Piece of Mind: A season festooned with gift-giving anxiety

There's a nervous catch in my throat, a slight buzzing sensation that starts every year during the week of Thanksgiving and sticks with me until about Dec. 26. It's rooted in a fear that the holiday gifts I select won't delight their recipients, the brief notes in my Christmas cards will either bore or not contain enough juicy details to suit friends and relatives, the English toffee I make will somehow turn out wrong and my voice will be off key if I attempt to croak out a carol in public. This is the season when my self-confidence seems to take a vacation, and I'm convinced my many imperfections are visible to all who care to spend a nanosecond giving them any thought.

In truth it's that first fear mentioned above, of not choosing just the right present for someone (and in time for the holiday!) that terrorizes me the most every December. What can be more satisfying than seeing eyes light up and a smile broaden when an item you have selected especially for its recipient is a hit? And how disappointed do you feel if it doesn't seem appreciated and gets set aside a little too abruptly for your tender sensibilities? It would be so great if everyone I knew could pretend that any gift they receive from me is the most perfect one they've ever laid eyes on, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Sometimes I feel a little bad that I've let them down.

The real land mine we might step on during this season, the one that really sets my nerves on edge, is the group holiday gift-exchange. You know what I'm talking about: Someone in the workplace, or in a group of friends, suggests we all bring a gift that doesn't cost more than a set amount. Said gifts, gaily wrapped, are then piled on a table, and people take turns choosing from among them.

If the price limit set for the gift is too low, you can find yourself picking up something that's downright embarrassing for its cheesiness factor. If the price is a little bit more generous there's greater leeway, but still, you don't know who is going to end up with whatever you've chosen. For a party filled with all varieties of people, you go generic, right? Unless you're creative, or very lucky, the gift can fall flat.

One of those gift-exchange parties, with my women's networking group, is coming up soon. My palms are starting to get sweaty. The dozen women in this circle are all genuinely nice people who would not entertain the thought of making someone else feel bad, so I don't know why this makes me nervous, but it does. This will be the third year I've participated in this particular holiday exchange; so far I have had mixed success choosing the right gift. The instructions are to give something that costs $20 or less that you would be happy receiving yourself.

When practical I like to spend my gift-giving dollars here in La Cañada, to lend whatever modest boost possible to the local economy. The first year I joined the networkers, I cobbled together a little gift package of a loofah scrubbing sponge and bath oils from one of our stores. That seemed to please the woman who took it home. Last year I found in a Foothill Boulevard shop a decorative serving tray that was very much to my personal taste, so I purchased it for the exchange. However, I studied the receiver's face when she opened it and got the distinct impression it was not her style. Oops.

I want to redeem myself this year. The pressure is on and the terror begins in earnest. I haven't even put up the Christmas tree yet and I'm looking forward to Dec. 26. Is that normal?

CAROL CORMACI is the managing editor. She can be reached at carol.cormaci@latimes.com.

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