Worst Christmas gift fails and a guide to getting it right

David Barnett
Worst Christmas gift fails and a guide to getting it right - PhotoAlto

Oh, to live in TV Ad-Land, where Christmas shopping is neither chore nor challenge and for every person in your life there is a single, exquisitely-wrapped box with their name on it and with the perfect present inside.

In fact this year Debenhams has made a virtue of reminding you just how good your instinct is for picking the ideal item, with a series of ads showing smug, air-punching gifters realising their offerings are indeed perfect... The woman who has bought a luxurious bathroom gift-set for her Hygge-loving pal and the girl whose comedy survival kit is just the thing for her adventurous new boyfriend, just two of the self-satisfied tropes.

Notwithstanding the plot-holes in these ads — if you’d started a new relationship, would it take you until the Netflix and chill stage before you snooped on his laptop to find out he liked climbing Everest and wild camping in Wales, or would you have established that as soon as he wore his North Face coat on your first date? — the message is clear: Christmas shopping really is that simple.

So why do so many of us make such a meal of it? With the maxim that it’s the thought that counts uppermost in my mind, I asked some friends what were the most truly awful Christmas gifts they had ever received, and you may take what follows as a salutary warning that no matter how stumped you are for a present idea, there are depths to which you must never stoop.

If a present is in any way “useful”, they’re probably going to hate it

Karen was given a teapot — “stainless steel standard issue, not even a fancy one” — and to add insult to injury her husband wrapped it up in a large box so it looked like something more exciting. Sue was given a garden spade. Helen got wiper-blades for her car. Kim’s dad bought her mum a mop and bucket… and asked his daughter for advice on wrapping it and hiding it until the big day.

How to save the day

Useful presents are actually okay if you’re buying for someone who has a particular hobby, such as gardening or car maintenance but try to make sure it’s something they really want. If you’re going to go functional, say with a toaster, sugar the pill by putting two tickets to a show or gig into the slots. If you’re really going to wrap up a mop and bucket, then the only thing that can rescue you is employing a cleaner for six months to go with it.

Re-gifting is popular and eco-friendly… but fraught with danger

Passing on an unwanted gift to someone who might appreciate it more than you seems sensible (and eco-friendly) but bear in mind the other person shouldn't know they’ve been the subject of a re-gifting.

Hence Jackie was understandably put out one Christmas when her friend gave her a lovely set of personalised handkerchiefs. With the name Jean on them. And which Jackie knew full well Jean had been given by her boss the previous year.

Sarah got a framed “pebble art” picture which depicted a cosy family scene. The only trouble being that the family wasn’t Sarah’s, but that of the relative who’d given it; evidently a house-warming present they no longer had use for, she surmised.

How to save the day

Make sure your re-gifting receiver is well removed from the person who gave you the pressie in the first place. Anything hugely personal to you isn’t going to work for someone else. And ensure it’s still in its original packaging. And if you’re re-gifting food or perishable items it goes without saying you should make sure they’re still in date a year on.

Heartbreak is the gift that keeps on giving

Unexpectedly, my appeal for “worst Christmas present” stories got dark rather quickly.

“A break-up text,” said Cory. “Got dumped,” said Sam, though she did ask for the present she’d given him to be given straight back. And with a breathtaking lack of tact, Tom’s mother bought him a copy of Delia Smith’s seminal cookbook One Is Fun, straight after a long-term relationship had ended.

Lee reports on his sister’s behalf, “Our dad killed her dog for Christmas”, clarifying: “Well, the vet did the killing but my sister couldn’t afford the bill, so my father paid for it and said, ‘count that as your Christmas present’.”

How to save the day

Just don’t do it. If you really must break up with someone, do it well before Christmas or well after. And as for everything else… Christmas might be a happy time for most people, but for a lot of us it can be dark and lonely. In fact, do the opposite of this; a little kindness can go a very long way.

If your gift is really weird, don’t expect to be invited round for sherry and mince pies

Julie reports her friend was once given an erotic dot-to-dot book, which would be unusual in itself. However, half of it had been completed already.

Sarah (of the pebble art portrait) also got “a three-pack of tights with one pair missing, from a friend who was working as a silver service waitress at the time and received a staff uniform allowance”. In a similar vein, a different Sarah got a disposable shower cap from an aunt and uncle. When she was nine. Obviously nicked from a hotel, as was the soap that Sam was given one year.

Some of the stories are vaguely disquieting. Why did Laurel’s dad wrap up her own handbag — complete with her tampons inside — and give it to her for Christmas? Why did (another) Julie’s friend give her a box of 12 out-of-date vaginal douches?

But the winner has to be Simon, whose story is worth retelling in full here: “My grandfather gave me a used toothbrush that he'd bought at a local Conservative Party jumble sale. I had the temerity to point this out (there were white scaly bits round the base of the bristles) at which he expressed disappointment that I should be making a fuss as he had gone to the trouble of sterilising it…”

How to save the day

Quirky is fine, but judge it carefully. If you’re known as a bit of a clown, then giving daft presents might be expected. But the idea is to raise a laugh rather than leave people puzzled and possibly even a bit disturbed. Alleviate the weirdness by throwing in a bottle of wine or box of chocolates to show you are actually thinking about them and not just catering to your own unusual tastes.

And whatever you do, don’t recreate Simon’s toothbrush incident. It’s so left field there should probably be a prize for it. Let me just have a rummage around in the cupboard, see what I’ve got lying about…

 

For more Christmas features and gift guides, see www.telegraph.co.uk/christmas