7 Strategies for Giving the Best Holiday Gifts

person ties bow on homemade christmas gift filled with edible treats

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Some people excel at choosing perfect gifts, while others struggle to come up with anything. What's the secret?

Gift-giving season is upon us once again. Are you one of those highly efficient people who's finished their holiday shopping and can now relax until opening day arrives? Or have you not started yet, because the thought of choosing the right gift is so intimidating? I fall squarely into the latter category and regret it every year. Rather than addressing the problem of my gift-giving fears early in the season, I leave it to the last minute, which only makes matters worse.

So now, with 20 days to go till Christmas (plenty of time by my standards), I'm determined to get to the bottom of what constitutes a fabulous gift. How is it that some people (like my Aunt Elspeth) never fail to hit the nail on the head with fabulous gifts, year after year? What's their secret?

This is the topic explored in a new series on Quartzly, titled "Five gift-giving philosophies to help you find the perfect gift." Combined with some other articles I sleuthed online, including Smithsonian Mag's "How to give the best gifts, according to science" and some research published in the Wall Street Journal, I've pieced together some useful clues.

1. Luxurious & utterly unnecessary

Sometimes the best gifts are things a person would never buy for themselves because they seem frivolous. But that's the point -- it's a gift that makes you feel different, valued, special, privileged. Quartzly writer Sarah Todd uses the example of an expensive candle:

"The right candle is a perfect luxury: an utterly unnecessary object that has the power to make life, and by extension you, feel a bit more elegant, cozy, or calm. When you give someone a candle, you’re passing along the gift of ritual."

2. Homemade & edible

You can't go wrong with food, especially homemade treats. I've never forgotten about my cousin's husband giving her jars of homemade Nutella for Christmas. It's her favorite treat, and yet this was a fun, fabulous twist on it. Once my sister gave me an egg carton filled with homemade truffles; they were divine. Cookies are another go-to present, never unappreciated. Fudge. Marshmallows. A bag of homemade gnocchi to go with a jar of pesto. Seasoned nuts. The sky's the limit.

3. An experience that will live on as a memory

You hear it all the time: "Give an experience!" But this is easier said than done. It can be tough to forego a wrapped, physical gift for a random event you've scheduled, but it's true that these are the things that stay in people's minds. The best approach is to give a single experience that you share together. A class in pasta-making, as Quartzly says, or an art lesson. Go to a fancy restaurant together, or spend the day at a spa, or get a couple's massage. Arrange a day trip to an interesting site and pack a picnic.

4. Give them what they want.

It may seem unimaginative to give someone exactly what they want, but how many times have you wished someone would do that for you? Giving a gift that's wanted or needed is no less generous; it reflects thoughtfulness and understanding that our homes are already full of stuff, that we're trying to save money, that we'll put it to good use.

5. Something that's convenient to use

The Smithsonian article says that recipients "really value convenience, feasibility and ease of use in a gift." This makes sense. No matter how well-intentioned a gift may be, if it's hard for the person to use or access, it's not a good gift. Take, for example, a gift certificate. I still have gift certificates for the Bay (big Canadian department store) sitting in my wallet from my wedding 7 years ago because the nearest Bay is two hours away. If it were a local store, that would be a different matter.

The single best gift I've ever given my husband was a headlamp. He uses it all the time. Meanwhile, the fancy Canadian-made dress shoes that cost 10 times more than the headlamp? They barely come out of the closet once a month because, I just learned, they pinch his toes.

6. Something from the heart

A letter never loses style and appeal, Quartzly says; and in this day and age of instant digital communication, a handwritten multi-page document takes on even more value. Sit down and share your thoughts with the recipient, communicating why you love them.

If you're not a letter-writer, try to find a gift that reflects you, the giver, as long as it's something the recipient could foreseeably use. The Wall Street Journal reports, "Both givers and receivers report greater feelings of closeness to their gift partner when the gift reflects the giver."

7. Wrap it beautifully.

"Wrap gifts like an adult," the Gentleman's Gazette advises. A properly wrapped gift, with taut paper and pretty bow, increases the anticipation and makes it look like you've tried. Nothing's worse than being handed a shopping bag with a piece of ribbon tied hastily on the top. And can we please have an honest conversation about gift bags? I hate them. They're just not fun to open (nor are they recyclable) and always feel like a cop-out. Take inspiration from this slideshow on 10 stylish and sustainable ways to wrap gifts or learn about Japan's amazing "furoshiki" tradition, wrapping in colourful cloths.