1)Something someone wants (you think) but either can't afford it for themselves (because they are 7 years old and don't have a job) or would not buy it for themselves because it is impractical and unnecessary (i.e. a dog snuggie. Except my friend Kim just bought one for her dog. So I can't give her that).
2) Something that communicates to the recipient, Hey, I get you, and I'm actually thinking of you and not myself for a change. I personally would hate a 3-year subscription to Cuneiform Studies, but I realize what a massive geek you are, so I shelled out the money just for you.
It seems like the chief destroyer of traditional gift giving has been the Gift Card. Don't get me wrong, I have given my share of gift cards and will continue to do so. I think gift cards are fine especially when you are not exchanging gifts with someone (as in it's a one-way transfer) and/or you don't know the recipients too well (i.e. Charlotte's day care teachers). But generally nothing is more perfunctory than a gift card, it is basically cash not even well-disguised. It is like cash with its hands over its eyes thinking you can't see it because it can't see you. That doesn't work too well for Charlotte, and a gift card certainly isn't getting away with it.
When you have people exchanging gift cards with each other, you have officially entered the realm of what-the-heck-is-the-point. Also in this realm, in my opinion, is when full grown adults with jobs tell each other what they want for Christmas. My husband's family--and I'm not putting them down, I love them more than anything--is particularly bad about this, and I have joined in the absurdity on more than one occasion. So we buy Kevin's parents the toaster oven they want, and they buy us the coffee pot we want, and we both spend $50. I don't think I am a massive Scrooge to say, why don't we just buy ourselves what we want and be done with it? We actually have stopped exchanging gifts altogether, because it literally degenerated into cash exchanges one year, and at that juncture it became easier to deny the Holocaust than it did to deny the pointlessness of our gift giving (which means that President Ahmadinejad is probably out buying us some loot as I speak).
On this topic, I give my parents a lot of credit, because while I have gotten many gifts from them that I didn't exactly cherish forever, I have almost never known what I was getting. My mother never asks me what I want, which means she has to put some thought into it. Personally, I would rather get a kitty cat sweatshirt I didn't expect than a blender I asked for, unless the blender can make margaritas by itself and clean the whole kitchen after and costs like $1 million and my best friend Bono gave it to me. Then I'll totally take the blender. Or just Bono. I would take Bono even if I asked for him, which I do every year (not in a romantic way or anything, I just want to hang out) and somehow no one ever comes through.
Of course the worst gifts are not those you expect or the gift card but gifts that show appalling lack of thought about what the other person would want. For instance you probably don't want to give a recovering alcoholic a fancy bottle of cognac. You probably don't want to give an overweight person a pair of skinny jeans (Actually, my well known belief about skinny jeans is that they don't look good on anybody, period, including you who are already starting to argue with me because you think you look so good in them, you don't, trust me, so I would just rule them out across the board). Similarly, it is bad form to give a new mom who has 30 lbs of baby weight to lose a massive box of chocolates. Try giving her prozac instead, that would be an appropriate gift for a new mom, probably the only one. You probably don't want to give an illiterate person Tolstoy's War and Peace. And you probably don't want to give a man, any man, a speedo, even if he wants it, for the good of humanity.
So there are some hints. Not that I am that stellar a gift giver myself. Most years I grasp at straws trying to come up with something for Kevin and settle for some random clothing. This year I actually got him something creative, but I won't say what it is since he sometimes reads this blog (only sometimes, and who can blame him).
This post is not that funny and pretty much sucks so I'm just going to stop now :)