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'Help, I'm Hosting': Author Nina Stibbe Offers Best Tips For Gift-Giving


Time now for our holiday advice series Help, I'm Hosting. Today's topic is something that affects both hosts and guests alike - gift-giving. Giving the right presents to family, friends or that special someone can be daunting. And we asked you to tell us your gift-giving challenges. For some advice, we've got Nina Stibbe. She wrote "An Almost Perfect Christmas," a new book of essays about the holidays. And she joins us from the BBC in London. Welcome.

NINA STIBBE: Hello. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you cover a lot in your book about holiday dilemmas from the perfect Christmas playlist to when it's appropriate to stop visiting Santa at the mall. But you write that Christmas presents are the one topic that you feel most comfortable claiming expertise on. Explain.

STIBBE: Yes. Well, I slightly regret that I ever said that...


STIBBE: ...Because now, of course, people want advice all the time.


STIBBE: And - but I feel quite comfortable with it because I've had so many bad ones. And I think, why would anybody give me that huge candlestick? And so I think my rules are much more about what not to buy than what to buy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, speaking of that, Nicole Germain from Salamanca, N.Y., wrote in with this. I receive a lot of scented soaps, lotions, candles and bath products from various family members during the holidays. I feel her pain. The trouble is she says, I've really come to hate all of these intense artificial scents. How do I tell my generous family that the majority of the gifts I receive from them each year end up regifted or donated? What's your advice?

STIBBE: Well, it's very difficult. I don't think you can tell them...


STIBBE: ...Specifically. But you can bring up maybe earlier in the year - or you can ask for something else. You can say, I really want books this year or I'd love to go to the theater more. I think you can't hurt people's feelings. I've done it. Do you have the advent calendar there?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, we do. Of course we do.

STIBBE: So a couple of years ago, I said, do you know, Mom - can you just not bother with that? - because it's chocolate every morning before school. And she was so offended. She's not over it yet, you know?


STIBBE: She doesn't send them any more. But she sort of says, just to let you know, I would have sent, but I'm not going to.


STIBBE: So I don't know what to say. I think you might just have to put up with those scented lotions.


STIBBE: Sorry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You mentioned that you know what not to do. So what are your don'ts?

STIBBE: Well, my biggest don't is don't be overgenerous because I think that - we tend to do that. We'll buy something that's nearly right, and then we'll bulk it up with another thing. And then you spent twice as much money and time. The other thing is, I think, you shouldn't give vouchers. And I know this is a...


STIBBE: I know. It's - I think...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gift cards in our country - yeah.

STIBBE: Well, yeah, gift cards - I think for teenagers you can. But I just think - it just seems such a - so boring. Am I wrong?


STIBBE: Do you think I'm wrong?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think you're wrong. Obviously, giving a gift card to your mother is a little bit...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Might be taken amiss.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: But I have done a couple of things. I have gotten gift cards from a fancy restaurant that maybe someone hasn't gone to yet so it's more of an experience as opposed...

STIBBE: Well, you see, that's lovely. When I say vouchers, I mean for the local stationers or a book token. I think choose the book because then you're giving not only the book, but you're choosing the book. And people have something they might not have had. I mean, this is all sounding very serious.


STIBBE: We are having a huge row here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're getting into the Christmas spirit by...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Fighting over what you should give. No. I want to talk about regifting.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thumbs up or thumbs down.

STIBBE: Thumbs up. And I think this is, obviously, the answer to the fragrance lotions that we just talked about because those things are lovely if you like them. So to regift them is is perfect. I mean, they're just - they're still as good. Yeah, regift. I regift all the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Me too. All right. We've got another listener question from Van McCourt-Ostrand in St. Petersburg, Fla. She has a son who's in middle school. And she asks, do we really get gifts for every one of his teachers? That's a lot of gifts. What's your advice here? And this is the other place where I do gift cards. I do it for teachers.

STIBBE: Oh, well, that's good. Well...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So it's almost like giving money. They can order whatever they want, you know?

STIBBE: Yeah. I mean, I was always trying hard to be parent of the year. So I used to make my kids make biscuits. And it...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, nice - cookies.

STIBBE: Yeah, but it was horrendous in reality. It would be the...


STIBBE: ...Night before. And I'd be shouting. And they'd have to go to bed, and then I'd have to finish them. And then it was just awful. And then we'd turn up.


STIBBE: And they would all be just fake. And then it - a huge lie.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I just want you to know that you're exactly the kind of mother that makes me feel bad because you show up with, like, this hand - beautiful sort of...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Crafted thing...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...That the kids have, like, sweated over. And I show up with an Amazon gift card.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) That's the kind of mother I am. Going to bring it home now - what's the best Christmas present you've ever been given?

STIBBE: Well, my worst Christmas present was a lawn mower because I just thought, why am I being given this?


STIBBE: And my best sort of unexpectedly brilliant was a huge jigsaw puzzle.


STIBBE: And when I opened it, I thought, oh, this is awful. But then it was a joy over Christmas to keep returning to this lovely table and putting all the pieces in. And it was very Christmassy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds lovely.

STIBBE: Does that sound...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A jigsaw puzzle for Christmas - no, I like them.

STIBBE: (Laughter) You don't sound convinced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, I am convinced. You know why - because it's something that all different age groups can do.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that is, I think, the spirit of Christmas.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nina Stibbe is the author of "An Almost Perfect Christmas." And she was here to tell us some of her tips and also some of her disasters. Thank you so much.

STIBBE: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY BRAGG SONG, "JANE ALLEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.
Nina Stibbe