a vintage green mug on a red gingham tablecloth
True Stories

The Best (Worst) Gift to Give

This is a story about a coffee mug. Not just any coffee mug – but THE coffee mug.

The Birthday Mug.

It happened like this…

The Story of the Birthday Mug

When I was a teenager, I had three very dear friends friends – Jen, Sue, and Dan. Among the four of us, three – Dan, Jen, and me – had birthdays within a week of each other. Dan came first, then me, then Jen.

One day after school, we stopped by Jen’s house. I don’t remember how the subject of “today is my birthday” came up but I do remember Mrs. S, Jen’s mom, running into the kitchen, then running back into the living room and thrusting a gift-wrapped box into my hands. “Here, open it, it’s your birthday!”

Jen rolled her eyes and looked as if she wanted to sink through the shag carpet. Wondering how on earth Mrs. S had managed to find a present in 30 seconds, I slowly slid off the ribbon and paper to reveal a coffee mug.

It wasn’t just a mug. It was a cheesy 80s coffee mug complete with blue gingham pattern and a “country” illustration of someone’s idea of a white duck sporting a red ribbon. It was hideous. It was hilarious. It was bizarre. It was clearly one of a set from Mrs. S’s kitchen.

“Um, sorry,” Jen mumbled after her mother left the room and we all took turns admiring the mug.

“No worries!” I thanked her with a bright grin, a plot forming in my mind.

A week later, I handed Jen a gift-wrapped package. “Happy birthday.”

“Oh!” She unwrapped it and stared at the mug. “It’s…”

“The Duck Mug.”

And thus began our regifting tradition. For every birthday, we wrapped up the ugly duck mug, and passed it to the next friend in our circle….Sue, then Dan, then me again, then Jen.

It was one of the funniest things we ever did, especially because it was out of character for me to play a practical joke on one of our friends. I was always the one who made sure everyone was included, the one who hated practical jokes.

Yet somehow I found the fact that Mrs. S had reached into her cupboard, pulled out a coffee mug (from a set of six matching duck mugs, no less), wrapped it, and gave it to me as a birthday present so hilarious that I decided to turn it into a joke itself and began our friendship circle regifting process.

The duck mug became the gift we looked for every year we got together for our birthdays.

Regifting. It gets a bad rap, especially among some families. I’ve heard that regifting is very much frowned upon in the south. My aunt, a Dominican nun, was famous for regifting, but she got a pass on it because she was a nun and we knew she didn’t have much money. People dropped off their old stuff at the convent all the time for the sisters as if they were a Good Will store.

Does regifting deserve the bad reputation it’s developed over the years? Is it really the worst thing you can do, to give someone a present that doesn’t suit you?

According to researchers, a recycled gift isn’t the worst thing you can give someone. What is it, then? A toaster? Vacuum? Blender?

I don’t know when my priorities changed, but a new vacuum–one that is great at getting all the dog hair out of my house–would be greatly appreciated. And, since my morning routine includes a gigantic green and berry smoothie each morning on the nutritarian lifestyle, a new blender would be just great.

No, practical gifts aren’t the word gifts to give somone.

It’s gifts that are given to save someone money.

According to the Journal of Consumer Marketing, gifts given with the intention of saving the recipient money are the worst type of gifts. Gifts intended to save someone time, however, are well-received.

Why? Researchers say it is because gifts intended to save money imply that the recipient is incompetent, needy, or both. They also imply that the gift giver-status is higher than the recipient, all no-no’s when Christmas time and gift-giving season rolls around.

What became of the duck mug? I have no idea. Sometimes, Sue and I (who are still close friends for over 40 years) joke about the duck mug.

When I visit thrift shops, I’m always on the lookout for cheesy 1980s style country mugs sporting blue gingham and ducks. I still think they are hideous. But they make me remember three very dear friends and the fun times we had as teenagers.

Regifted or not, that mug sure brought a smile to my face, and thinking of it now has me smiling again.

It was truly the best, and the worst, gift I’ve ever received.