Even in this year of upheaval and change, there are people who are already finished with their holiday shopping. These folks have also changed their fire alarm batteries and rotated their tires, ordered some sandals on sale for next season, addressed and mailed holiday cards, and are likely feeling a well-earned sense of order and satisfaction as they gaze lovingly at their gift cupboards, secure in the knowledge that at least their gift-giving won’t be disrupted this year. If this is you, well done!
However. Many of the rest of us reach a moment about… now… where we start to try to figure out who we need to buy gifts for, how they might have changed or grown since last year, and what we’re going to give each of them. This is all made all the more complicated, of course, by the fact that most of us haven’t been in stores this year, browsing, thinking, Oh, this cat-head teapot cozy would be perfect for Great Aunt Petunia! and tucking it away ahead of time. Not to mention the unfortunate fact that as many locales are heading toward greater COVID restriction, we’re all trying to figure out what might be good in this particular year: Experience gifts like museum memberships or wine-tasting classes are largely off the table and millions of people have smaller budgets (or zero budget) due to job loss or cut hours. And yet not being able to see friends and family for the holidays leaves many of us wanting to make gifts feel extra-special in some way, to bring a little sliver of holiday magic to these times.
Good news: we’ve got you covered. Here’s a list of gift methods and options for many situations, all picked to enhance life in the right-now. As a bonus, we’ve found a ton of amazing gifts available from women-owned, LGBT2Q-owned, and POC-owned businesses, which are noted so you can spend your money enriching community members and small-business owners rather than Jeff Bezos where possible.
The “It’s a Vacation but at Home” gift
Everyone wants to travel during the holidays, but most of us are being cautious and staying where we are. If that’s your loved ones, give the gift of a staycation in full surround—a treat for the senses! Aim to gift them a visual, a scent, a sound, a taste, and, if you can swing it, something to touch.
Want to make them feel like they’re on the beach in Hawai’i? Give them a $15 Google Cardboard viewer and instruct them to download the Hawai’i VR app for a wild visual, order some treats and a scented candle direct from the islands through native-Hawai’ian and woman-owned business Red Pineapple (which sources from small producers), organize a Spotify playlist, and off they go! You can do this for any destination: A scented campfire candle and a distilled aromatic can take you to the forest (try Botanivore from St. George or a non-alcoholic and delicious version from Seedlip, both about $32). VR to the Louvre, order macarons from Black-owned bakestars The Sweet Lobby (starts at $15), and put on some fresh French pop music and it’s Paris! Get creative about your options and give the gift of an escape.
The “Reverse Scavenger Hunt” gift
This is great for any holiday, but extra good for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa because they span a week of celebration. Here’s how it works: Use any online retailer to send one portion of a gift per day(ish), beginning with something quite common and ending with the most interesting. (It’s fine if it doesn’t work out to one per day; just place one order per day and hope for the best, or mail one item per day if you’re regifting or thrifting.) Even better, do this with a collection of small items that reminds you of something you hope to enjoy together again soon.
For example, when I missed my beloved Oakland friends with whom I love iced horchata lattes from Tierra Mia Coffee, I sent the following: glass bottles with jigger tops to start, then a bottle of simple syrup, then a bag of horchata mix, then a pound of coffee from Counter Culture, and finally a souvenir glass mug depicting monuments of Canada. By the time they got the last item, they were laughing and happy to be sharing a virtual coffee together. Other possibilities: a selection of supplies for a craft or hobby (beret, palette, brushes, watercolors, canvas) or a collection of items to create a nice outdoor area (HotHands, outdoor string lights, some festive fuzzy socks, covered wine glass). Let your imagination run wild!
Practical but Special gifts
Colder weather is upon us, and many friends and family will be in a lot more than Out this winter. Set them up for warm, comfortable success in their binge-watching pursuits! I love wool Glerups slippers (starting at $75), which promise the end of sweaty feet (and the beginning of my Canadian plan to help Americans recognize the great benefits of taking your shoes off when you come indoors). You can help make sitting on the couch in their unders quite a bit nicer with MeUndies (starting at $14), which span a satisfyingly wide range of sizes (XS to 4XL) and come in prints that include Christmas llamas, “festive” plaids, hedgehogs, stormtroopers, and Dunder-Mifflin corporate.
For a luxury gift, women-owned brand Kashwere makes a range of blankets, socks, and hoodies ideal for cuddling in this winter (socks start at $15 up to $200 for a throw), and I can personally attest to how light and warm they are. (The company also quietly donates a ton of product to people displaced by natural disasters and those undergoing cancer treatment.) And while there are a literal million spa/soap/candle/self-care options in the world, check out the super-fair-trade body care line from Black-owned Alaffia, which includes a huge range of products including many unscented options (starting at $5) with everything from black soap to baby balm.
The “Only in a Pandemic” experience gift
Broadway is dark, and all that talent is just… sitting around, audienceless, waiting to figure out what they do for a living now. If you have a theatre-lover in your life, hop over to gay-owned Broadway Plus, where you can take acting, dancing or singing lessons via Zoom from legit Broadway stars, or just do a little online meet-and-greet (starting at $60 and up to $250 for private lessons) with your favorites from Hamilton, Wicked, Frozen, and more.
If they fancy themselves a foodie, chefs like Elizabeth Falkner (you’ve seen her and her pouf of platinum blonde hair on nearly every chef show, either competing or judging) are offering virtual cooking classes (starting at $300 per hour for a group up to four people). For something truly wild, try her signature Game of Swords and Knives class, where—and I am not making this up—first she leads you in a vigorous Jungshin workout with wooden swords, and then teaches a class about cooking nourishing food. For a nearly-free option, put on a cooking class yourself, and finally let your friends in on the secret to your famous mac and cheese or the family-recipe caramel bread pudding. (Also please invite me; my DMs are open.)
The “Support Their New Hobby” gift
Does your friend have an Instagram or Facebook where they post lots of photos? Now’s the time for a stroll through their feed to see what they have been enjoying lately. If they’re posting a lot of completed puzzles, try woman of color–owned KiwiCo’s EurekaCrate ($25), which is basically a 3D puzzle with minor tech that becomes a useful object (like a lamp, pencil sharpener, or ukulele) when it’s finished. (If you’re also puzzle-happy, send them some you’ve already finished for just the cost of postage.)
Are you seeing a high number of new-puppy pics? Bullymake has boxes of chew toys ($40 for a box of five in a variety of textures) that’ll keep puppers entertained and preserve the headphones, remote controls, and couch cushions. If they’re out in the wilderness looking windswept in their photos, check out Cairn ($30 for a box of 3–4 items) for an excellent curated selection, by subscription or as a one-time thing. (My outdoorsman husband says that all the items are great, and promptly made off with a lightweight tiny shovel for responsible outdoor pooping [$19] and a firestarter.) Are they into well-balanced pandemic cocktails? Try this $20 set of mixers from women-owned company Owl’s Brew for some fresh, interesting takes on classics. Whatever their new pandemic hobbies are, support them.
The “Introduce Some %$#@! Excitement” gift
Want to give someone something new to look forward to right now? Same. Subscription boxes are the gift basket of Gen X and younger, and there are some really excellent ones to choose from. Try The Adventure Challenge ($40) which makes books of 50 different scratch-off activity ideas for families—pick a page, commit to the activity, scratch and give it a go. If you want to help them mix up their TV routine, BBC and ITV (two of the three main TV stations of the UK) have BritBox, where for $8 per month your friend or loved one can watch all the dry British wit and gentle gardening programs they could want.
For something a little racy for your long-distance (or nearby) frolic partner, Dipsea has a variety of audio story options for $9 per month, which do include a “her + them” (yay!) option but, be advised, no “him + him.” (If you have a gay to buy for and want something sexy, try this vers vibrating friend from queer-owned co-op Come As You Are, $45.)
For a luxury option, try POC & LGBT-owned Bespoke Post ($45/mo): gender-free gifts on a theme, every month, plus a commitment to source from small businesses during the pandemic—which they’ve done to the tune of $24 million and counting. Or if you’re going super-budget this year, use Spotify or Tidal to curate a monthly themed music playlist, and send the link every month with a little note about why you chose these songs for them.
The “Eat Something Special” gift
These are some of my favorites of this gift guide: the spice boxes from women of color–owned Spice Madam ($20), and the spices from Diaspora (starting at $15). A lovely friend sent us a Spice Madam subscription at the beginning of the pandemic and it comes with the spices, recipes, and information about a different country each month and includes music to cook to. The spice blends are really nice and the recipes are very well done! If you’d rather curate the spices yourself, you could check out a different WOC-owned option, Diaspora, which works directly with farmers to bring you amazing, fresh, fragrant spices. (I never knew turmeric could smell so good.)
Want to help someone snack their way around the world? There’s Universal Yums (worldwide from $14) and Bokksu* (all Japan, $33 for snacks and a tea pairing), which also happens to be a sneaky-but-effective way to get kids in a noodles-with-butter rut excited about trying new foods.
The “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children” gift
If you have niblings or other beloved small friends, they are probably bouncing off the walls, fidgeting through online school, and whining a lot. Send help: woman-owned brand Sensory TheraPlay offers a box of fidgety things ($40), which is designed for kids who need stim items; boxes come packed with squishy, fidgety, fiddly toys in bright colors (and yes, they make adult boxes too). You could also make a custom selection of home-made play dough in the kids’ favorite colors; it’s super cheap (~$2 in ingredients) and long-lasting.
Be a snowball fight/snowfort/play-all-day champion with a duo gift: get a warm wool base layer like the ones from SmartWool ($70) that keeps them really warm as temps drop, and pair it with a snow slinger ($10) or saucer sled ($10), and maybe some hot chocolate mix for after. You could also just go full Favorite Auntie with a selection of candy and toys from my childhood fave Economy Candy.
The “Wildly Overwhelming Group Gift” gift
Maybe one of your friends is just really… not doing great right now, even by 2020 standards. How about a whip-round of fundraising among all your friends to get them something truly cool they couldn’t afford on their own like a Nintendo Switch Lite ($199) or a fancy cookbook like Samin Nosrat’s brilliant illustrated one ($37). If you don’t have a lot of room in your budget, peer into Little Free Libraries, hit up a local “buy nothing” group, or rehome a favorite of yours, and tuck in some encouraging notes to keep it cheap. If you’ve got a new parent in your circle, a walloping gift card from all of you to a food delivery service can mean actual dinner instead of exhausted handfuls of dry cereal.
If your friend group is cash-strapped, consider a huge-hearted, small-bankroll option: have everyone make a video where they share nice thoughts about that person and edit them all together (maybe with a Cameo at the end?), or contribute to a series of notes the person can open on a bad day. You could even go full Pinterest and print the notes out and put them in envelopes (or a box you decorate or a little book you make) complete with some photos of good times. The sky (and the stock at your local crafts store) is the limit!
The “Let’s Keep in Touch” gift
This could be super low-fi, like sending a fun or classic postcard set ($7–$12) or gifting them a Zoom Pro account ($15 per month) for unlimited online hangs. If you have a little more to spend, you might want to invest in something like the Facebook Portal (starts at $65—on sale, regularly $129—for a Mini), which is my new favorite way to share a meal over the internet because it shows the whole table (the whole room, in fact!). Though it’s basically a unitasker, it does its one job super well, especially for kids who can’t spend time with their grandparents right now. (It also plays music on Spotify and has Alexa, if you’re into that sort of thing, and my 10-year-old has discovered that it will supply a live opponent for chess, checkers, or Battleship at any hour. Magic.)
You could also expand your face-to-face interactions by planning a joint-but-separate activity. Maybe you can pay for body-positive, Black woman–led online Pilates classes ($15–20 per class) so you can work out together. Look into getting Pay What You Can tickets for an online show (like this re-imagined pandemic Christmas Story based on a 80-year old pageant or maybe African-American theatre mainstay Crossroads Theater’s season) and watch together. Or cook together with a meal kit from a local restaurant. You can roll your own sushi from Miku in Toronto or Vancouver ($60 for four servings), cook Alinea ($225 for eight) for Thanksgiving in Chicago, feast on Korean hotpot from Her Name Is Han ($48 for two) in NYC, enjoy charcuterie from The Kitchen (starts at $10) in Columbus, or just order pie (or a hat, $30) from Ladybird Diner in Lawrence, Kansas (and consider kicking in an extra $5 toward their community food pantry).
The “Indie Picks Your Mix” gift
This is my new favorite pandemic innovation: call a bookstore that’s local to your friend or family member, tell them how much you want to spend and some general books your friend likes, and see if they will put together what is basically a book bouquet. It’s like flowers but with books, which last forever and are also very attractive. Also: we really need our indie bookstores right now!
Some yarn stores are also doing this, so if the person that you want to give a gift to is wild for fiber arts, see what their local store can do. (Bonus: you’ll probably reach Barb, who knows your friend and has a good sense of what they like to make, and also wonders whether you’ve ever tried crochet?) See what other small local stores are willing to take your money and do the work of choosing for you, so your friend gets a great gift and those brilliant small stores are still around when this pandemic is finally over.
The “Just Something Gorgeous” Gift
Sometimes there’s just nothing like an amazing, beautiful thing to wear or look at. Cheekbone Beauty, an Indigenous–owned cosmetics company, makes amazing shades (starting at $30) that flatter a wide variety of skin tones often overlooked by mainstream beauty boxes (and arrive in compostable packaging). Estelle Colored Glass, a Black-owned artisan glassblower, makes handmade wine glasses ($35) to make their evening red feel extra special. And Detroit-based Nigerian duo Diop makes gorgeous clothes and also face masks ($15) with a clever around-the-head option, saving their ears. (The brand also donates part of every purchase to local kid-forward food programs.)
The “We don’t celebrate Christmas” gift
Jewish, Hindu and Muslim families are among those bombarded by Christmas things just now, and it can be… overwhelming. What a good time to put together a DIY craft kit to make, say, a sparkly dinosaur menorah or a gorgeous Rangoli, or a Kwanzaa kinara. You can assemble these yourself for a few dollars in supplies, and your friends of any age can have some low-stress moments with paint and glitter.
But really, any item that reflects their heritage is great—especially if they have kiddos, so the small humans can remember their own rich, delicious traditions while the rest of the world is wildly painting everything red and green. The folks at Maya Lotan’s Berkeley startup Days United make truly delightful celebration boxes ($30) for Jewish, Indian, and Chinese families with children, but also think about simply sending a book like Amazing Muslims Who Changed The World ($20) or Moondragon In The Mosque Garden ($16).
15. The “Gift of Your Time” gift
We’re all home a lot now, and yet somehow less connected than ever? Zoom cocktail parties are tiring after online meetings all day, and many of us feel just… exhausted, and distant, and perhaps not so loved. Take a minute to write a note to your friend—on paper is great but an email or even a text is better than nothing—and tell them what you love about them. Focus on them for five minutes, quietly in your mind, and then type out all the nice feelings, memories, and qualities that bubble up as you picture their face and voice. You don’t have to save this for a holiday, but if you do, I predict it will be a very welcome gift indeed.