All I Want For Christmas...

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Every December, I pray for a little inspiration. Rather than spend hours wandering around crowded shopping malls in despair, I pray that the perfect gift idea for everyone in my family will pop into my head before I leave the house. When I'm lucky, it does--like the George Foreman grill I got my brother last year and the Russian-icon calendar I found for my mom in Brighton Beach, N.Y. But all too often, I have succumbed to the lure of the gift certificate.

This year, online retailers are making a special effort to help the gift impaired by encouraging people to create wish lists they can e-mail to friends and relatives, much like the Christmas lists we made when we were little. (Kids can e-mail Santa directly from the claus.com site.) I admit that the wish-list idea struck me at first as horribly tacky. What self-respecting adult would send a list of gift demands? But after trying the online registries and gauging the reactions of the people I sent lists to, I'm a believer.

My favorite wish-list site was amazon.com. After I signed up, it displayed a selection of suggestions based on my past purchases, followed by best sellers in various categories. In less than an hour, I found six things I never knew I wanted, from a new novel to a fondue set. The e-mail Amazon sends out has pictures embedded in it and a place to craft your own delicately worded message ("If you're wondering what I'd like for Christmas...").

Smart design and good selection make Target's wish lists a pleasure. I found everything from $35 pearl earrings to gift baskets and electronic gadgets. I liked target.com so much, I decided to buy one of my own wish-list items--a holiday CD for $8.99.

Of the four department-and clothing-store sites I tried--Eddie Bauer, JCPenney, Macy's and Nordstrom--macys.com was tops. Its gift finder feels too much like a database search, but a cool product-comparison feature lets you see items side by side, while zoom and pan buttons provide close-ups.

Not all sites are winners, however. I gave up on pottery barn.com because the listmaking procedure was so tedious, it made me feel like I was registering for a wedding. (As if I need to be reminded of just how single I am.) A slew of independent gift-registry sites I checked out--such as firstregistry.com, wishclick.com and mygiftlist.com--were even clunkier and more limited.

Of course, no wish list is any good if it offends the folks who get it. My mom finds them too impersonal, but my roommate and sister think they're great--provided you send them only to people with whom you regularly exchange gifts. The clincher came from my friend Dmitri, a typical guy who hates to shop. "I never know what to get people," he said. "These are such a relief." If you're not sure how someone will react to receiving your lists, try the old-fashioned approach: just ask.

You can send questions or comments to Anita at hamilton@time.com