Sometimes, giving the wrong gift can create a memorable moment, like the time the gift tags got switched and Diane’s Grandma Chapman opened a pair of size 34W men’s Levis. (A class act always, she smiled serenely and said, “Why, thank you!’’) Usually, though, bad gifts are just bad — which resulted in $90 billion of holiday merchandise returns last season, according to the Wall Street Journal. That translates to 13 percent of all holiday gifts landing on the “unloved’’ list.
Don’t let this happen to you. Our current strategy is, give something that a) puts a smile on our face, and b) is made in New England. Why not give a boost to the crafty types who live in our own backyard as opposed to some faceless conglomerate? Herewith, a look at some items we encountered this year that made us say, “Aw!’’ or “Yaasss!’’
Knotty but nice coastal coasters
Ah, the hostess/host gift, that most difficult of categories. (Another bottle of wine? C’mon!) Consider this: Colorful coasters that look like those sailor knot bracelets we wore as kids. So New England-coastal! These 4-inch coasters are crafted from cotton cord and available in sets of four. They’re handmade in Mystic, Conn., by the Beaudoin family and crew, who’ve been keeping the nautical knot tradition alive for three generations. Everything is made using actual sailor’s knots. Love this look? They also make other knotty stuff, like monkey fist doorstops ($35) and mats, and, of course, sailor knot bracelets (from $5) in an array of colors. Coaster sets $20; available at Mystic Knotwork, 2 Holmes St., and 25 Cottrell St., both in Mystic, Conn., and at 1630 Boston, 90 Tremont St., Boston. www.mysticknotwork.com
A candle disguised as . . . wine
We know — you’ve been exchanging gifts with the same group of pals for so long, you’ve covered every category, including sex toys. You could restart the cycle, or go clever, with a candle disguised as vintage wine bottle. The folks at Vindles of Ellington, Conn., repurpose old wine bottles, transforming them into wine bottle candles. Stay with us here; we’re not talking about popping a candle into an old Chianti bottle like it’s 1970. The top of the wine bottle “pops’’ off to reveal an all-natural soy wax candle scented to smell like chardonnay, cabernet, or sangria. Like you’re opening wine, peel off the foil at the neck to uncover a container of matches and a striking surface where the cork used to be. The new label is dye-cut to allow the candlelight to shine through. We like their description of the scent of the Vintage Cabernet Candle: “A pure, rich full-bodied red with complex aromas of grapes and dark fruit. Enhanced with hints of strawberries and vanilla for a lingering finish.’’ $34; order online at www.vindles.com
All things New England, wrapped with Corgis
Among the people who are Chic-er Than the Rest of Us: artist Sara Fitzgerald O’Brien and husband Miles O’Brien, who launched Sara Fitz, a lifestyle brand, in York Harbor, Maine. We’re digging Sara’s watercolor art prints, comprising 18 designs that represent treasured elements of New England: hydrangeas, Nantucket lightship baskets, those famous canvas totes, and a simple striped sailing tee. Framed in white wood, the prints are 20-by-20 inches, with a mat opening of 10½ inches square. The line includes dishware, textiles, trinket boxes, and other home goods, plus gift wrap printed with Corgis ($12.50 per roll). Way too cute. They will donate 10 percent of proceeds of the paper to Almost Home Rescue of New England. Watercolor art prints, $195. Some items available at Day Trip Society, 4 Dock Square, Kennebunkport, Maine; order online at www.sarafitz.com.
Because who doesn’t love a pom-pom?
What’s a “third piece’’? It’s an accessory item that jazzes up an outfit, we’re told. On Tremont Street in Boston, it’s also the name of a knitting studio where they present classes, sell knitting supplies, and offer a cozy collection of luxurious knitwear pieces made by their coterie of super-knitters. Wonderfully soft and colorful, their hats, hoods, and headbands are fun to look at (poms = awesome) and practical as heck in our chilly clime. Hand-knit hats from $68; hats with fur poms, from $138; available online or at the studio at 631 Tremont St., Boston. www.thirdpiece.com
Because nothing says ‘Happy Holidays’ like a knife
Sorry, Aaron Kizer (who uttered the sarcastic comment above), but we do like getting a really good knife. The uber-mixologist on your gift list likely feels the same. Herewith, the Jackson Cannon bar knife, a partnership between Jackson Cannon, the co-owner and bar director of the Hawthorne bar at the Hotel Commonwealth and 167-year-old local knife makers, R. Murphy Knives. This genius multipurpose tool cuts citrus, notches fruit, removes fruit seeds, makes spiral-cut citrus peels and twists, and scrapes counters (on the flat side.) $79. Available at the Boston Shaker, 69 Holland St., Somerville, or online at www.rmurphyknives.com.
Let us float this unusual gift idea
Fans of Block Island, R.I., are probably familiar with the glass float project, in which glass blower Eben Horton has hidden hundreds of glass balls — similar to the glass net floats used by Japanese fishermen — along the trails and beaches of Block Island. Horton has been doing this since 1993, creating the solid glass orbs in his Wakefield, R.I., studio. Accidentally stumbling onto one of these treasures is always a thrill but (psst!) it’s not the only way to obtain one. Order the ultimate Block Island souvenir from the artist online; he also sells glassware and “collection orbs.’’ $30. www.glassfloatproject.com
That’s a wrap (bracelet)
You’ve seen those cool, Boho-style wrap bracelets that give the wearer that “I hang out with Gwyneth and we give each other charcoal facials’’ vibe? Super-pricey versions abound, but we’re obsessed with the gorgeous, affordable creations made locally, by artist Cindia Sanford of Newburyport (who’s also an acclaimed landscape painter). Using brass, glass beads, leather, and semiprecious stones like turquoise and carnelian, Sanford makes snazzy, twisty wrap bracelets that out-Sundance the Sundance catalog. Choose from 85 or so styles, all limited editions, in her Etsy shop, and at occasional gallery shows. Wrap bracelets, $60 and up. SummerStreetStudios at www.etsy.com
In the ‘Wish I’d thought of that!’ category
Discarded old skis — you’ve seen ’em repurposed into chairs, benches, and (ta da!) bottle racks. Michael Bellino of Millbury is like a one-man recycling company, transforming more than 20,000 used hockey sticks, baseball bats, skis, and snowboards each year into fun household items. The reclaimed skis are lightly used — just enough to have some character — and hold three bottles. Perfect for the friends who’ve got a ski house. Maybe this will snag you an invite. Snow ski wine rack, $58; snowboard bottle rack, $78. www.uncommongoods.com or www.skichair.com