Our Favorite Gifts

The most meaningful gifts are so personal they cannot simply be plucked from the shelves of a store—but sometimes we need a little help. Turning holiday inspiration into shopping salvation, the writers recall their fondest gift memories.

When I was 10 or 11, and pretty clearly destined to be a nerd, my parents got me a rock tumbler for Christmas. It had a little three-pound barrel that I’d stuff full of rocks and abrasives, and then I’d plug it in and the barrel would start rotating, sloshing ceaselessly around, and I’d run it down in the basement for five or six straight nights, this terrible grinding sound coursing through the house. I was supposed to be finding semi-precious gemstones in the backyard and tumbling those, but mostly I just took pebbles from wherever I wanted, granite and sandstone, rocks that looked terrible, all pocked and dirty. And that little tumbler would transform them into jewels. It smelled and eventually the motor burned out and it cemented my future as a nerd, but I loved that thing. (Buy rock tumblers from Lortone) —Anthony Doerr


The Sapper 9090 10-cup stovetop espresso maker was too expensive for my blood. I had my eye on it for five years, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. I already owned the smaller, delightful single-cupper, and though I loved imagining its beauty magnified by 10, side-by-side on my kitchen counter, I couldn’t commit my checkbook. But my in-laws did last Christmas. I yelped when I tore off the wrapping paper. The 9090 is the size of a healthy baby, and the handle is perfectly shaped for doing bicep curls. You know, after you drink the 10 cups of espresso yourself. (Purchase the Sapper 9090 at Moss) —Rosecrans Baldwin


I was lost and disagreeable when I first went to college so, in a fit of righteousness, I bailed to housesit for a friend’s mom. Housesitting did little to stem my boredom, so I got a tattoo—a black ink drawing of a little girl with a big head. Getting the tattoo lifted my spirits and reminded me to not take things (and myself) so seriously. A while later, I started receiving cards in the mail with a glittery image of the tattoo and without return address. The mystery went unsolved until a friend gave me a beautiful notepad with the little girl embossed on each page. Clever girl; she’d seen the tattoo when she visited me and had found a stamp of the same drawing at the paper store where she worked. (Locate a tattoo studio near you) —Nicole Pasulka


Although it didn’t fill me with the same youthful ardor that a Castle Grayskull playset had several years before, the best Christmas present I ever got was my first guitar, an Alvarez Strat-oid, when I was about 15. I’d only recently discovered Nirvana and had decided that being able to play guitar would help revamp my social image, from nerdy punching bag to totally doable. I’m still not sure how well my plan worked, but playing music has been an important part of my daily life ever since, which I can only regard as a good thing, no matter what my roommates have had to say on the matter. (Find a guitar like this at —Erik Bryan


The best gift I ever got was in 1983 and a complete cliché: kittens. All I wanted that year was a Maine Coon cat, and I remember my father coming through the door the week before Christmas with two kittens clinging to the shoulders of his red checkered jacket. Then I had to go to the hospital. I wasn’t released until Christmas Eve, and my mother kept repeating how glad she was that she’d done her shopping early. With no time for anything fancy for dinner, we had ham and cheese sandwiches and shrimp from the freezer. I loved it all, and I’ll always remember watching the kittens climb the tree while the radio counted down the best songs of 1983. The lights and ornaments shimmied as though alive, and “Every Breath You Take” came in tops that year, which the DJ said was no surprise at all. (Find an ASPCA shelter in your area) —Tobias Seamon


When I was a teenager and relatives would inquire what I’d like for Christmas, my father would say: “He wears a lot of black.” And: “He probably won’t like whatever you get him.” I’m sorry, but there’s a big difference between a black fleece vest embroidered with the name of your cousin’s company and a nice black sweater. The gifts they were giving me were bad in any color. One Christmas during college my father gave me a watch—a silver Pulsar. I didn’t wear a watch, and I didn’t think I’d start, but I tried it on, and I kept it on. And people—total strangers—complimented me on it. With so much eerie, positive reinforcement, I grew to love the watch, to replace its battery, to fix its band when it broke by the pool, and, last Christmas, to tell my father how much it means to me. And yet, he still thinks I don’t like anything. (Purchase this watch at —Andrew Womack


You may not be aware, because practically no one flies on Christmas day, that practically no one flies on Christmas day. Every year my brother and I made up about 40 percent of our plane’s passengers. After the divorce, my parents agreed on many things, but who got Christmas, never. So my brother and I donned the large plastic buttons that signified young child riding alone and boarded the plane dejectedly. This lasted through the beginning of college, when we finally outgrew the buttons and decided to go one place or another. We picked Dad’s, because we saw him less during the year. When I told Mom, she was palpably disappointed, but about a week later I got in the mail a letter from “Santa” saying he understood that no one wants to be pulled in two directions and that he’d be happy to celebrate a second Christmas on a date of my choosing. (Buy stamps from the U.S. Postal Service) —Lauren Frey


An ex-girlfriend gave me a copy of The Devil’s Toy, a tongue-in-cheek Claude Jutra/National Film Board documentary about Montreal skateboarders in the early ‘60s. I had been going to watch it at the Cinérobotheque (where an amazing robot finds and plays movies as you request them) once every few weeks, until this very thoughtful young woman had them make me up a VHS copy. Also, Geneviève Bujold’s theme song, “Rouli-Roulant,” is pretty much the best thing ever. (Find and purchase rare movies at GreenCine) —Pasha Malla


About four years after I moved to Brooklyn, I couldn’t get enough time away from work to travel home to Ohio for Christmas. Thankfully, a good friend was also stuck in the city for the holiday, and so we planned a feast, turkey included, to be cooked at my house. I bought a tree, and about a week before the holiday a big box of presents arrived from my parents. After an agonizing wait, on Christmas morning I dived in and found among the packages a set of three brightly colored cotton aprons my mother had made from a 1960s-style pattern. One was blue with a teapot print, a flared skirt, a scooped collar, and scarlet trim, and I am convinced to this day that our dinner turned out as well as it did because I was wearing that apron while I cooked. (Visit the Blue Gardenia to buy vintage sewing patterns) —Kate Schlegel

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers