The Blue Room Guide to
Last-Minute Christmas Shopping
by S. John Ross

You don't have time for playful, cheeky introductions. You don't have time for anything, because if you're seeking my advice on Christmas shopping, you're among the genuinely desperate. So, we'll cut right to the chase. There are Five Magic Categories to consider (below). Examine each of them, and apply the concepts described to the Difficult Person to Buy For. Apply them in order, until the light bulb appears. Good luck, and remember:

Relax.

Relax.

Relax.

Enjoy Christmas, and enjoy it around people who love you. That's all that matters. Everything else will tend to itself. But here goes anyway:

#1: Media

My favorite to give, and easily the safest bet for most gamers, science-fiction fans and net citizens, it's also great for 90% of the rest of the world, too. Basically, you have four categories: Books (from the latest bestellers to - my favorite - cookbooks), Movies on Video (or other things on video, if you have the kind of friends who like aerobics or "Dorf on Golf"), Music (the hardest for me, since it requires not only knowing the recipients' tastes, but knowing the exact contents of their music collection), and Software (nothing says holiday cheer like a copy of Hexen II, or, better yet, a nice festive spreadsheet).

A cousin of "books" is Magazine Subscriptions; just about anybody appreciates a subscription to something like Smithsonian. Readers will really enjoy subscriptions to things like Analog. Crafters love crafting magazines, cooks love cooking magazines, and I find that smut always pleases, although it's usually a poor choice when shopping for your grandparents. The only drawback to giving magazine subscriptions is that there's nothing to unwrap, and a "gift card" saying that your Christmas gift will begin arriving in 4-6 weeks is kind of lame. It's best to go to the newsstand and grab the current issue and wrap that. That way they can start reading right away, and, odds are, the subscription will begin with the NEXT issue, anyway (and remember that you CAN specify on a subscription order when you want it to begin, even if they don't provide a space for it).

#2: Edibles and Drinkables

Most people have something they love to eat or drink that they can't normally afford. Very often, it isn't that the item is back-breaking expensive, just that it's a little MORE expensive than practical groceries. This can be anything from a premium brand of Root Beer to a tasty Liquer or wine on the drinkable end, or anything from a favorite brand of hot sauce to a fine chocolate on the edible end. Generic holiday samplers of meats and cheeses (or cookies, or those big tubs of flavored popcorn) work fine for neighbors or somebody you don't know well, but for friends and family, you can almost always find a particular food or beverage that tickles their fancy.

Of course, those samplers of meats and cheeses (and cookies, and those big tubs of flavored popcorn) DO tickle MY fancy. So you never know.

#3: Skills, Crafts and Services

Giving of YOURSELF is a great way to give. If you are a good cook, give somebody a "coupon" for your services as a chef for any evening they want. If you are good with wood, make somebody that paperback-scale bookshelf they need. If you're artistically inclined, a drawing or painting of somebody's RPG character is a swell gift. If you're "crafty," knit somebody a nice cozy dice-bag or some mittens, or make them a cool chessboard out of stuff you find at a craft store (a combination of stained plaque-board and macrame mirrors can create quite an impressive effect). Or maybe you have a friend that's been wanting a website, but is intimidated by HTML or graphic design. Or a wargamer friend who could REALLY use a line of painted Assyrian horse-archers or Space Marines, but never gets the time to paint. If you don't think you have ANY skills, just offer to be somebody's personal slave for a weekend (especially fun for somebody you've been dating, or THINKING of dating).

Regardless of what you are capable of, gifts like this are very personal in nature, and therefore very very swell.

#4: Practicals

For most people, categories #1-3 should do the trick. However, there is another category that can save you in a pinch: practical stuff. Usually, this means a supply of something that the recipient uses a lot of, preferably for somethign fun! (this is a gift, after all, and gifts should be fun on SOME level, ideally, even if they are also practical). For instance, if your friend loves music or movies (or TV shows, even), a big pack of blank cassettes or videocassetes (for taping stuff) is a good idea. The same principle applies to blank disks for computer-users. For cooks, a big bottle of olive oil, or a supply of a favorite spice, will often bring a smile. For gamers, you've got everything from graph paper to paints to hexmaps. For artist friends, you've got art supplies.

Gifts like this have one strong advantage: You know that they won't go to waste, that the recipient will use and enjoy them. The only drawback, really, is that they're only semi-personal in most cases. They're good for "rounding out" a gift list, though, and they DO make top-notch stocking stuffers. If you're giving the person something else, by all means add on something practical as a second gift.

#5: Gag Gifts (The Last Resort)

The first rule of the gag gift: Don't. However, the condition that applies to practical gifts can also be applied here, but more strongly: Gag gifts are ONLY okay if you're also giving the person something that ISN'T a gag gift. Secondly, gag gifts are only FUNNY if they have context. In other words, gag gifts, like any other gift, should show that you were really thinking of the recipient when you selected it. If you and your friend were stuck in an elevator for an hour and went half-mad from listening to the piped-in elevator music, a gag-gift of a CD of Muzak works, since it then has context. Gag gifts with no context can actually hurt feelings, and that's the biggest of all no-nos. Before you give something meant to provide a laugh more than some use, make sure you know the person really well.


Merry Christmas! Now get back to the Blue Room; the mulled wine is still warm and the yule log's a-blazing. And such.

This article is Copyright © 1997 by S. John Ross

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