It was the couple's first Christmas together, and Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon wanted to make it a special one.
The Temple professor takes holidays very seriously, especially Christmas. It reminds her of her own happy childhood, when it seemed that her parents made all of her material wishes come true despite challenging economic times.
So for that first gift-giving holiday together, Williams-Witherspoon carefully chose a suede jacket for her beau. She selected two or three jazz CDs she thought he would like. And as if those gifts weren't enough, she purchased one more big gift: a GPS, she recalls. Or was it a wine refrigerator to help fulfill his inner sommelier? In any case, it was thoughtful and special and memorable.
His gift to her? Socks with beans in them. You know, those foot-warmer things you put in the microwave before wearing? Oh, and a matching neck warmer.
"They were very uncomfortable and incredibly ugly. It was the beginning of the relationship so I tried to smile, but it was horrible," recalled Williams-Witherspoon, 50, of Darby.
Ah, the dangers of December dating - a minefield, particularly for the newly coupled. To buy or not to buy? And if to buy, perchance to dream? How big, how expensive, and how personal? What happens if one half of the couple goes for the gold while the other half doesn't even show up for training?
The Internet is awash in advice right now. Lisa Daily, author of Stop Getting Dumped!, writes that anyone in any relationship, even a new one, should expect to give and get a gift. Self-proclaimed cyber-dating expert Julie Spira says people should keep it simple: a card and a box of chocolate - "fine chocolates," she stresses, so avoid the dollar-store selections - to show you care.
But Rich Santos, the dating diaries blogger for Marie Claire magazine, says if there's any question about gift-giving, it's safe to assume it's not happening. If you're still on the fence, he recommends the forward approach, asking straight out, "Are we doing gifts this year?"
For those on the shy side, the dating service It's Just Lunch, which has a Philadelphia branch, provides a detailed gift-giving formula - for everyone from very-new couples to those who have been together for years.
Among the recommendations: A single date will net a holiday card. One month together equals an experience, something fun but inexpensive like ice skating and hot chocolate. If you've been dating one year, be prepared to pony up. It's Just Lunch recommends: "Fly to Vegas, book a suite at the Wynn, and get great tickets for the Elton John Red Piano concert. Spend the rest of the weekend sunbathing, dancing, and dining until the sun comes up."
Here's hoping that someone special likes Sir Elton and gambling.
Alex Mehr, cofounder of the social dating company Zoosk, recommends gift cards, such as one to a spa. Meanwhile, a poll of his company's users found that the best holiday gift would be "a simple hug and kiss."
Really? A hug and a kiss?
Consider the (unattached) sources, Mehr said.
"If you've been single for a year, and I've been single for more than a year, you're like, 'I miss that special something and someone in my life.' All you're thinking about is that feeling," Mehr said.
Susan Balee and her boyfriend had been dating only a few months when their first December approached. But she was expecting something big, possibly something that came in a small package. Things had gotten serious pretty quickly.
So she was surprised by the size of the box he gave her before she went to her parents' home in Florida. It was the perfect dimensions - for a bottle of alcohol.
Hundreds of miles from her paramour, she began to brood.
"Why is my adoring beau giving me a bottle of booze for Christmas?" she remembered thinking. "What does that say?"
She couldn't wait until Christmas morning to find out, so she opened the box five days early and found a bottle of champagne with an elaborately taped note attached. It wished her and her family a happy holiday and advised them to enjoy what was inside.
"To say I was irked and disappointed is an understatement," she said. That displeasure came through the next day when she talked to her boyfriend on the phone. He told her to take off the tape holding the note.
There, she found in the packaging the emerald and diamond earrings he'd chosen for her. Awk-ward!
"Not only had I been nosy," she said, "but I'd shown my horrible, lowlife, gift-expecting personality."
That was 26 years ago. The couple, who now live in Wyncote, have been married for 22 years and have two children.
"Yes, you can survive stupid holidating behavior," Balee said.
Of course, good gift-selection skills don't indicate a perfect partner. Williams-Witherspoon, for one, said she knows that firsthand: Her second husband was an ace present-picker, she said - and he left her when their son was a few months old.
She stuck with Mr. Foot and Neck Warmer for four years. But his gift selections didn't get any better - "For every holiday thereafter, I could always expect something equally horrible," she said - although her children later shamed him into buying her a computer after that first exchange debacle.
Still, last year he gave her an oversized gold chain that looked like something from an '80s rap video. It was wrapped around a bottle of cognac inside a used Tiffany box.
"Needless to say, we're no longer together," Williams-Witherspoon said.
But the gifts weren't the real problem. He was.
"Getting a last-minute gift can mean you're last on his list," she said. "It's been my experience that the way an individual gifts you reveals a lot about how they think about you. For a birthday, this same individual gave me a pair of Afro-centric earrings. But if you took time to notice me, you'll notice I never take my diamonds out, so I'm never going to wear them. You weren't thinking about me. You were thinking about getting it done."