an easy to access place for when inspiration strikes, such as a note on your phone.” A study by the University of California also found that Christmas shoppers who buy all their presents in one sweep are less likely to buy presents that suit the recipient – the key is making small, targeted trips for each person on your list. And if you’re feeling really dedicated – make a present ‘scrapbook’ throughout the year; tear out any products in magazines that catch your eye and then refer to this bible of inspiration come December.

Disappointing that Lesley decided not to balance the gifts on her shoulder pads

Disappointing that Lesley decided not to balance the gifts on her shoulder pads

Get your hands dirty

“Some of the best gifts I’ve ever been given have been handmade,” says Rebecca Attrill, private suite manager at Liberty. “You take those gifts to every house you ever live in. Whereas a handbag or an accessory… seasons come and go.” But before you start stewing your chutney or dusting your chocolates, experts are less in favour of perishable presents. “Flowers, wine or chocolates disappear very quickly,” says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics who has written extensively on gift-giving. “You want your friend to remember what you gave them – something that stays on the shelf or mantelpiece so it’s always visible is a good gift.” So hold fire on the homemade kimchee and opt for gifts you can frame – like handmade collages of Polaroid photographs (use the Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 Camera; £54.99; johnlewis.com), a favourite poem you’ve had illustrated (find a designer at fiverr.com), or a collection of exotic pressed flowers.

Christmas gift

Do give money

An envelope might look a little forlorn under the tree – and let’s face it, tearing one open will never beat ripping away swathes of paper – but vouchers and money are actually economically proven ‘good gifts’. This is largely because little – if any – money is wasted in the giving and using of them. As Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents For The Holidays, explains, “When a buyer spends £100 on a gift voucher, they can be sure that the recipient will end up with something worth at least that much. Whereas if I bought you a jumper for £100, it may be worth nothing to you (wrong size, wrong colour, wrong style).” Essentially then, the item loses its value. Of course, you don’t want to run the risk of looking like you simply don’t care. “If you are giving money, then a pen-and-ink sentiment in a beautiful card will make it a more personalised option,” suggests Shar (papier.com or katieleamon.com do impeccable notelets). “We live in a world in which text messages and emails are so prevalent that a handwritten note is a truly thoughtful gesture.” If you’re still worrying about seeming Scrooge-like, present your voucher in a stylish box (Hay do beautiful designs, amara.com) so the recipient has something more substantial to unwrap.

If in doubt, get skincare

If your wallet quivers at the mere mention of Christmas, opt for beauty products, because they don’t have to be expensive, but can still look and smell luxurious. “Your purse-strings might be a bit tight, but beauty is something women, on the whole, will always buy and always want,” says Attrill. “Skincare products – such as Malin + Goetz’s Detox Face Mask, and Ren’s Instant Firming Beauty Shot, both under £40 – are great to give. But unless you really know a person – and have gone through their make-up bag – steer clear of anything related to their basic make-up regime (ie a particular foundation).”

If you take all of this on-board, chances are you’ll give good gift this season. Although, as Bing might remind us, a big pile of perfect presents is worth nada without good company and cheer. Best start pouring the gingerbread martinis then.

It’s all in the name

Win present giving on Christmas morning with these covetable, personalised gifts that couldn’t have been bought for anyone else

  • And so to bed

    Give them that warm, fuzzy feeling by emblazoning a Poppy Soukaina silk nightshirt from Olivia von Halle with their initials.

    £295, oliviavonhalle.com

  • Send a love letter

    This simple rose gold vermeil alphabet pendant from Monica Vinader is a subtle but oh-so-chic nod to the name trend.

    £85, monicavinader.com

  • Make it note-worthy

    Know someone who makes endless lists? Let them plan their hearts out in this personalised notebook from Quill London x StudioSarah.

    £19, quilllondon.com

  • Let them eat cake

    Spell it out this Christmas with baked goods – and this pretty personalised cake slice from The Cutlery Commission.

    £48.50, johnlewis.com

  • Travel in style

    Adventurous friends will swoon at finding this monogrammed LRM Goods travel wallet under their tree this Christmas.

    £42, lrmgoods.co.uk

  • The art of listening

    Get these Layla Oil Slick headphones from Frends engraved at Selfridges and then get ready to feel a lot like Santa for the day.

    £159.99, selfridges.com

  • Make it stick

    Stamp your name on things with these oversized stickers from Anya Hindmarch – for personalised bags, laptops and notebooks.

    £95, anyahindmarch.com

  • It takes two

    Add a personal touch to festive celebrations by customising this grin-worthy ‘Nutcracker Couple’ card for your favourite pair.

    £3.35, papier.com/cards

Photography: Getty Images, iStock