Our cat brings me birds. He has a particular voice for this on approach, and when I hear it, my heart drops a few inches because I know I’m in for emotional conflict. Obviously he’s excited to offer me a dead bird, figuring it’s exactly what I’ve been craving, and most times the poor bird is immaculately intact. In cat language, the unmolested specimen is probably a sign of extra favor, but it’s still about the last thing I want.

As straightforward as they might seem, gifts carry peculiar problems. I think sometimes it’s better not to give at all than present the wrong gift. But do we always know what the wrong gift is?

One Christmas morning when I was 46 years old I careened into a state of hysterics, a bizarre physical manifestation created by emotional overload. An awful thing if you’ve never experienced it. Awful if you have.

It had been a long time coming, many years of buildup, and I succumbed as inexorably as the arrival of winter in New England. It was my mother’s pièce de résistance present for me that did it. But first a few notes on my mother’s Christmas gifts.

In her later years, Mom shopped mostly at home. I imagine her walking around her house or apartment, glass of wine in hand, searching for things to wrap. She even reused the wrapping paper year after year. I received the same hideous ornamental plate with the orange and blue leaping rabbit three times over a dozen years. At least I think it was a rabbit. I kept giving it back to her, insisting she would enjoy it so much more than I could. Eventually, after unwrapping it once again, I hid it in our attic the next day. It must be still up there, but for some reason I’m afraid to look.

But the hysteria present was the standout, the culmination of too many misguided gifts. Mom actually bought this one. From a local flea market. It was a beer mug with a hinged top put out by Old Spice during the 70s. I knew of the mug back then because my friend Pete and I wondered at the stupidity of it. Shaving cologne and beer just don’t mix. Mom’s particular example came with a mangled tin lid and a fracture in the cast glass. She presented it as a rare antique.

Once it was unwrapped, I stared at the thing, dumbstruck. I kept lifting the top on its bent hinge and dropping it on the scratched mug where it wouldn’t quite align. Then I began to giggle. This turned to wild laughter until I was crying, tears pouring from my eyes. My whole body shuddered and I couldn’t stop shaking, laughing, or crying for 10 minutes. It was a very disturbing feeling to lose complete control. I kept attempting to thank my mother, but I simply couldn’t speak.

My mom, being the perpetual good sport, forgave me after a while.

As with our cat or my mom, I always try to appreciate what I’ve been given. I assume good intentions inspired the choice of gift. This can seem unlikely at times, but particularly around Christmas, the benefit of the doubt should be employed.

This can, however, lead to the most prickly of gift issues: Someone asks you how you feel about a certain item or food, and instead of being honest, you lie or just nod your head carelessly. You’re avoiding hurting anyone’s feelings, but before you know it, a misunderstanding has been created that seems impossible to dispel, but after the fourth Jimmy Buffett CD, or the sixth lima bean casserole, something must be done.

Or for no good reason, you might mention to a friend that you admire his shirt. That Christmas you’re the proud owner of a multicolored monstrosity of jumping dolphins. Not that you don’t like dolphins, it’s just that you think they belong in the ocean rather than on shirts. But your friend expects you to wear them. Often.

Or people know you love cats. Suddenly everything you receive is cat-themed. But you love cats, living breathing purring cats. Not cat slippers, cat clocks with plastic tails that flicker at each second, or cat fridge magnets with eyes that follow you no matter where.

My father also had some unusual ideas about gifts, particularly at Christmas. During my early to mid-teens, he tended to give me parts and tools for his car. Oil and air filters, special socket wrenches that only fit hidden bolts, Hazet screwdrivers, which I now prize, once a lacquered wooden mallet. After he died I found three of these shiny mallets, and I realized he must have refinished them in bulk.

But the gift that really stands out was the Galloping Gourmet cookbook. Just the thing for a 16 year old who didn’t cook. In stunned disbelief, I spent some time with this heavy, expensive volume, copiously illustrated, and found that not one recipe could be made without clarified butter or under three hours, even if you galloped. Needless to say I didn’t pack it when I left home shortly after the holiday. Dad must have run into that gem on some remainder table marked down to a five spot. There is no other explanation.

My dad liked to shop at Ames. Ames department stores have since gone bankrupt, but they had quite a following during the 70s in the Northeast. Each Christmas Dad bought me a plaid flannel shirt there. One of those babies where the collar and pockets are sewn on with complete disregard for the rest of the pattern, usually at a crooked diagonal, and the plaid is printed, not loomed in. With continued washing the plaid disappeared.

I loved those shirts because they were from my dad and I wore them all year long unless it was hot enough for just a T-shirt. As I got older, I received a case of motor oil along with the shirt; this before I had a car of course. My wife now buys me a flannel every year from the Woolrich woolen mills, and the pockets match the gorgeous plaid perfectly. So the tradition continues improved.

Sometimes I like giving gifts anonymously, or giving gifts when the recipient can never return the favor or thank me. It’s the gesture that matters, the poetry of the offering, the hope that I’ve generated pleasure or positive feeling yet will never know the outcome.

I remember reading that John Coltrane said, “I want to be a force for real good,” and each generous, positive act adds to that force, no matter how incidental it might seem.

The amazing displays of holiday lights that begin to illuminate the early December dusk, I consider these to be gifts. Some years I really don’t feel like climbing the stepladder on an icy afternoon and hanging our lights, but then I imagine a lone traveler passing along deserted streets some evening, and maybe our house is the one that cheers him or her. That makes it worth it.

I’m not going to rant about obnoxious consumerism, or suggest we all give each other only sugar-free high-fiber cupcakes for the holidays. Like anyone else, I’m excited about the possibility of extravagant items under the tree, the ones I might get and the ones I might give.

But from my years of experience, it’s the gifts that match me, the gifts that have let me know that the giver understands who I am and what I appreciate, that have mattered the most. These gifts take time, some are handmade, all carefully considered, and it’s unlikely they were ordered quickly on lunch break or drunkenly some night online. One of my favorites was a half-snapped willow twig, and the story that went with it.

True gifts that last in our memories are wonderful. It’s a form of love — this effort, perception and care in giving, regardless of price. Even my mother’s crazy beer mug is now a fond recollection, and I sense her so dearly in the telling of it. Maybe that’s the beauty of the right gift; it’s very personal and bonds the giver and the recipient together. Maybe that possibility is what helps make this time of year so special.

Eric Green is an artist and freelance writer who lives in Belfast.