Sunday, November 14, 2021

Holiday Gift Guide 2021


Hello from Multifaith Holidayworld, where we fill my dad's 70-year-old ski socks with Christmas gifties and light the (birthday?) candles in Michael's grandmother Sylvia's beautiful old menorah. Yes, it is only November, don't worry. But Hanukkah is early this year, and I don't want to leave folks scrambling for EIGHT DAYS OF LAST MINUTE GIFTS, even though perhaps a single gift could last for 8 days because #chosenpeople. Between now and then will be Thanksgiving, and we are having people here, all of whom are vaccinated, the oldest of whom are boostered, the college-attending of whom are coming home to us, and I can't even really write about it here without crying. Lucky, lucky, lucky life.

Okay, okay, the gift guide.
  • Last year's gift ideas are here.
  • The year before that are here.
  • The year before are here--and also there is a list there of links to the homemade gifts we've posted over the years. I'll add Our Fudge of Perpetual Sorrows because it is a perfect recipe and would make a great present for a sweet-toothed kind of person.
  • The year before that are here.
  • The year before, here.
  • The year before, here.
  • The year before that, here.
  • The year before that, here.
  • And the year before that, here.
  • Some long ago thoughts (i.e. for little kids) are here.
  • As always, the master list of games is here.
I'm repeating this from last year: These gift guides involve various revenue-earning affiliate links, and that's because I will earn a commission, and then I'll donate all the money I make from them. In other words, this is something of a fundraiser, with the happy side effect of you doing your holiday shopping. All the book links this year are to, which supports Indie bookstores *and* offers affiliate $, which is just totally win-win. The other affiliate links are, even though I'm trying to wean myself off of them, to Amazon. Anything you see here? Try to buy it locally--especially if you have a local game and/or book store--and then just donate a little money to an organization doing great work. That way we support local businesses and it's still (kind of) a fundraiser. (I'll disclose what I make and give after the holidays.) Unrelated: Anais Mitchell's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is a very, very good Christmas song.

If you're looking for games, you might start with the board game guide I wrote for Parents magazine last year. There are lots of our old favorites there, and some new favorites, and also some sweet first games for the very wee gaming crowd.

And before I introduce a handful of new games, I want to say that these are the games we play all the time and that never, ever get old; they're the ones I would start with, if you don't already have them: Chinese Checkers, Qwixx (check out these new mixx-em-up score pads), Sushi Go Party, CodenamesAgricola, Patchwork, Azul, Splendor (okay now I'm seeing an expansion, which is v. interesting to me), Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers (finally reissued!) Yahtzee, Ticket to Ride, Wingspan, Catan (with the Seafarers expansion), and Power Grid.

I recommended Viticulture last year before we'd played it, and boy was I right to. We all love this weirdly wine-themed game and, if we have time, and we're not at college like assholes, it's the game we all always want to play.

Be forewarned that it is a serious gamers' game (we all think of it as Agricola-level absorbing, but without the stress). It can easily take 2 1/2 hours--though those hours fly by! Also, we love and always play with the Tuscany expansion.

I also got Ben and Birdy this little card-sized Moor expansion this year. Shhhh.

And this whole, brand-new game Everdell, which is one I've thought about buying for a long time since it ranks so consistently high on Board Game Geeks. It looks very Waldorf, very Wind in the Willows, but, knowing Euro-style board games, is probably secretly cut-throat, and your badger is out to get somebody's hedgehog via some incredibly layered and complex type of gameplay. I want to say about these big, very expensive games that they are, yes, very expensive, but the replay value is utterly tremendous. (If your family likes playing long, complicated games.)

Point Salad is another game I got the kids last year, and it was, and remains, a huge winner. It's very quick--the kind of game you can play after dinner before everyone scatters--and it's easy to learn. Picture a card-drafting game, but vegetal.

Yes, I basically love everything Gamewright makes, but Super Mega Lucky Box is another excellent one. It's easy to learn--with familiar bingo-type play happily complicated by more interesting strategy elements from modern games, like Sushi Go. (Note: it looks like it's going to have a math element, but it doesn't.) I love the Schoolhouse Rock font aesthetic. And the whole erasable white-board aspect of the game makes it very fun. 

We tested Exploding Kittens: Recipes for Disaster for Parents magazine, and loved it. Exploding Kittens is like a mash-up of Uno, Russian Roulette, cats, and butts, with comically morose and peculiar animal-themed artwork. To sum up: Try not to get exploded! And also butts. Recipes for Disaster is a big-box remix, perfect for anyone who already loves the game, but also a great way to introduce it. 

It's also great for kids who love to sort and organize cards into custom game decks, since there are fun "menus" to create different types of game play. (Please note that one of the attacking sharks is saying "You're fat!" and I fucking HATE that.)

We tested 2 different Monopoly variations for Parents magazine, and really liked both of them. Full disclosure: I am the person who refers to the original Monopoly as Monotony, so do with that information what you will! (Also, please note that you can no longer select the iron token in a fit of irritable ironic feminism.) Both of these variations turn what can be a stultifying visit to Dante's real-estate circle of gaming hell into something brisker and more enjoyable. I'll take it! I wrote this about Monopoly Deal: Maybe you crave the many dull and fighty hours occupied by the original, with your beard growing down to the floor while your kids become actual monsters. Then don’t try this cards-only version which distills the game to a bracing 20 minutes of realty-themed fun. Monopoly Builder crosses the original gameplay with the resource gathering elements of a game like Catan. Is Catan a way better game? Sure. But because so many of the Monopoly play elements are already familiar to so many families, this game would make a great gateway to trickier Euro-style resource gathering games. Plus it's much cheaper. (Speaking of which: There are no pesky $1 bills any more because #inflation. Sob!) 

These are the puzzles I'm getting this year, the first for Thanksgiving and the second for Christmas. I don't give these as gifts as much as simply procure them for household enjoyment. Then we trade with friends and neighbors. 

Moving into other types of gifts. . . I know I am always buying, and recommending, watercolors. But that's partly because we use them a lot, and partly because the kids take them when they go to college (like jerks), and, thus, more must be procured! This is a new favorite set of mine, recommended to me by our friend Maddie. They're very saturated and vivid and not too expensive. Plus, I love that there's a sheet for you to paint color swatches on so you aren't constantly trying to interpret the dark little cakes and shocking yourself on the page.

I love this chunky pad. Oh, is that the famous brand *Strathmore*? Why no! It's the less famous brand *Blathmore.*  Wait. Bachmore? If you’ve ever gone to a flea market looking for permanent markers and come away with an off-brand package made by Shoupie, Sharpei, or even (What? Why?) Skerple, you’ll understand.

And I love these notepads (especially the gay agenda) by the lovely and world-bettering Jess Bird of Bless the Messy.

Surely you've checked out RedBubble for all manner of niche everything. An All of a Kind Family tote bag, say, or a nutritional *yeet* shirt. I kept it simple this year with a 

My high-school friend Melinda Beck designed this awesome love swag for the A is For nonprofit org, which is dedicated to advancing reproductive rights and ending the stigma against abortion care. "Founded in 2012, A is For emerged as a response to the ever-escalating legislative attacks on access to safe reproductive healthcare." Stylish, gorgeous, and FUCK YOU, TEXAS. A perfect gift for everyone on your list.

I'm finding that I get the kids more and more swanky self-care items, because they love them, and because they don't really want stockings full of rubber bands and magic animal capsules any more. (Sob!)
This is a lovely bar of soap. I got it for Birdy because it's nice and gritty, and it has a piney kind of butch scent, but isn't cologne-y. Plus, it's huge and lasts forever. (I got Ben the same thing, but as a body wash.)

Then there's this body wash, which I love. What does a cactus blossom smell like? Like bergamot and crisp basil, apparently. And what does *that* smell like? So good! (You can often find it in-person at Whole Foods too, by the way.)

I love the massive Treat lip balms. The flavors are amazing and the products are cruelty-free, organic, and—I know because I wrote to ask and they so sweetly wrote me back—gluten-free. I got Birdy the root-beer one and it’s this gorgeous shimmery copper color and it smells like happiness.

I got the kids these swanky candles. Bougie indeed! They're not as pricey as the famously pricey ones, but they smell SO GOOD and they don't even give me a headache! (I am very particular about candle smells.) Also because apparently I am all of a sudden Bill Gates, I got this one to light in December.
Speaking of! This is another winner, candlewise. When I was a little housebound and depressed last winter, I solicited favorite scented things from my Facebook community, and this was one that really worked for me. It just smells kind of authentically piney, and I burn it when I'm in the bath like the Calgon commercial I am. Also it claims to be very groovy and free from pthalphthapthes and whatnot, so if it is killing me, it is killing me softly.

I also got the kids these little acne star stickers. Not to throw shade on their beautiful skin! But because we're all a fan of these, and the colorful stars just seems so much more festive and fun than pimple-colored dots! 

Birdy is getting this planner because she's a planner kind of person, and because the sad animal facts are just so. . . delightfully sad.

And everybody would be getting this Jo Ann Beard book, if they hadn't already gotten it at various points during the year.

It's an absolutely exquisite collection of essays and stories that you shouldn't give to your writer friends because they will be like, "Forget it then," and quit writing because why bother. Breathtaking.

Then there's this book by my friend Thirii, and it is a cliche to call a book haunting, I know. But this book is haunting. There are ghosts in it, is one reason, but also it just stays with you in its gorgeous way. It's a personal, intergenerational history, and it's a mix of prose and poetry, and it's exquisite. Plus, it's just a beautiful object too.

I Hope This Finds You Well by Kate Baer is the perfect gift for all your furious, homicidal, grateful, menopausal but somehow endlessly menstruating mom friends. She's turned frothingly sexist troll mail into poetry, and it's brilliant. (Plus, I appear to have read it in galleys back when Craney Crow was still alive, sob!) If you haven't already given everyone her stunning What Kind of Woman, that's another absolute beauty.
My social media feed is filled with beautiful images from Black Food, Bryant Terry's collection of recipes and stories about Black foodways from over a hundred different contributors. I think putting it here might count as manifesting, since maybe someone will give it to me? Ha ha ha! No worries if I don't get it, because I am already moving up the waitlist at the library. (Related: We've been watching High on the Hog on Netflix, which is a stunning, delicious, joyful, devastating series about the many, many ways that American food is African-American food. It's kind of hard not to fall in love with Stephen Satterfield.) Bryant Terry's Vegetable Kingdom is also amazing, btw.

Did you already get Jenny Rosenstrach's The Weekday Vegetarians? Of course you did! But maybe some of your friends and relatives don't have it yet. 

It's a beautiful and incredibly useful book--the kind I take to bed with me for fun. I love Jenny so much because, among many other reasons, she likes beans almost as much as I do. But also because her recipes manage to reinspire me when I am peering sadly into a cabinet full of canned chickpeas.

Speaking of beans! You might consider gifting everyone this "Desert Island" sampler box of favorites from Rancho Gordo along with Jenny's book. I am able to get a lot of great dried beans locally these days, but I still occasionally treat myself to an order from Rancho Gordo. The beans are always absolutely delicious: silky, tender, creamy, and full of flavor. Plus, you can cook them in your instant pot without any fuss or hoo-ha! Yum! Even though maybe your family teases you about how much you love (and cook and serve) beans.

Speaking of delicious sampler packs, my parents gave me this box o' chorizo for my birthday, and it has been a spicy, garlicky, and ongoing joy. We've ordered a lot of gifts from La Tienda over the years, and they're always good. (Plus, my brother lives in Barcelona now, so it helps when we're missing him...)

And now, after all those beans and chorizo, your friends and family need a salad! I bought everyone these shaker balls this year because I love mine. It turns a regular mason jar into a really great vinaigrette emulsifier. This flip-top lid is the first one I've found that is truly leak-proof, and the whole set-up would make a useful and terrific gift.

And, finally, I can't help it. Our friends' beautiful cider products! Who doesn't want the most luscious cider syrup and the appleiest vinegar in the world? This would be a unique and excellent gift for a workmate or client. But also you should give it to all your friends and family because you love them.

That's it, my friends. I put in my Pearson's pecan order. I called in the turkey. I bought a huge box of salt. I am practically waiting by the door for my grown kids to come home, waiting by the door for my old parents to arrive, as happy-sad as I've ever been. I know lots of you are in the same boat with me. Thank you for being here. xo


  1. I'm so glad you're still writing here, Catherine! In this crazy season, it's been the little things that have kept me sane. Thank you for yet another fabulous gift guide -- I've already bookmarked several games for the kids' gifts.

    On the subject of gifts, I'm hoping you might be able to help with a jigsaw puzzle question: a lovely South Korean friend lent my 6yo and 9yo a 500-piece jigsaw featuring historical sites in Seoul and they absolutely loved it...because it came with a full-size template. It was such a genius move but it was the first time I've ever come across a puzzle with one. Wondering if perhaps you might know of any that do, by chance? I've searched high and low on Amazon but can't find any jigsaw puzzles that appear to include a full-size picture of the finished puzzle.

    1. ben and birdy10:59 AM

      Wow. Raquelita, I don't know! That sounds amazing, though.

    2. Long time lurker of this gift guide and am thrilled I can help. The Magic Puzzle Company has two puzzles (here's one) and we LOVE them. They are tricky and include TWO foldouts at full size. After you complete the puzzle, you move some sections around and open an envelope to fill in the middle section (no guide).

    3. Gah, link

    4. Anonymous10:08 AM

      Many Djeco puzzles 500 pieces come with a full size poster - they are not all on Amazon but there is this one

  2. I need the link to the flip-top lid! Which looks like it got mixed up with the shaker balls - which also look good. Thanks for continuing to send out a list of your favourite things! I look for it every year :)

  3. Love the list! I clicked on the leak proof mason jar lid and got the shaker balls... would love to get the lid too... am I missing how to do this? Not amazon savvy :-( Thanks!

    1. Whoaaaa- fixed nearly instantly! Thanks

  4. Love your gift guide, as usual! Thank you so much <3

  5. Yay, I love the gift guide! Now it can be HOLIDAY TIME!! Happy holidays to you and yours! <3

  6. This was like magic because I checked last night longingly for your gift guide and then it appeared in my inbox this morning. Thank you!

  7. Always love these gift guides! I’d love to know how you store your games. Can you share any tips or a picture? We have tons of games—many you’ve recommended!—but can barely ever find the ones we want because they’re shoved under the stairs. Thanks!

  8. You're the best. I got several great ideas here. Hope you are well and I truly CAN'T WAIT to read your novel! xoxo

  9. Kelly B.2:22 PM

    I look forward to this every year. And this year it came on my birthday! Oh happy day! :) Wishing you a wonderful Thanksgiving and holiday with your family. :) I am sooo excited for your novel.

  10. I forgot that Jo Ann Beard had a new book!! Thank yooooouuuu....

  11. Thank you once again for your suggestion. My husband and I are picking games - every year we get at least one family game and one puzzle. Merry Christmas!

  12. Omg...that heirloom pumpkin puzzle taunts me. I'm about to throw in the towel (while holding Galison puzzles dear to my heart).

  13. I love the game Monopoly, I often play it with my brother

  14. I have that exploding kittens game, it is the best to be honest

    Thank you for this amazing share

    gift set for her