The Christmas gifts you shouldn’t give (and the ones you should)

When buying Christmas gifts, stay away from gifts that are subjective in taste, says etiquette expert Karen Cleveland. Getty Images

We’ve all been given a holiday present that has left us wondering why the gifter would ever think it would be something we’d want, need, or like.

Let’s face it though; we’ve also been that horrible gifter who’s completely missed the mark at least once before (if you haven’t already, don’t worry – your time will come).

But just because Christmas and other holidays are a time for giving, it doesn’t mean you should just give anything away as a gift. It also doesn’t mean you have to break the bank either.

So what makes a good (and not-so-good) gift?

Etiquette expert Karen Cleveland has the answers and offers some tips on proper gift giving this holiday season.

First, gifts should come second

The Christmas gifts you shouldn’t give (and the ones you should) - image

Before picking apart what makes a bad Christmas gift, Cleveland has a disclaimer of sorts.

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For Cleveland, Christmas should not be about the gifts you receive but rather the time spent with family.

So where do gifts fit in then?

Well, if presents are part of your family’s gathering tradition and you find yourself strapped for time, at least make sure to put some effort into how you present the gift.

“(An unsuccessful gift) is one where you can smell the lack of care,” Cleveland says. “It’s the gift you grab last minute. But it has nothing to do with price point or where you got it from… anything you can do to personalize it then goes a long way.”

Cleveland gives the example of gift cards. If time is tight and all you can do is swing by the drug store for a gift card, don’t just hand the gift card over as is to the recipient. Spend a few moments to tie a bow or some ribbon around it to make it presentable. It’ll be the presentation that shows them at least some effort has been made.

What to avoid

The Christmas gifts you shouldn’t give (and the ones you should) - image

While personalizing a gift is good (especially if it’s for family or close friends), try not to hyper-personalize when it comes to colleagues or other folks you may not know that well, Cleveland says.

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Unless you know the exact brands the person prefers, avoid gifts like perfume or beauty products.

“Sometimes people will smell a perfume and think it smells good,” she says. “But then the person who receives it tries it on and it’s a smell they don’t like. Perfume can be a gamble.”

This also includes clothing. Unless you are given a specific idea or are confident you know someone’s style, stay away from this type of gift.

“With your family you might have a good sense of their clothing style,” says Cleveland. “But for something like a secret Santa, for example, that’s getting pretty risky.”

Cleveland says to also stay away from other presents that are subjective in taste like art and home décor.

And stay away from giving pets as gifts, she adds.

Puppies and kittens might be a cute idea, but many people often forget the ongoing costs associated with owning a pet (e.g. food and veterinary bills) and the amount of care one needs.

Instead, the Montreal SPCA suggests giving an “adoption package” by gifting a stuffed animal in a box, a leash, a collar, food, treats or toys. Then should the person be interested and willing to go through with an adoption, they can make an event of visiting the shelter to find their future furry family member.

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According to a 2013 poll done by British retailer Elliott Rose, 500 surveyed Brits were able to break down what gifts they considered to be the worst to receive at Christmas, as reported by Bedfordshire News.

  1. Unattractive socks (29 per cent)
  2. Cheap perfume (23 per cent)
  3. Personalized hankies (nine per cent)
  4. Executive stress toys (eight per cent)
  5. Household gadgets (eight per cent)
  6. Fitness equipment (six per cent)
  7. Gift cards for a shop (six per cent)
  8. Adopt an animal (five per cent)
  9. House plants (four per cent)
  10. A hangover (two per cent)

Bad Christmas gifts (according to the internet)

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While many can understand the true meaning of Christmas, we still can’t help but cringe at some of the gifts we receive. Yes, the well-intentions are there, but sometimes the presents we get can be so trivial that it’s often hard to wrap our heads around.

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But thanks to websites like, victims of bad gifts have a place to vent.

The website’s motto: “It’s not that I’m ungrateful. It’s just that this gift was really, really bad.”

Home drug tests, adult toys, warped knick-knacks, and outdated clothing are just some of the items people received that they’ve shared online.

Gifts you can’t go wrong with

The Christmas gifts you shouldn’t give (and the ones you should) - image

Now let’s say you’re the quirky gift giver. If you don’t want your present to end up on the island of misfit toys or re-gifted to you next year, then stick with what you know.

If you want to put a spin on your gift exchange, Cleveland recommends trying a donation to the gift receiver’s favourite cause.

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“Supporting causes that mean something is huge and highly underrated,” she says. “I think there’s a fatigue around the commercialization during the holidays, even more so now that Canada has its own Black Friday… I think giving to causes is a really nice answer to that.”

You also can’t go wrong with gifts that offer experiences, says Cleveland. This could mean a gift certificate to restaurant or a spa, for example.

If you’re truly stuck and you’re out of ideas, websites like can help you find the perfect gift based on the recipient’s personality type.

Does this website work? Let’s just say this journalist was happy with the selections recommended based on my personality type.

Even if you don’t want to buy the exact product on the website, at least it will help give you a better idea of what to search for, making it (at least) a great starting point.

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