What do you buy when the birthday honoree asks for gifts that cost less than $5? This sounds like a requirement of the annual Christmas gag gift party we go to, except that as well as being cheap, that gift must also be horrid. Most of us would find the under-$5 request challenging to fulfill, since it’s hard to locate much in this price range. Perhaps a head of lettuce or two cans of beans? I ignored the birthday request for this reason and for the fact that I skimmed the email and immediately forgot it. However, our creative hostess for this particular birthday party scrounged around in her basement and found not one, but three gifts. Later, she took us on a tour of said basement, so we could put in our requests for our own future, previously-owned birthday presents.
Choosing one’s own gifts — whether in a store or someone’s basement — has always seemed the sensible thing to do for the obvious reason that you get what you want. It saves energy and time returning unwanted items. More importantly, it spares you that uncomfortable moment when you are looking at something you would never choose for yourself and the gift-giver is gazing intently at your face in search of the joyful expression that is not appearing nearly fast enough.
In her hilarious poem, “Gifts that keep on giving,” Marge Piercy catalogs undesirable gifts (and given the size of the list she must have had a lot of bad experiences), starting with the most common unwelcome Christmas offering, namely, fruitcake. She goes on to describe majolica vases “in the shape of wheezing frogs,” “gloves to fit three-toed sloths,” “mufflers of screaming plaid acrylic,” and many more unwanted presents.
These days we have too much stuff, so buying gifts other than the disposable kind (as in, those disposed of by eating) just seems wrong. But opening your closets, drawers and bookshelves to friends and sharing something of yours with them, might be a satisfying way to create enough space in your basement or garage to reposition something in your house, especially if you take less than you give. Of course we all have treasures that we aren’t ready to part with. In my case, the shelf of gag gifts we’re saving until December is definitely off-limits.