The Worst Holiday Gifts

When it comes to gift fumbles, fruitcake is just the tip of the iceberg.

A woman holding an open gift box with a negative expression.
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The old saying is right: It is better to give than receive. And that's never been more true when you're on the receiving end of a gift gone wrong.

Yes, it's the thought that counts, but deep down inside, even Pollyannas must admit that it stinks to receive a bad gift. One second, you're wondering if behind the wrapping paper is something that might change your life, and the next, you're staring at an XXL T-shirt that says, "The U.S. Nude Roller Blading Team."

That's a gift Adrienne Gusoff once received from her sister, who is known in the family for giving forgettable and generally useless presents. Gusoff also wasn't too excited about a vinyl record her sister once gave her featuring TV's greatest theme songs.

"As if I would ever wear that [shirt] out in public," says Gusoff, who owns Bubby Gram, a singing telegram, celebrity impersonation and party company in New York City. "Geez, you can't even re-gift these things."

[Read: Buy This, Not That: Holiday Edition.]

So when you're shopping this holiday season, try to learn from others' mistakes. To ensure a genuine smile on your recipient's face when he or she tears open the wrapping paper, keep these types of bad gifts in mind.

Extremely cheap gifts. There is thrifty – and cheap. Nobody's going to think less of you or shake their head and chuckle if you score a sweater on the clearance rack that's 85 percent off. But if you make a habit of buying gifts based only on price and not considering what the person on the receiving end will think, well, people will start figuring it out.

Silvana Clark, a writer and speaker in Seattle, remembers that part of her mother's legacy. When it came to buying gifts, she was very, very cheap.

"Worse, she was an apartment manager," Clark says. "So when tenants moved out and tossed stuff in the Dumpster, she would climb in the Dumpster to find usable items. She was 70 and still doing this, so a tenant put a sign on the fence by the Dumpster that said, 'Help Helga out. If you have good clothes or furniture, put it OUTSIDE the Dumpster.'"

Knowing where her mother's gifts typically came from, Clark and her family were always a bit wary about receiving them. "Her theory was if she took something from the Dumpster and washed it three times, all the germs were gone, and it was OK to wear," Clark says.

Non-gifts. Rochelle Peachey, an entrepreneur who splits her time between Miami and London, received a Christmas card from an aunt four years ago. When she opened it, it was empty except for a note that said, "Buy your own gift!"

It seemed kind of mean, but then Peachey realized her aunt forgot to put a gift card in the envelope. Whoops. The lesson: Don't rush the gift wrapping or card stage.

Gifts that are veiled insults. Peachey also once received a voucher from Groupon for two hours of house cleaning from her mother-in-law, who explained the gift by saying, "Because you are so busy."

"My husband laughed so hard, we ended up having a fight," Peachey says.

Religiously or politically inappropriate gifts. When the pressure is on to complete your gift list, sale signs may impair your judgment. But it's important to keep your recipient's political or religious affiliation in mind.

Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, says several people have given her mugs that look like Santa, and she's also received a sweatshirt featuring a nativity scene. She is Jewish.

[Read: Not-So-Traditional Ideas for Holiday Gifts.]

Generally inappropriate gifts. While gift-giving isn't a science, forgetting or being oblivious to someone's world view seems to be the main reason a present appears off-kilter to the receiver and everyone else. For instance, you might think you're showcasing the importance of family by giving a framed picture of yourself to a relative; they might think you're narcissistic. Or you might think your gift of a mop delivers the subtlest of hints that you wish your daughter-in-law would clean the kitchen floor more often. Meanwhile, she feels like she's been clubbed with a mallet.