Gift Guide Season


It’s November, which means I am already sad about how Christmas will be over. Ridiculous, maybe, but I think anticipatory sadness might be an essential part of the holiday experience. Christmas is my favorite time of year – very original I know! The first time I ever visited New York was in December. I was 11 and we stayed in midtown, took a carriage ride in Central Park, and went to a Broadway show every night. I had already basically decided I wanted to end up there. At 14 I would sit in my room listening to “New York State of Mind,” feeling like I had invented the sensation of longing. When I finally moved there, it was in late January. I didn’t mind – there was something even better about waiting until close to my anniversary to have my first Christmas as a New Yorker. The first snow of the season actually happened while I was skating in Bryant Park. Everything about Christmas in NYC is perfect and my favorite. Another favorite Christmas thing of mine: gift guides. And Christmas in New York is a living gift guide.

Christmas is about things that are unearned and undeserved. On the opening (and title) track of Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration, Dave Gahan sings, “I want to take you in my arms/forgetting all I couldn’t do today.” Christmas is that on a large scale. The celebration and the glittering magic has nothing to do with what you’ve accomplished. Every year, some writer or publishing goon will start a “what have you accomplished” thread on twitter. It grinds my gears. It’s anti-Christmas, and I immediately lose a good deal of respect for anyone who starts, replies, or quote tweets these abominations. Christmas, I maintain, is about resting in failure. It’s a free space of mercy cushioned by the sadness of some of the darkest, coldest times of the year. There is a lot of grief built into it, whether it’s about our specific family sorrows or just the passage of time. The best Christmas movie (It’s a Wonderful Life) and song (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Judy Garland version only) are sad. New Mexico, where I live right now, has its own tradition that perfectly sums up the holiday. On Christmas Eve, you can see houses or entire neighborhoods outlined in Luminarias (or Farolitos) like beacons leading to the spirit realm. But literally, they are candles in paper bags. I also feel like a paper bag (Katy Perry and Fiona Apple had points), but everyone and everything looks better in soft lights.

Gift guides reflect the same ideas, though they might be the least maudlin iteration of them. I can’t get enough of them and have written a few myself in various roles. Part of this is no doubt being the age where I grew up thinking that working in the print magazine industry was the best thing imaginable and also a thing that would still be possible in adulthood (ask me some other time why the ending of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is almost too painful to comtemplate). There was nothing like getting the December issue of InStyle, Vogue, or Lucky (RIP) and paging through a gift guide section. Online versions hit different, and there’s something boring about The Strategist’s holiday content since the website itself is a giant, year-round gift guide. Everything laid out and pleasingly curated – is the person you’re thinking of a glamor girl or a domestic diva? Are you a glamor girl? There are gifts for men, too: little pocket recipes of cocktails, leather wallet clips, pens, cufflinks. The gift guide industrial complex is why my first thoughts for men are liquor and leather to this day. Gift Guides are just stuff, but it’s mostly stuff that feels overly indulgent to buy for yourself. A pair of fur earmuffs or leather gloves are like Christmas: a deliberate luxury fighting against the cold. Does anyone remember Philosophy holiday flavored lip glosses? Loved it.

the whole “for him” racket has really not changed much

I’m also a person who genuinely likes giving better than receiving. This isn’t a brag about my virtue. I’m extremely materialistic and spend too much money on myself, but I just love picking things out for people in the same way I like decorating and menu planning for parties. There’s an immense pleasure in making someone feel seen in the small details. A good gift says “I pay attention to you.” And if there’s one thing I do it’s pay attention to everything all the time. And yes, anyone can buy themselves a ring holder shaped like a cat or wine glass charms, but some things are always better coming from someone else. Christmas is a time not for buying someone skincare products you already know are in their routine, but for getting them a beauty fridge or a jade roller. (aside: please do not gift someone perfume unless you know them very very well, probably at the living with them and fucking them level). The first gift I ever got my husband was when we were just co-workers and friends. It was a Mason Pearson comb because he had been growing his hair out for a few months and it was obvious to me that nobody else in his life was really a luxury hair care person. I think I did a good job. If I want to say “I’ve always loved you,” it’s not counterfactual, anyway.

But back to the whole of New York City. Paul and I started a tradition of going to Bergdorf’s some weekend day in December, eating a meal in the food court below the Plaza, and browsing. The first time we did this, I tried on a Dior mini dress that fit like it was made for me, of the frothiest white imaginable. I’ve never been able to find it and I’ve scrolled through years of collections so I’ve convinced myself it was some Brigadoon of dresses situation. We really can’t afford much at Bergdorf’s. The second time we both decided to get something. I got a bra made of light blue, shimmering mesh and Paul got a pocket square. Even these tiny, relatively cheap things get the tidy BG bag treatment. Something about this was more Christmasy than a big ticket item to me. Bergdorf is the master of creating an alternate universe, especially at Christmas. If you’ve never been inside, it feels more like wandering a manor house than a store. There are pop-up rooms specially curated for the holidays, including a masquerade themed area where I really should have bought the $300ish fur cat ear headband. These rooms are, of course, just gift guide pages come to life. This room was for the sexy, old Hollywood lover in your life. Another with colorful ski clothes and collections of shaped candy was for your quirky friend. And really, a Bergdorf branded box of sugar lips is for everyone. If you want a more accessible immersive gift guide, there are the holiday markets – Bryant Park, Union Square, etc. Get a cup of cider and wander through stalls full of things that would never have occurred to you, like artisinal shrub mixes for cocktails or jewelry made out of old clock parts.

I don’t have a big point to make here. Looking at gift guides is so damn exciting for me. It turns you into a Santa of your own community (whatever that means to you), with the idea that there is something perfect for everyone. The unlikely grace of Christmas is always a bonus on top of the year and the silliness of a flashy, purely extrautiliarian bauble is a tiny way to pass that on. If you’re wondering who deserves designer coasters or maribou slippers, you’ve already lost.

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