Julian Barnes has a nice little riff on gift-giving in his short story “Gardners’ World”:
They had reached the stage, eight years into their relationship, when they had started giving each other useful presents, ones that confirmed their joint project in life rather than expressed their feelings. As they unwrapped sets of coat hangers, storage jars, an olive stoner or an electric pencil sharpener, they would say, “Just what I needed,” and mean it. Even gifts of underwear nowadays seemed more practical than erotic. One wedding anniversary, he’d given her a card that read, “I have cleaned all your shoes”—and he had, spraying everything suede against the rain, dabbing whitener on an old pair of tennis pumps she still wore, giving her boots a military shine, and treating the rest of her footwear with polish, brush, rag, cloth, elbow grease, devotion, love.
Ever since I was five and slaving away at glue-smeared clothespin ornaments to give to my parents for Christmas, it’s always been drilled into my head that “useful presents” are inappropriate, even vaguely offensive. But why? Useful gifts can still be attentive, thoughtful, sincere gifts. (“I couldn’t help but notice, dear, that your underwear was running ragged.”) Maybe the problem is that no one wants to receive a bow-wrapped reminder that their life largely boils down to a series of predictable tasks and routines. Coathangers. Paperweights. Maybe at some point you get over all that and focus on the “joint project” aspect. “Some garden mulch, eh? Just what I needed, dear. Just what we needed.” Though if I’d really needed it I’d probably have bought it myself already. Jerk.