Just when you thought it was safe—fun even—to receive holiday gifts, it’s time for another roundup of contenders for the crown no one wants.
Gifts are universal. They’ve existed throughout history and across civilizations for a reason. Gifts communicate the nature of relationships, such as how well you know and understand someone, how highly you regard them, and how central they are to your life. Which is why most of us think, plan and fret about holiday gifts. Gifts also have a tremendous ability to connect people to each other. Except when they’re really awful gifts. What’s an awful gift?
Seemingly everyone has an example. Last year at this time I shared shoppers’ stories about the worst gifts they’ve ever received. TIME readers responded with their own worst gift tales. Again, horrendous presents come in a few distinct varieties.
The Passive-Aggressive (a.k.a Mother-in-Law) Gift
Misbehaving mothers-in-law pop up whenever the subject of worst gifts arises, and they especially dominate the passive-aggressive category. Apparently, some in-laws feel the holiday season is the perfect time of year to communicate their displeasure with a child’s choice of partner. Santa would not be pleased.
“My ex-boyfriend’s mother gave me a Hello Kitty coloring book and a battery-operated cellulite massager,” commented a user going by the name Zara118. “I was 26 and weighted 100lbs.”
“My mother-in-law once bought me a toilet, tank and all,” chime in ralphthesquirrel1. “To make it much more interesting she also paired it up with a matching toilet bowl coffee cup. Passive aggressive to the limit!”
“My mother-in-law bought me a tin of cookies, ate the cookies, and gave me the empty, except for the crumbs, tin,” wrote frankiegogo.
“My mother-in-law for years bought the other daughter-in-law the expensive makeup or perfume,” another reader said. “And I always got the free gift that came with it.”
It’s not always the mother-in-law doing out passive-aggressive gifts. “A relative gave my spouse and I ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families,’” one reader recalled. “Giving someone a self-help book implies you think they need it.”
The Well-Meant Misfire
Last year, an acne solution kit given by a best friend led the way in the “well-intentioned but ultimately awkward” gift category. Here are a few more misfires.
“My husband bought me a toilet roll holder,” says AnthrostericalCU. “It was nice, wrought iron, and had a dagger-like point which I refrained from using on him.”
Someone with the username Chrigid received a bottle of Cointreau. The giver handed it over and said, “I thought you’d like this. It tastes like kerosene.”
One husband decided that the perfect Christmas gift for his wife (username: Inhumor) would be a post hole digger, used to make holes for fences, deck footings, and such.
The All-About-Me Gift
If it’s the thought that counts, then “all about me” givers think an awful lot—about themselves.
One wife received a waffle iron from her husband. That wouldn’t be the worst gift ever except for what was implied by the present in this relationship. “He thought if we had a waffle iron I could make waffles for him.”
JamieSpeckNugent says the worst gift she’s ever received was a framed, blown-up snapshot of her father-in-law, which her mother-in-law insisted should be hung in her bedroom.
“My mother would give me clothes in her style and size so that she could ‘borrow’ from me and we could ‘share,’” wrote a reader with the username ssss08.
The Super Cheap Gift
We have a new category this year, the incredibly cheap gift. It might be tempting to think that people who are disappointed by cheap gifts are materialistic or greedy. In fact, most are responding to what that cheap gift says about their relationships—specifically, how thoughtless and selfish some of the people in their lives are.
“I was once given a manila file folder (yes, just one),” wrote draska.
ScienceIsFunStuff says she was confused about why a friend sent her a Barbara Streisand CD. Then she went to Victoria’s Secret and saw that the CD came free with a purchase.
A reader known as AlikiKinimaka received as a gift a package of Press-On-Nails and a lone scrunchie (they normally come in packages of six).
When Rihannk’s houseguests began handing out gifts it became clear they had forgotten to bring a gift for the host, until suddenly one of the guests came up with a present out of the blue. “With a very suave gesture he announced, ‘I have one for you!’ and handed me his shower gel.”
Soccermom’s husband never buys her holiday gifts, saying that “things will be cheaper in the after Christmas sales.” That would be bad enough. The real problem is that “the gift, of course, never comes. Just an ‘owe you one babe,’” from her husband.
2013 Worst Gift Award Winners
The Scrooge of the Year Award goes to super cheap gift giver “eornom” who proudly wrote that he’s given the following gifts to people over the years: a belly button lint brush, cheap porn, transmission fluid, an air mattress pump, chipped coffee mugs and a “candom,” which is a can cooler shaped like a condom.
The Truly Worst Gift of the Year Award is a flame-throwing weed killer, given, of course, by a mother-in-law—a passive-aggressive, possibly psychopathic one at that. According to Greekgeek, “The English instructions said it was for killing weeds, but warned that if you didn’t hold it absolutely upright it was liable to back up and explode. It came from a mother-in-law who really had been doing subtle things to make the daughter-in-law know she wasn’t welcome at all for years.”
Thank you to everyone who shared their worst gift experiences. Let’s hope you don’t have any new contenders for the category after the upcoming round of gift exchanges is over.
Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is a co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.