I'm an amazing gift-giver. Seriously - I'm awesome. What is the secret to my gift-giving reputation? I don't give things, I give experiences.
I have found that most of my friends and family don't need any thing - we are a culture consumed by materialism and marketing. Gifts become a competition of who spent the most money, and usually finding the "perfect gift" becomes giving a series of gift cards so the recipient can go buy themselves what they want.
I have long followed the philosophy that gift-giving is about showing the other person how much you love them by treating them to something they might never do for themselves. Experiences, from mani-pedis to movie tickets to vacations, are often the thing that gets pushed off the calendar and down the "necessity list" of expenses. And that's exactly why they make the perfect gift.
For example, my mother loves submarines (don't ask me why - it's a family mystery) and already owns every submarine movie from Das Boat to U-571. She hates kitsch, so figurines or models are out. While she loves to read, she prefers fiction, and so the submarine options become few and far between. Last Christmas, I gave her a Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the submarine at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. This is an early morning tour with a continental breakfast, that allows participants to come to the museum before opening hours and get tours through their German submarine while guided by Veterans who served on subs during WWII. This was an experience gift - a day for my Mom to geek out about submarines with people who would be as excited as she is.
My sister moved to New York City and wanted to meet more people, so I gave her a year-long membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A friend was about to have a new baby, and I gave her a "Night Out" package: I'll cover the cost of the babysitter, dinner and a movie for her and her husband.
Even my partner and I practice this together. Rather than give each other birthday or Christmas gifts, we pool what we would spend on those gifts into a savings account, and then take a vacation together every year. Our gift to each other is time together.
As we enter the holiday season and begin the never-ending saga that is shopping, I encourage you to look past the "wrap-able" gift and to think about an experience that your friend or loved one would enjoy. Providing an excuse for someone to take time for themselves and have an experience is invaluable, and often the perfect gift that is rarely given.