Used socks, unsolicited gym memberships, half-eaten boxes of candy, unwanted self-help books ... bad, offensive — and downright cruel — gifts are as ubiquitous as blaring Christmas music this time of year.
Nearly everyone boasts an unbelievable story of how a family member or co-worker shamed them with a gift of truly remarkable insensitivity. And while many presents are subjectively “good” or “bad” (she might actually want a Dirt Devil or that “Two and a Half Men” DVD set), there are several taboo areas — weight loss, relationships, body image — that are best kept out of the holiday gift-giving experience.
A good rule to follow: Don’t give anything that suggests a desperate need of change.
“When in doubt, give a gift that is tried and true,” said TODAY lifestyle contributor Elizabeth Mayhew. She recommends safe items like cashmere, stationery or a favorite book. “My rule of thumb is that you should never give something to someone that you wouldn't want for yourself.”
Unfortunately, with egg nog binge-drinking and lines on par with Election Day, people often don’t have time to select the perfect gift. “It is crucial that the giver consider the circumstances of the person they are giving to,” said Mayhew, who once got a goldfish just before her holiday vacation. “In general, I stay away from giving anything that requires too much maintenance or long-term care.” That includes Chia Pets, puppies, children or a hair-weave.
When it comes to co-workers, in-laws or Secret Santa assignments, consider neutral territory — like gift certificates or anything from Godiva — that couldn’t possibly be misconstrued as evil. Although not terribly exciting or creative, opt for the practical, like a gas or grocery gift card, or “together gifts” that people can share with their families, such as a museum or zoo membership, says gift expert Robyn Spizman, co-author of “Do Your Giving While You Are Living.”
“Think of ways you can make a difference and your gift will live on all year long,” Spizman said. “Give comfortable and warm things that make people feel relaxed and cared for.”
And what should you do if someone presents you with a ThighMaster? Take a moment to relax, calm down and select an appropriate time — at least an arm’s punch away from family or the boss — to share your hatred of the gift. It could be that the gift-giver never meant to offend — he or she might just be unintentionally stupid.
“When the time is right, you might say, ‘I really appreciate your thinking of me, but I am not sure what this gift implies,’ ” Spizman suggests. “Tread lightly, but don't accuse someone of ill intentions. You just might be overly sensitive and they sincerely might be trying to help you. Not everyone has gift-giving radar — and their sense of humor just might need an adjustment.”
In the spirit of the holiday, we asked TODAYshow.com readers to share their funny and horrific stories of offensive delights they found underneath the tree. We discovered that mothers-in-law have a cruel, passive-aggressive sense of humor; that gag gifts can easily be misconstrued as tacky (or instigate a sexual harassment suit); and that most men are in desperate need of a personal shopper.
A family affair
I am an African-American woman who was married to a Caucasian man. His family has very little interaction with people of different races. On our first Christmas as a family, his mother gave me a bag of hair weave as a gift. When I asked her where she got the idea to do this, she innocently said, "Well, that's what all the little coloreds wear down here." When I complained to my husband, he told me that I was being too sensitive and that it is the thought that counts. Needless to say, her son and I are no longer married.
— Lisa, Orlando, Fla.
More from TODAY.com
Doc Rivers: 'none of us would have played' if Sterling remained
LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers just signed a 5-year contract to remain with the team. In an exclusive interview with NBC, Ri...
- Joan Rivers' daughter Melissa says Mom's condition 'remains serious'
- Mom births 'hurricane baby' after being stranded in dangerous storm
- Samurai swords and nun chucks: the craziest items the TSA confiscated, and Instagrammed
- Hero boy calls 9-11 during car hijacking
- Doc Rivers: 'none of us would have played' if Sterling remained
I have known since I was 17 that I did not want children. My sister never understood or honored that. One Christmas, after I had been married 15 years, she got me a tee shirt that said "I can't believe I forgot to have children." It is one gift I threw away and never acknowledged.
— Rachel White, Grapevine, Texas
My sister gave me acne medication for Christmas.
— Teresa, R.I.
My mother-in-law, who not only was usually drunk, but cheap, gave me a pound of ground beef — right from her freezer. She stuck a bow on it and made such a big deal over it. And it was very greasy!
— Betsy Murphy, Mukwonago, Wis.
Back in July my dad offered to get me a Web site dating membership for Christmas because, in his words, I "need to get married and have babies." He's brought it up a few times since then. We shall see ...
— Joan, Spring, Texas
For my 20th birthday, my mom gave me a broken VCR and told me I could get it fixed.
My mom has a thing about gaining weight. That is the first thing she sees when she looks at her children. Well, I know I have put on weight since my kids were born, so my mom bought me clothes a few years ago that were two sizes too small, and when I mentioned they would never fit, she said, "When you lose some of that weight, they will fit fine." Nice. (I never wore them and gave them to ARC.)
— Michelle Noe, Nampa, Idaho
I received a trash can from my in-laws. It was the only gift I received from them that year and I didn't ask for it, so it was not an expected or needed thing. I thought it sent a pretty clear message on what they thought of my home, though.
— Lauren, Las Vegas, Nev.
On Christmas Day my gift from my in-laws (whose airfare I had paid for the visit) was an ironing board. I detest ironing and purposely purchase non-cotton clothes for me and the kids so as to avoid ironing. I broke up with my first serious boyfriend in college when he asked me to iron a shirt. So, maybe it is just me. I am still greatly offended. It didn't bring me to tears but I still get a little enraged at the thought of it.
— Pamela Burg, Spokane, Wash.
A few years ago my mother-in-law gave me the diet book "Stop the Insanity" for my birthday in September. For Christmas, she sent me Harry & David's Tower of Candy! Now that is a mixed message.
— Gloria, Saint Louis, Mo.
I received a marriage help book from my mother-in-law one year. None of her other daughters-in-law got one of these ... and there wasn't any sort of trouble in the marriage to prompt this gift, either. Her poor mistreated son and I have been happily married now for 17 years.
— Tracy, Lubbock, Texas
When I was a teenager and had limited resources for Christmas presents, I gave my mother a candle setting for the coffee table and was incredibly proud of myself for it, since she loves candles to this day. Last year for Christmas (nearly six years later) she regifted me the candle setting — still in its original wrapper! How tacky is that?!
— Brooke, Ky.
My worst gift ever was from my mother-in-law. A used popcorn popper with old, rancid butter in the melting cup! (And it wasn't a joke!)
— Susan, Conn.
My former in-laws were really big into Amway, so imagine my embarrassment for my husband when he only received a package of Amway disposable razors for Christmas, I received a bottle of Amway lotion. I was truly upset for years about their lack of effort for their only son, who was a Navy SEAL.
— Kimberly Murray, Broken Arrow, Okla.
My in-laws got my husband a book entitled "How to Survive Without Your Mom: A Mother's Guide to Living on Your Own." He is a grown man who had been living on his own for quite some time. I was furious!
— Francis Montgomery, Phoenix, Ariz.
My son was a bit of a rounder when he was a toddler. Not mean or anything, but always checking stuff out and getting into things. He wasn't disobedient, but tended to try to do things he shouldn't. When he was 2, my husband's cousin gave me a book about discipline by Dr. Sears.
— Caroline, Memphis, Tenn.
I received two from my ex-mother-in-law when I was about 19. The first was a large faux wood Jesus clock whose arms spun around for the hour and minute hands and the second was see-through polyester crotch-less lingerie in a size 2 times bigger (I was a size 9 in juniors at the time). Funny now, but boy what a Christmas that was.
My now ex-in-laws gave my husband and me the wine glasses they had stolen from the plane on their way to visit us. They then tried to give me a box of shampoos and soaps they had taken from various hotels on their travels "to help you out as we know you are struggling financially".
—Monica McCreery, Seattle, Wash.
My 10-year old niece, from my ex-husband's side sent me a "Precious Moments" picture frame with a bride and groom motif on the side of it four months after I filed for divorce from him. Since they lived out of state, I am sure it was purchased/approved by her parents, who are unbelievably insensitive.
My in-laws gave me a coffee table book about Antarctica. Two years later, they gave me the same book. I guess they thought I needed two of them. They also gave me a book about how to be a good dad when my wife was pregnant with our daughter. Interesting, because my wife never thought of them as good parents...
—John, SAnchorage, AK
The weaker sex?
I received an engagement ring my (now ex) husband meant to give to his new girlfriend.
— Kate, Lafayette, La.
The worst 'thing' was from my husband. He actually had the nerve to give me a dildo that he admitted to have used with his ex... it's no wonder our sex-life has been a non-starter!
When my ex-boyfriend and I were still together, we talked very seriously about getting married. So, when he came to meet my family for the first time at Christmas, it was an especially important holiday. Needless to say, when we were done with dinner and he got all my family members' attention and gave me a little gift bag, I was a little more than excited. He got down on one knee, pulled out a little box and made me open it. What was in that box was one of the very first clues I got that said "Do not marry him!" The box had a candy pop ring in it ... he tried to put it on my finger, but failed because he was laughing so hard. While I was standing there in humiliation, it was all my parents could do to not kick him out of the house. It was all I could do to keep my composure.
When I think back, I have never been so glad to call someone an ex-boyfriend.
— Lara Martin, Arlington, Va.
My sister's new husband bought her a Wonderbra one year. It accidentally got thrown out with the wrapping-paper trash!
— Jo, Oak Creek, Wis.
My still-new husband bought me a secondhand, ratty, stained pair of maternity sweat pants when I was six months pregnant. The sweats weren't even gift-wrapped. They were still in a bag from the consignment store they were purchased from.
— Gina Anton, Billings, Mont.
Hi! Nothing says love quite like a box of Duraflame logs! I am completely serious! I had been dating this elegant, educated man for a year and had purchased presents for him, his children, parents and other family members for Christmas. I went all out. On Christmas Day he had me open one of three horrendous gifts — one being the case of Duraflame logs! I had told him I only wanted things for Christmas I could use! Believe me; he took me up on it! (I'm no longer seeing him)!
— Anne Marie Ross, Ocala, Fla.
My ex-husband gave me money one year for Christmas. I cried the entire day. To me, that one act really reflected just how far off-course our relationship had gone ... we divorced a couple of years later.
— Teresa, Charleston, W.Va.
I met my ex on New Year’s Eve. A group of his friends and family gathered at a cabin to celebrate and my sister, who was dating his friend, brought me along. My ex gave his sister this fleece zip-up body lounger blanket with holes for her head, feet and arms. When my birthday came along in May, I got one too. The bad part of it was he gave it to me in the package it was shipped in, the date on it was 12/19 — weeks before we even met!. Regifting at its best!
— Ka Murray, Chicago, Ill.
One year my sister-in-law's husband gave us all the same gift: a calendar book published by the oil company he worked for. The books, though unused, were all leftovers from the previous year!
—Kathleen, Roswell, Ga.
My father was not into Christmas and certainly didn't care much about getting or receiving gifts. One year he found an uneaten box of candy samplers that I'd given him three years before. He wrapped it up and gave it to me for Christmas. Knowing he was waiting for a reaction from me, I acted like I'd never seen it before.
By this time, the candy was discolored and rancid. I kept it my freezer, re-wrapped it and gave it back to him (without a word) the following Christmas. Never saw it or heard about it again after that.
—Janice Mitchell. Bethlehem, Pa.
Queen-size pantyhose from my husband’s female boss. And I am nowhere near a queen-size person.
— Becky, Moorhead, Minn.
When I was new at my former workplace the receptionist thought it would be hysterical to give me a plunger and a roll of toilet paper at the company Christmas lunch.
It was totally unexpected and beyond humiliating.
— William, Concord, N.H.
For Christmas, my male boss got me (a female) a bar of glycerin soap with a penguin embedded in it. I don't even like penguins. The soap was half-melted as well, as if it had been sitting in an attic or something. So, was he trying to tell me I stink? Or was he merely very bad at re-gifting?
I had a friend who just moved into a new home. I had a piece of pottery custom-made for this Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings friend in her home colors. On the back a personal message of friendship was inscribed. In return, I got a plastic package of instant broccoli soup.
— Sally Manush, Godfrey, Ill.
A guest brought an opened, half-empty box of wine as a hostess gift that he had taken a "swig of," as he put it.
I once received a worn and cracked hockey puck as a Christmas gift. I don't even like hockey! And even if I did, the puck was not usable. Receiving no gift at all would have been more festive than that.
— Elaine, Wash.
While opening my gift, my grandmother proudly announced to the family that my gift "didn't cost her a dime." As I waded through the sea of tarnished and tangled jewelry, she explained that she won it all playing "sweepstakes." This craptastic set included six (count 'em, 6!) angel on my shoulder pins.. It was the only Christmas gift I've received from my grandmother, ever. In hindsight, that's probably a good thing.
—Natalie, Waukesha, Wis.
My husband and I were both married before and have children from our previous marriages. His daughter at the age of 15 gave me for Christmas a box filled with: toilet paper, burnt cookies, a clothespin, broken toys, matches and dog food. She claimed it was a joke, but it brought me to tears on Christmas Day, a day that should have been filled with joy.
— Amy Kautz, Merrill, Wis.
12 HO scale boxcars from my husband. To make matters worse, he gave them to me in front of my father, who wasn't happy with the gift ether. And beyond that, I collect teddy bears and turtles.
—Merrie, Milton Freewater, Ore.
One year for Christmas, I received hair curlers with hair still wrapped around them.
—Nicole Anderson, Phoenix, Ariz.
I once received a half-used jar of Peanut Butter! Now I love peanut butter, but I'm pretty sure I can buy it at the store on my own. Half-used —seriously. Worst gift ever!
—Brendan, Portland, Ore.
For Christmas that year, I got a musical carousel with horses that moved up and down —something I would never have chosen for my home. But the kicker was the brass plate on the front that said: "To 'Ricky' and 'Lucy' on your wedding day"!
Pigs feet from my brother in law one year.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints