Eleven months of the year, I’m grateful for my large family. But when I’m trying to outrun the December avalanche, I can’t help but wonder how I thought four kids was such a fantastic idea, or why I didn’t marry a nice orphan.
Daily life is busy enough, but when you pile on the tree, the decorations, the lights, the music, the cookies, the cards, the blasted elf that hides every night – plus gifts for kids, family, friends, teachers, etc – well, all I can say is that the lyric “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” in reference to holiday season was most assuredly not penned by a mom.
Gifts are stressful, because there’s not much of a spectrum between Jackpot and Total Waste of Money. When you cook, even if people don’t love the food, you’ve at least provided them nourishment and comfort from hunger. But many well-intended gifts go unused, tokens of kindness but a waste of money and effort.
At the very least, I hope to give someone an item they will use. But the best is to fill a void they never even knew was there. Some personal passions are well-advertised (eg running, or the color purple); but gifts that speak to the small and specific ones (eg banana cream pie, or Benedict Cumberbatch) often delight people the most, because they’re surprised you even noticed.
So I over-research. And then I share here to make me feel better about all the time I spent. My kids are moving out of the toy-intensive years, so Christmas gifts are getting smaller (thankfully), and more interest-specific. But I’ll recap some of my enduring favorites here and add some new ones:
All-time best toys
Magna-tiles ($120 for 100-piece set; $50 for 32) – Gorgeously simple building toys, all ages are drawn to these translucent magnetic shapes that seem to hold together effortlessly. Expensive but worth the investment, these are one of the few toys, like Legos and wooden trains, that will be used for years and handed off to future generations.
Ezy Roller ($99) – I first wrote about this brilliant, leg powered ride-on toy when we got it in Ohio in 2011. The kids still love the two we have, and I’m only now starting to see them in California. Kids as young as three take off in this fast, sturdy ride, which is super stable due to its low center of gravity – and fully extended it can even hold a cramped adult for a spin.
Stocking stuffers – I fill Grandma’s stockings for 13 grandkids in Ohio every year, and fresh ideas are my yearly challenge. I try for an item from maybe three of these categories and mix them up year to year.
- Eat – candy, gum, mints, or an orange for tradition
- Play – bouncy ball, squeeze rockets, jacob’s ladder, hand boiler – this year it’s a mini-marshmallow blower (my tidy mother-in-law may not love this one)
- Useful – novelty pens, socks, lip balm
- Goofy – back scratcher, fake mustaches/noses/body rings
- Creative/imaginative – headlamp, finger lights, sports whistle, small musical instrument such as a harmonica or slide whistle
Gift ideas for school-aged kids
- Mini drone – Drones are cool and creepy, particularly the ones with camera. This is a camera-less version for the mechanical geek in the family (with help from mom and dad). The best thing about it is that for $5 Amazon offers a 2-year insurance protection from accidental damage – which you’ll probably need in the first two minutes. Still, it’s amazing technology.
- Forbidden food – I think it’s hilarious for Santa to get kids food that their parents would never buy. Cap’n Crunch, Krispy Kreme, potato chips – or for my father-in-law as a boy, it was a case of ketchup (because he could never get enough).
- Light up frisbee – This can provide some Christmas Day fun after it gets dark at 4:00.
- Pretend school set – Great for kids with younger siblings or cousins, playing school transforms bossy older siblings into respected teachers, and rowdy younger siblings into eager students. Christmas magic.
- Face painting is another fantastic creative activity for older kids to do with younger kids. This face painting kit includes a booklet of ideas, and this face painting book has paint included.
- A duct tape crafts book is another fun idea, and you can pick out a personalized selection of colored and patterned duct tape at Home Depot. Or you could just buy the novelty rolls of tape and point the YouTube generation to the internet for craft ideas.
- Homemade kits – A box of real supplies is cooler than dinky kits sold at toy stores. Some ideas: science (vinegar, baking soda, food coloring, mentos, diet Coke, plastic funnel), craft (glue gun, pipe cleaners, puff balls, popsicle sticks, googly eyes, glitter, etc), art (washable paint, brushes, sponges, paper, etc), hairstyling (styling comb, brush, clips, hair elastics, styling donut, etc), nails (polish, remover, adhesive nail art, fine brushes).
- Even with the ubiquity of food blogs and recipes online, cookbooks are still great to have and hold. Teens Cook and Teens Cook Dessert books always get good reviews from recipients. A few tools (measuring cups, wooden spoon, whisk, rubber spatula) are a good tie-in.
- Room decor – Maybe it’s because we moved, but the kids are suddenly more interested in items for their rooms. String lights are always cheery (Ikea often has cute ones too). Mini NFL pennants are perfect for a football fan. And removable wall decals come in every flavor, from Star Wars and Frozen to flowering branches and clouds.
- Little novelty pillows get a surprising amount of use, especially for car or plane trips. I found some whimsical ones – a log-shaped pillow, frosted doughnut, heart-eyed emoji face. I also love this penguin travel pillow that zips from animal to u-shaped neck pillow.
- Electronics accessories – For kids, device cases are more about style than protection. This colorful iPod Touch case opens to a wallet and folds into a viewing stand. These superhero cases don’t multitask but are the cutest ever.
- Tangle Teezer – This detangling brush has saved us years of tears. We still depend on it every day to claw through my girls’ fine, wavy hair.
Practical gifts for adults – Adults in my family generally don’t do gifts, but occasionally I give out a super-useful discovery, like these
- Baggu reusable bags – Fold small and hold a surprisingly large amount. The two I carry in my purse are in constant use.
- Rechargeable flashlights – Plug into the wall and turn on automatically in a power outage. Especially useful in thunderstorm-prone Ohio, where brief outages are frequent.
- Sweater-fuzz-shaving comb – Got my old knits looking new and fresh again.
- Silver jewelry polishing cloth – Transformed my life a few years ago. Where has it been my whole silver-jewelry wearing life?
- My biggest hit: these tiny beaded bracelets on waxed thread from an Etsy crafter in Spain. So durable, I haven’t had them off my wrist in two years, and they bring me daily joy.
- I got on a linen scarf kick last year after deciding my skin can’t handle wool anymore. But this year I think my gift of color to the girls will be this lightweight infinity scarf. I only do natural fibers because of my eczema, but I know everyone else will appreciate this soft machine-washable rayon.
For more ideas, here are more holiday gift lists from the archives:
- The rush is on…holiday gift ideas (2010)
- Gift ideas for preschoolers (2010)
- Gift ideas for school-aged kids (2010)
- Holiday gift ideas, part 1 (2011)
- Holiday gift ideas, part 2 (2011)
- Nubian Heritage soaps (and other stocking stuffers for grownups) (2012)
- Ezy Roller (and a few stocking stuffer ideas) (2012)
- Holiday stocking stuffers (2013)
I hope you all stuffed yourselves on Thanksgiving! If you have any stray cans of pumpkin left, try putting one in my turkey chili – the pumpkin puree gives a great body to the soup, plus excellent nutrition, and no one will guess it’s there.