What's The Worst Gift You've Ever Received?

Amy Dickinson recently called upon the readers of her "Ask Amy" column in The Chicago Tribune to send in their "worst ever" gift stories. She shares the best responses and gives some tips on how to choose the right gift — and what to do if you blow it.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

As the saying goes, it's better to give than receive. But choosing the right gift is sometimes easier said than done. You might think grandma really wants that Eli Manning jersey, but you could be wrong.

Somehow, year after year, we get clueless, of the wall and confusing presents, sometimes so strange, so off-putting, you begin to question the entire relationship. Amy Dickinson asks readers of her "Ask Amy" column in the Chicago Tribune to send in their stories about the worst gift they've ever received. The responses were, well, interesting to say the least. You can find the best ones on - or tweet your own on Amy's Twitter page titled "Santa Hates Me."

So what's the worst gift you've ever received, and if you're willing to admit it what's the worst gift you've ever given? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is TOTN regular Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" Column for the Chicago Tribune. She's with us from the studios at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Merry Christmas, Amy.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Writer, "Ask Amy"): Merry Christmas, Neal. Let's get to it, shall we?

CONAN: Okay. Right.

Ms. DICKINSON: Dear Amy, it was a Christmas toilet, a blue one...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: ...we put it in the basement. It still scares me.

CONAN: A Christmas toilet.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay, a Christmas toilet. So I did, I put the call out for bad gifts, and boy, hundreds of bad gifts later, I'm reeling from the stench. A lot of these gifts, it turns out, do involve toilets. I'm not sure why someone giving a toilet brush or a toilet plunger doesn't sort of see the symbolism in that...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: ...but someone received - it's important to remember that the person receiving a gift is always going to look for the meaning.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: You don't want for them to make the wrong association. And a lot of the bad gifts that have come in, some of them are jokes gone bad.

CONAN: Yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: I actually think that Christmas is a terrible time to give a joke gift. And if you have to give a joke gift, you are bound to give a non-joke gift as well. So let's just - as we go, let's just feed some tips in. So I - you know, we have a week. I'd like to avoid some unhappy holidays.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: Because then they just - you know, then people just write to me and they're all upset. So let's just, you know, avoid that this year.

CONAN: So the 10-year-old cousin may not get the laugh when they see coal in their stocking.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. Not funny, people.

CONAN: Not funny - not to a 10-year-old.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. All right, here's another one. Dear Amy, it's 2004, and my husband - now my ex-husband - oh, and by the way a lot of these bad gift stories start with my husband, I mean, my ex-husband...

CONAN: Ex-husband, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. 2004, my husband gave me a cemetery plot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: I'm sorry, under what circumstances would that, you know, ever be something that - I can understand, sort of, choosing...

CONAN: What about a his and hers plot?

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. I know, so that you could be together for eternity.

CONAN: Go on until immortality, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: With the ex, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. Here is one. Here is one. In front of my husband at the time, now my ex - in front of his family at Christmas, he presented me with a shotgun and a blazing orange hunting coat. The family roared with laughter. He thought it was the best gift, and all I could do was cry.

CONAN: And load that 12 gauge and let loose. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Here is one I love. I had a boyfriend once who gave me playboy magazine in French.

CONAN: In French?

Ms. DICKINSON: He thought it was great because he knew I spoke French.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay. Here's an email we have from Mandy(ph) in Lansing. Once Christmas, I received a smoothie maker from my mother. Not only was it used and not in working condition, the previous owner had left it sticky with an old smoothie. I also received a box of Band-Aids as a birthday gift. Mom refuses to take suggestions.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay. There's a whole category of - I wouldn't even call this a re-gift but a used gift. I got dozens of tweets from people, talking about gifts that had been given to them where the person hadn't even cleaned it off, for instance, one of my favorite.

One year - dear Amy, one year, my father gave me a used electric carving knife that had blood on it, you know, why people don't even wash these things out. One woman told me about all of the toiletries that her brother...

CONAN: I mean, it's bad enough to give something used, you might want to present at least the illusion that it's new.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. This woman's brother had given her - it's like he had cleaned out his medicine cabinet and had given her several little boxes of floss, dental floss, half gone.

CONAN: Hmm. Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

CONAN: There's also a moments when you see from that e-mail that you got a box of Band-Aids from your mother for Christmas, you know, paging Dr. Freud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. I know. Then there's the - just - here's - then there's a whole category of gifts where it's like someone has just run out to the mall at 11:55 on Christmas Eve...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: ...just desperate. Okay, here's one: My husband gave me a DVD of "The Andy Griffith Show" for our anniversary because he thought I had a crush on Ron Howard. I did have a crush on Ron Howard, when I was 8.

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation, "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson is with us. We're talking about the best gifts received or given. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Shane(ph) is with us from West Bloomfield in Michigan.

SHANE (Caller): Hey, guys. How are you doing today?

CONAN: I'll get over the cold eventually.

SHANE: I received the worst present possible two years ago from my brother. At the time I'm wearing belt buckles, and he thought it would be a good idea to buy me a belt buckle. So he ended up buying me a belt buckle that you could enter your name into and it would flash with lights. So it ended up just being a scrolling marquee for my belt and - so I could kind of see where we were coming from just because I wore belt buckles. It was truly the worst gift I think someone could possibly get, a scrolling LED marquee belt buckle.

CONAN: And what did you program into your scrolling LED belt buckle?

SHANE: I programmed: send this back�

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHANE: �and gave it back to him, because he had gotten it online. And as you know, it's still sitting at my house. I don't think - if I turned it on, it would still say: send this back.

CONAN: Send this back. Send this back. Send this back. Okay. Shane, I assumed that relations with your brother survived?

SHANE: You know, he moved out of town, so that certainly helped.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHANE: But, now that we're growing up, I think, things are getting better. Certainly if he gets me another one of those, things would go downhill again.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Shane.

SHANE: Happy holidays.

CONAN: Better luck this year.

SHANE: Thank you.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know what? Shane actually brings up a great point. I have to say these worst gifts, they're so memorable for a lot of people. I think about all the wonderful gifts I've given and received over the years, the most memorable ones are the bad ones as it turns out.

CONAN: Like what?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I feel like I'm cool. I'm fine. But look at Shane. It's like the rest of his life he will remember the Christmas of the belt buckle.

CONAN: That's true.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know?

CONAN: That's true. That's going to define some part of his relationship with his brother.

Ms. DICKINSON: And I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that next year when I run this little contest again, a lot of people are going to be contacting me about like the Snuggie...

CONAN: Yes. Yeah. Indeed.

Ms. DICKINSON: The cat Snuggie, you know?

CONAN: I think, you know, I worry that we did this program, and people are going to be listening to it for gift ideas.

Ms. DICKINSON: I'm telling you, I see those Snuggie commercials and I think, oh boy, here we go.

CONAN: Yeah. Who - what was she thinking? Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You're right. Let's see if we can go next to - here are some tweets we have. From splintered board: received cologne value pack from my mother. Gave her a top of the line sport heart rate monitor, I have never want cologne. And Jeff Fishburne(ph) tweets�

Ms. DICKINSON: But wait, whoa. Whoa. Gave her a heart rate monitor?

CONAN: I know. I think this is working on both sides here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jeff Fishburne says: y mother-in-law gave me fishing lure she bought off a TV shopping network that had propellers and blinking lights.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That enters the category: if you know somebody has a special interest and you try to buy something for their special interest, the amateur can make just terrible mistakes.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's true. That's a whole - there is a category of gifts like the well-meaning, but you love bears, you know?

CONAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah. And they're usually very well meaning and often given by moms, I have to say. It's, you know, a lot of people think that only men give bad gifts. I have to say that is not true, although there are a lot of hurt feelings out there among the ex-wives...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: ...of the memorable bad gifts they've received. But there's another, you know, there's a special place for the moms.

CONAN: Oh yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: And here's a case where Mom was like: But you love to fish, honey.

CONAN: You love to fish. Look.

Ms. DICKINSON: Look, it's got propeller.

CONAN: It got blinking lights. God knows what you can catch with that thing. Patrick(ph) is calling from Portland.

PATRICK (Caller): Hello, Neal. I hope that you get over your cold soon.

CONAN: Me too, yeah.

PATRICK: Now the worst gift I ever gave was when I was a child, I gave my sister an old Star Wars figurine and half a tube of toothpaste. It was a last-minute - oh, my gosh, I didn't get my sister anything, so I ran upstairs and found what I had.

CONAN: And you wrapped the half tube of toothpaste?

PATRICK: It was - I think in a brown paper bag.

CONAN: And was it at least a Boba Fett?

PATRICK: Excuse me?

CONAN: Was it at least a Boba Fett character?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PATRICK: It was the hammerhead guy. I don't remember his name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: No.

PATRICK: But - Sarah, if you're listening, I promise to get you something a little better this year.

CONAN: Right. Go for Boba Fett this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Patrick.

PATRICK: All right. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Dickinson who writes the "Ask Amy" column for the Chicago Tribune about the worst gifts given and received ever. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to...

Ms. DICKINSON: Category?

CONAN: Sorry? Tom(ph) is with us. Tom from - I'm sorry. Amy, you were saying?

Ms. DICKINSON: No. I was just going to add, there's another category of automotive gifts.

CONAN: Ah.

Ms. DICKINSON: Lots of people giving gifts - let me just share one and then we'll go to Tom.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. DICKINSON: Dear Amy, my father gave me a can of tire polish last year for Christmas. When I think about it, it wasn't even a gift for me. It was really a gift for my truck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's true. Well, the truck has its own birthday. Tom, you're on the line.

TOM (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead.

TOM: Let me just say real quick, Neal. I've never once turn the radio on that you weren't on that I wasn't just having a great time.

CONAN: Oh, well, that's very kind of you to say.

TOM: And I love what you just said, Amy. I called just because I had a funny story but I have to say I'm blown away. I just realized I've told this story for years and I've always thought of this as a horrible gift. And the truth is, this person gave me the gift of laughter for like 20 years now so I've never looked at it that way, so really cool.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, great.

TOM: Never thought of it that way. You just totally blew me away with that. But I was working with a pretty close-knit group of managers in an office environment and we did a gift exchange, secret-Santa-type thing. And just to make it quick for you guys, ultimately, there were great gifts around the room. There was like a $50 budget. And when I opened up the gift that I was given in front of everybody at dinner, it was a velvet Dachshund wiener dog wrapped in a hotdog bun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: It was covered with lint. It was filthy. It was soiled as if a child or maybe a dog had been chewing on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOM: It was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen. And the woman that gave it to me, I think actually really thought it was neat. Yes. I thought it was a practical joke at first and it turns out she really thought it was a wonderful gift.

CONAN: Wonderful gift. Yes.

TOM: And we - I've told this story for years.

CONAN: Are you still working with her? Are you still working with her?

TOM: No. No. It's been many years ago now, 20, 25 years ago. But I have told that over and over again. That's why I loved what Amy said. I've always told it sort of in bewilderment. But I've - I always laugh about it, and everybody I tell this story to and friends and family that have heard it over and over again just think it's the funniest story when I sort of tell the long version.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

TOM: And it dawns on me. You're right. It's the crazy stuff you remember and truth is I've been laughing for 25 years over that.

CONAN: So therefore, it worked.

TOM: And it's maybe the worst thing I've ever been given. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right.

Ms. DICKINSON: It's the gift that keeps on giving, isn't it?

TOM: Yeah. Really a cool perspective on it. I love that.

CONAN: All right, Tom. Thanks...

Ms. DICKINSON: Thanks for spreading it around. That's great.

TOM: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much and have a happy holidays.

TOM: And to you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Steve(ph) in Beaver Dam, Arizona. In the early 1960s, my father put a set of tire chains for the family car under the Christmas tree as a gift for my mother. It was not well-received.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, boy.

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. DICKINSON: I tell you, that is one Christmas morning - I can still - I can feel it. I feel for that whole family. And look, he was just...

CONAN: You have to wonder who was wearing the chains at the end of the day.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. And he was a child, and, of course, still remembers it. Who could forget the year, the year of the tire chains?

CONAN: Joe(ph) is on the line from Raleigh.

JOE (CALLER): Good morning, guys. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

JOE: Yeah. I just wanted to tell about a Christmas gift I received two years ago from my mother-in-law. Well, my mother-in-law is notorious for giving very inexpensive gifts and we generally open them in advance. So what we did on this one, we opened up the package and there was an oven mitt in the package for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's useful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOE: She knows that I like to cook so she gave me an oven mitt. So what we did, we used construction paper, we put little eyes and a face on him and named him Ovie(ph), the oven mitt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOE: And we took - well, in all our family pictures that year, we had Ovie the oven mitt in the pictures. We sent those to my mother-in-law. We even had -Ovie even went to us to see a Carolina Hurricanes' game, in which he got placed on the Jumbotron.

CONAN: Oh, well. So Ovie is getting around.

JOE: Yeah, Ovie did. And unfortunately, Ovie had his demise. He died in the oven one day where he was on a high preheat. So our son even did a video of the whole thing: Ovie the oven mitt, his dream(unintelligible).

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh.

CONAN: Oh, well. Joe, we're - there will be a special place around your table, I'm sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOE: There will. There will.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

JOE: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's a - we'll go quickly - Ashley(ph) in Kansas City. One year, my grandparents who are notoriously cheap decided they didn't need to send - need a Christmas tree so they gave us ornaments off the tree with - along with hotel shampoo and conditioner they had swiped over the years from their snowbird travels. That year we also got 8x10 photos of them as our present. The photo now hangs in my bathroom, which I feel is fitting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And this one - this goes along with your theme. Catherine(ph) emailed to say: My mother-in-law gave me a monogram sweater. Unfortunately, it was the initials of my husband's girlfriend. That's how I found out about it and she is now my ex mother-in-law.

Ms. DICKINSON: Whoa. Wow.

CONAN: Talk about - you know, it's bad news getting broken up with on a tweet, or an email or any way, but imagine getting broken up with by opening your Christmas gift.

Ms. DICKINSON: Getting broken up with via monogram.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Amy, I know that all your presents this year are just going to be fabulous.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, yeah. Well, I've enjoyed this so much. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated "Ask Amy" column for the Chicago Tribune, with us today from the studios at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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