News and Tribune

December 7, 2012

STAWAR: Gift giving: What’s the theme?

Local columnist

— Choosing just the right Christmas gift presents quite a challenge for most people. There is so much to choose from and often you find yourself buying for someone you don’t know very well.

Freelance writer Stephanie Modkins says that you need to “hone in” on what you know about the recipient. The more you know, the better decision you can make. Modkins says, “By thinking about their personality, likes, and hobbies, you won’t go wrong.” She advises to: 1. watch the recipient’s habits; 2. go with obvious choices; 3. remember what was successful in the past; 4. ask a close friend; or 5. request a short wish list.

She also recommends surreptitiously checking out the browser history on the person’s computer. I personally think this suggestion is rather dangerous. Not only is it an invasion of privacy, you may find out things that you really don’t want to know.

Many men are especially clueless when it comes to gift giving, probably because they are so often oblivious to their partner’s preferences. Black Scoop Media reports that a recent survey showed that about a quarter of men don’t know their wives’ dress size or favorite place to shop for clothing. About half of men don’t know their wife’s mobile phone number and 10 to 12 percent don’t know their spouses’ real hair color, date of birth or even what they do for a living. More than 40 percent of couples report fights over the husband’s persistent lack of attention to such details (including my wife Diane and me).

While there are lots of ways to try to get to know about someone, one of the easiest and least intrusive is to look at the possessions kept in their homes and how they display them. What is emphasized, de-emphasized and what themes emerge can tell you a lot. People who have hobbies, obsessions or fanatical devotions are generally easier to buy for than people who hide their interests.

For example, when it comes to our grandson. anything with Spiderman on it is a winner. It is likewise true for his younger sister when it comes to Hello Kitty merchandise. It doesn’t seem to matter much what it is. Our oldest granddaughter — who once believed she owned the color pink — is now hooked on anything that comes from a store by the name of Justice. And, of course, many adults are just as susceptible to such compulsions, whether its U of L, UK or IU logo items, Precious Moments figurines or Boyd’s Bears merchandise.

Just by walking into someone’s house or office and casually noting the themes and motifs you can get some idea of their interests. One of our nieces and her husband, for example, are heavily into a North Woods theme. It was easy to buy a gift for them when they got married. Anything with a pine tree or a bear on it was pretty much fine.

Professional decorators say that themes unify the decorations, making the interior look harmonious and complete. Motifs are minor repetitive shapes, figures or designs that can help carry forth the major themes. Businesses often have themes — especially restaurants. It pretty common to find roosters in fried chicken restaurants or pigs in barbecue joints and a lot places have tried to appeal to us baby boomers by stocking the place with nostalgic items from our pasts. I remember a restaurant in Florida that was stuffed with figurines, salt and pepper shakers, pillows and pictures all portraying bluebirds.

Sometime people seems to get fed up with their trademark theme and decide that they have just had enough. I’ve seen garage sales where folks have divested themselves of some theme. I remember one where there was every sort of giraffe figurine imaginable for sale. Owls, frogs, cows, chickens, pigs, mushrooms, unicorns, Santa Claus, and in this area — thoroughbreds, bourbon and steamboats have all been popular choices at or time or another. These things, especially the animals, seem to be related to the emblematic totems that give tribes or clans identity in some cultures. Some folks, especially travelers may pick a specific country as theme that is reflected throughout their décor.

Occasionally, a theme may have been inherited or carried over from someone else. Partners may also disagree in regard to decorating ideas, so the theme only reflects the preference of the dominating householder.

Necessity may also be a factor. When I was in college, most of us were broke a lot of the time, so much of our décor consisted of cheap foreign-made items obtained from places like Pier One Imports. Things like giant leaf fans, thatched mats, bamboo trays, tie-dyed curtains, dried flowers, peacock feathers and hippie door beads were common elements, creating a sort of “opium den” motif that ran throughout the dorm.  

Many people try to carry a general theme throughout their entire home, like colonial or Early American, fishing, Southwestern, tropical beaches, cowboy, country, Spanish, nautical, sports, Tuscan, Americana, etc. Other folks like to pick particular themes for specific rooms, like chickens for the kitchen, seashells for the bath and perhaps Raggedy Ann for the nursery and baseball for the boy’s bedroom.

Diane and I once stayed in a bed and breakfast made out of two old log cabins. It had an enormous collection of log cabin items displayed throughout the inn. At first it was very interesting, but soon came to be too much.

My sister once made the mistake of asking for a crystal figurine for her birthday and then had to endure years of them as presents. One or two were all she really wanted. After teaching for many years she also was burdened with a vast collection of various miniature apples and chalkboards that had been given to her as gifts.

As I’ve mentioned before, the best gifts are usually those that show that the giver really knows the heart’s desire of the recipient. Usually they are surprises — only to the extent that the recipient didn’t realized that the giver was so sensitive and attentive.

A few years ago, I moved into a new office and put up a few jazz posters and displayed some trumpets I bought at a Goodwill store. The theme immediately started to work and someone gave me a wallpaper border that also had a nice jazzy motif. Over the years, I think this theme has been directly responsible from several gifts I’ve received, including a miniature toy trumpet, a Best of Louis Armstrong CD and a DVD of “The Jazz Singer.”

So if there is some specific gift you are angling for this Christmas, you might want to reconsider your current decorating theme. Recently, I read a study that said that people who used jazz as a decorating theme tend to be pretentious and pseudointellectual, so it might be time for a change. Maybe my next theme should be sports cars.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at