For Her

If you’re currently looking for last-minute gifts for a woman, firstly why have you left it so late? Secondly, read on for some ideas about what she definitely won’t want this year.

Anything scented: Even the word ‘scented’ evokes unpleasant feminine hygiene products. If you refer to your gifts as ‘smellies’, this is also a black mark. To be avoided is anything that you might get for or receive from a distant great aunt: no potpourri, make-your-own-bath-bomb sets, scented wardrobe sachets or drawer liners. Controversially, I might include candles in this list as I’m never quite sure when you’re supposed to light them. A big, expensive bottle of the perfume she already wears, however, is lovely.

Or weight/shape-related: A sky-wide category, but examples would include diet books, an item of clothing that’s too small, an item of clothing that’s too large. This category extends to fitness equipment, especially if the recipient is pregnant or recently pregnant.

Tech: As a general rule, tech and electronics are out, though there are subcategories. A great pair of earbuds or the new blow dryer brush is welcome. A 15-in-1 multi-tool, less so. A laser hair removal device or IPL machine is fine if she’s specifically asked for it. Unsolicited, it will carry with it the implication that she’s a yeti in search of deforestation.

Footcare: A hard-skin remover for feet is not very romantic, while good things to wear on your feet are. One of my best presents from my husband was a pair of lovely boots that are still going strong five years on and would have been far too expensive to buy for myself.

Bad jokes: Avoid anything funny, or – more accurately – ‘funny’. Presents described as humorous are unlikely to raise a chuckle. Such objects include socks personalised with the giver’s face and a book called ‘How to be a Good Wife’.

Anything ageing: Reject any presents that suggest decrepitude - a hand-rail, easy-grip utensils or a pressure cushion.

For Him

Men – and, in my experience, particularly older men – are a nightmare to buy for: not thoughtful enough to drop hints nor articulate enough to tell you outright. Worse still, over time, they have built up an impressive stockade of panic-bought novelty gifts.

However, there are certain presents you can guarantee all men will utterly despise. Steer clear of these and half the battle is won.

Aftershave: Like the books you read, the aftershave that a man wears is a deeply personal choice. It is something he has chosen himself, after experimenting with numerous others, because it acts as an extension of his personality. If you buy a man some aftershave based on its name, or the shape of its bottle, or whatever the Amazon description happened to be, you are robbing him of his true self. Out of politeness, he will start wearing your gift, but part of him will be lost forever. I have a bottle of aftershave from 15 years ago, and I’ve been trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

Gadgets: A decade and-a-half ago, the get-out-of-jail card for difficult men was the gadget. A mid-priced trinket that did something cool and unexpected and was only tangentially useful. Well, guess what? It isn’t 2007 any more. We’ve all got smartphones now, which means that we carry every imaginable gadget with us 24/7. A universal translator? Our phones do it. A toy that can identify birdsong by sound? Our phones do it. Games? Phone. Music player? Phone. I’m sorry, but our phones have robbed you of 80 per cent of all gift options.

Anything hobby-related: This might seem counterproductive, because surely a man would love to receive something that has a clear and direct link to one of his interests. Wrong. Do not do this. Do not buy a fisherman a tie that looks like a fish. Do not buy a golfer a T-shirt that says ‘I’m Simply Tee-riffic’. At no point purchase a keyring that is in any way affiliated to the thing that a man in your life leaves the house to do for fun. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, you are buying a present for a person. A flesh and blood human being, with hopes and dreams and aspirations. Their personality does not end at ‘fish’, and you buying them a novelty ceramic fishing boat clock will only underline the fact that you only have a superficial connection with someone you claim to love. Second, these gifts are rubbish.

War Paint: You may have seen this advertised but think again. We do not want to wear make-up. Even if it makes us look amazing, we’re not that evolved.

‘I can never buy the right gift’

The sound of ripping wrapping paper on Christmas morning once filled me with joy, accompanied as it inevitably was by the sound of children’s laughter. I’m a giver, not a taker, and before my children grew up and left home, and I divorced and remarried, I’d relish those cosy mornings and grin right through to the new year remembering the looks on their little faces as Santa delivered on their requests.

But now it’s just me and my wife, and jingle bells have become jangled nerves, because she is the world’s worst present-receiver and my efforts to bring her festive joy are doomed to failure. She very rarely likes anything I buy her, despite my best efforts. Over the 15 Christmas mornings we’ve spent together I estimate to have had a 90 per cent failure rate. Most gifts end up unused or returned. And it is not because I’m a terrible gift buyer. Even fail-safes fail. Expensive scented candle? "Smells like toilet cleaner," she’ll sniff. Belgian chocolates? "I’m trying to cut down on sugar." The issue is not my present-buying acumen. It is my wife’s pickiness.

After years of mutual disappointment I now get detailed instructions as to what to buy her, accompanied by handy links to the relevant websites. But, like a puppy that gets kicked by its master only to return for more, every year I make the mistake of going ‘off-piste’ and buy some surprises.

Last year’s designer dressing gown was "the wrong material"; the year before the pearl earrings were "too droopy", and the Norwegian cruise I booked for the first Christmas after we married was on "the wrong boat... too smal".

It has been a steep learning curve. Last year, I spotted an empty bottle of a certain brand on her dresser and bought her the exact same cologne, nicely wrapped and boxed. I can’t go wrong, I thought to myself. She opened it, thanked me and asked if she could change it for a fragrance she said she liked more.

In the shop, when the sales assistant asked if there was anything wrong with the bottle, I bowed my head and confessed: "I made a schoolboy error. I used my initiative."

I used to get upset and take it personally. When I was young, I was taught to always accept gifts gratefully, even when I didn’t like them, so as not to offend. But over the years I’ve realised it’s not me, it’s her. The vast majority of presents she gets from anyone – not just me – are consigned to the regift cupboard. She now writes notes on each item, so she can remember who they came from to avoid making the mistake of giving someone back the present they bought her the previous year.

In her defence, my wife is fully aware of her fussy foibles and apologises, then explains that I shouldn’t waste my money – and that no one should. Indeed, friends and family are discouraged from buying her anything. "You know what I’m like," she laughs.

But I know if we all followed her advice, and there were no gifts under the tree on Christmas morning for her, she’d be disappointed. Maybe this year it’ll just have to be Amazon vouchers.

The Daily Telegraph

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