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HOLIDAY HITS
THE MAGAZINE'S LATEST GUIDE TO GIFTS THAT WON'T BECOME RETURNS, RE-GIFTS OR REFUSE

We've all been there. Catching that unmistakable glint in a loved one's eye as she unearths your gift from mounds of overly Scotch-taped wrapping paper. You know, the look that says: "In the name of all that is sacred, let there be a gift receipt so I can return this useless widget."

Let's not cast any blame here. Sure, your spoiled sister could have faked some enthusiasm. Or spooky old Aunt Theresa could have refrained from rolling her eyes and flinging the box across the room in disgust. But, hey, you're the genius who plucked the automatic toenail clipper off the shelf and giddily wrapped it up.

Ah, the nauseating realization that your carefully planned gift will most assuredly be returned the moment stores open on Boxing Day. What's the only thing worse? That would be witnessing your heinous offering to your sister being "re-gifted" to your own mother the very next year. And seeing that she is equally repulsed by it. Oh, the humanity.

So friends, here is First Sunday's annual gift guide to aid in your holiday shopping quest. As always, our crack staff of researchers has been working feverishly around the clock to devise a list of gifts that won't end up in the return bin, the trash bag or under some other unsuspecting dupe's tree. In general, these are gifts that do not, by any definition we can find, excuse the expression just this once, suck.

Gift Category I: Seems More Expensive Than It Really Is

The more it comes from your heart, the less it comes from your wallet. That's right, sentimental value equals cost savings -- so you might as well make it count. Get a gift certificate for the intended to have a professional family portrait taken. It's something everyone would love to have, but no one ever gets around to doing. Throw it in a frame, and you'll look like the most sensitive Yuletide dude this side of Dr. Phil.

Another cool trick is to make the gift yourself. No, not like those Rorschach test finger paintings you handed your parents when you were 4. Or some sick Martha Stewart concoction of berries and twigs glued onto felt. It ought to have some kind of usefulness and also be fun to make. Like editing together a video with greetings from out-of-town friends and family. Or burning a CD of killer songs from your personal collection.

When it comes to making your present look like more, play the fun card. Literally. AMC theaters are now offering debit gift cards in $15, $25 and $50 increments. That way your parents can go see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" for the sixth time, and your muscle-head brother-in-law can catch whatever Vin Diesel flick is playing, while also garbaging up on Raisinettes and loganberry. If the recipient has a wacky side, a night at Lasertron or tickets to a comedy club are worth far more than face value.

Don't just pull at the heartstrings -- yank at them like an offensive lineman going after a pork chop. For example, swing by your friendly neighborhood Things Remembered and engrave one of those collectible items that benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Sure, they're not particularly useful little baubles, but there won't be a dry eye in the joint.

If you find yourself buying for a teen boy, you can't go wrong with a skateboard. The new Rat Tailz skateboard is supposed to be the next big thing. And it's only $10.

One last item that doesn't cost what it's really worth is a set of those collapsible folding camp chairs. Anyone can use them, and it's always cool to hand someone a big 'ol present that actually cost only $15. Any Wal-Mart or Target can accommodate you.

Gift Category II: Never Goes Out of Style

Here's an invaluable tip for guys: You can never, ever go wrong with jewelry -- unless you shop at a store with "Hut" in the name. Pay particular attention if your gift list for your wife, girlfriend or mom ever included a small kitchen appliance or vacuum cleaner. March yourself into a reputable establishment like Scanlon's, Andrew's or Reed's, and -- this is important -- buy something with diamonds in it. Show up on the big morning with a glittering piece of jewelry and you 'da man.

Food is an awesome gift. You can't return it, and it doesn't pile up in the closet (unless you live in a dorm). But resist the temptation to buy your personal favorites. Not everyone is into beef jerky and hummus. Hit a local treasure like DiCamillo's Bakery, Ted's Hot Dogs or Spot Coffee.

Looking for children's gifts with some real class? Fairy Tales Inc. in Amherst makes some darn nice hand-painted toy boxes, tables, chairs, lamps and rocking horses. Your newfound thoughtfulness will shock and amaze your friends and family.

Hook up that sloppy spouse of yours with a consultation from California Closets in Depew. They can come in and organize any room in your house. This option has the hallmark of a truly great gift: You benefit from it as well.

Of course, there's always the epic struggle of man against facial hair. So we humbly give you one of the year's most peculiar gifts: the Trim 'n' Vac beard and mustache trimmer, which vacuums up the hair so there's no mess left in the sink. OK, if you want to be literal, this gift does actually suck.

Finally, nothing says, "I love you" like cold, hard cash. That's right, fork over the Benjamins and you can't miss. But you don't have to be all tacky about it, peeling a grimy twenty out of your wallet and stuffing it into a snowman card. Show a little class by giving a savings bond, collectible coins or at least a fresh new bill from the bank.

Gift Category III: One Size Fits All

Unless it's someone in your inner circle, do not under any circumstances buy clothes. As if worrying about keeping up with styles weren't reason enough, dealing with sizes is cause to run screaming from any department store. So rather than handing your sumo-sized boss an extra small belly shirt, shoot for gifts that work for anyone.

The George Foreman Lean Mean Grilling Machine rules. Get it for anyone who doesn't already have one. The same goes for water purifiers. For less than 200 bucks you can prevent someone you love from having to buy bottled water -- and from slurping the delicious algae and chemical flavor of our local waters.

If you're at a total loss and really don't want to come up lame, assemble a Buffalo Winter Survival Kit: warm gloves, some thermal socks and a blanket (often referred to as "throws" by evil decorators and people who like to turn verbs into nouns). On the topic of frigid local winters, a remote car starter might turn out to be the most appreciated gift you give.

And it's time to stop the madness that has left Western New York yards infested with bent-over old-lady rumps and pink flamingos. Check out Queen City Nursery and Florists on Harlem Road in Amherst and get someone a classic weather vane, fountain or sundial. But avoid those statues of little kids peeing. That's just wrong.

Need to buy something for someone's spoiled pet? Petsmart has all kinds of options. One currently being advertised is the Bubble Buddy, which spits out bubbles flavored with bacon, peanut butter and barbecue chicken. A nice selection for someone whose house already reeks.

Gift Category IV: Pleasing the Hard-to-please

More often than not, finicky types are those who don't have much use for stuff. Or who like to buy their own stuff. Conclusion: Don't give them stuff. These are the toughest of eggs -- the ones who just heave your sad attempt at gift-giving right in the old can. Sometimes before you've even left their house. So what do you do? Give them an experience, a day they can enjoy and return home sans stuff.

A weekend at a bed and breakfast is a smart move for the couple on your list. She gets romance, and he gets, well, you know. A great one is Candlelight Lodge in Westfield. Tickets to anything cool are a smart move. Sabres tickets for him. Theater tickets to Shea's, Studio Arena or Irish Classical Theatre for her.

Another slick tactic when you're shopping for a "she" is to send her to a spa. Ladies, you already know this. As for you dudes, apparently, females like to go to these places and have mud and hot towels thrown at them. Whatever. They love it, so don't ask questions.

Another option is to take Mr. Picky to dinner. He'll probably enjoy your company more than some golf-themed paperweight. Clearly, one of the best things about Western New York is the food. So give him a card that says "We're gonna get sauced at Chef's." And if he doesn't enjoy feeding his face on your dime, then next year the ingrate gets soap-on-a-freakin'-rope.

Hard-to-please parents of a little one? Baby Einstein videos, DVDs and CDs expose kids to some early culture. The series includes Baby Bach, Baby Mozart and Baby Beethoven. Sorry, no Baby Britney.

And what would a holiday shopping list be without a really big ticket item? Chautauqua Woods in Dunkirk makes the most gorgeous front doors you'll ever lay eyes on. Sure, they run $20,000 or so, but if you've got it to spend, you're looking at something unique that will last forever.

Some final words of advice for the gifting-impaired before you rush into the breach. Ladies, don't buy any ties. Guys, don't buy girly lotions -- you will most assuredly screw it up. Throw something in the Toys for Tots bin, and by all means purchase the Roswell Park holiday cards. And if you get any complaints about this gift guide, cross the rotten SOBs right off your list.

William E. Paterson is a Western New York freelance writer.