Cosmic presents happily come in a spectrum of price ranges. Let's list them by price category; and if this sounds like it's up your alley, here we go:
The cheapest grouping, the cool knickknacks of just a few dollars, includes the gadgets from Edmund Scientific. Their telescopes aren't worth the money but their science toys are great, and can't readily be found elsewhere. Try them online. I think radiometers are fun: a vane inside an unfrosted lightbulb-looking structure that spins wildly when exposed to light. Things like diffraction gratings and astronaut ice cream make nice low-end gifts, especially for kids.
Moving slightly up the scale, a subscription to a worthy science publication is enjoyed by science nerds year-'round. My favorite is Astronomy magazine, although I'm just a bit biased because I write a column in it. Also consider SLOOH, an online live-observatory full-color outer-space experience, which you get by one-year subscription. Again, full disclosure: I'm very much affiliated with SLOOH, but that doesn't stop me from admiring the whole enterprise. There's nothing else like it.
Further up the scale, consider binoculars. These powerful astronomical tools can find many lifelong uses, day and night. Some celestial objects look better through binoculars than through any telescope, because a wide field of view is what's required.
If they will be used astronomically, you should stay away from miniature ones, with their small lenses and dim nighttime images. Those have specs like 7x21 or 8x22. Always avoid any whose second number, the one after the "x," is lower than 25. Also avoid "fixed-focus" models. The freedom from having to change focus isn't worth the inferior image quality.
If money is no object (a present for yourself?), there's nothing like the Canon image-stabilized binoculars. The 8x30 IS model is cheapest (but still expensive at $350), and the only one that doesn't weigh a ton. Best place: B & H Photo in the City. Call (800) 947-6628.
If binoculars are to be a gift for teens or preteens aged 9 to 16 (or adults, for that matter), great ones can be had for under $40. Good specs are the 7x35 or 8x40 models. Bushnell Natureview is waterproof and only $39.
If you're buying in person, try any pair out and be sure that at least the middle three-quarters of the field of view stay sharp. Avoid any with false color fringes around white objects seen against a black background.
Looking for a fabulous offbeat present? Consider a meteorite. Try eBay. A guy calling himself "meteorite madness" is selling genuine octahedrites of all weights and prices. You can get a one-pounder for around $50, which is truly a bargain. That's a fraction of what the going catalogue price has been for decades.
Finally, since we get a half-dozen calls every Christmas, it may as well be stated openly: If you must buy a telescope, be careful. At least 99 percent wind up unused and in storage after two or three uses. The "go-to" models sound easy to use, but they're not. Get a three-inch or four-inch refractor (80 to 100 millimeters) and spend no more than $400. Above that, you have to jump up to well over $1,000 to find anything decent. Don't overspend on a beginner. If a serious and continued interest in astronomy develops, your youngster can then be given a larger scope next year.
Ignore all claims about magnification or "power"; they mean nothing. When a company brags that a telescope is "400x" or "500x," it almost always means that it's a piece of garbage. Just be sure that the lens that gathers the light is at least 80 millimeters. Oh, all right: If it's to be a truly cheap $60 scope for a young kid, or if you're broke, you can go down to 60mm. Just make sure that the tripod isn't wobbly. Also check that the eyepieces are one-and-a-quarter inches in diameter, not the old crummy .965-inch variety. I'd avoid a reflector telescope for youngsters, since they require careful periodic mirror collimation.
Final gift topic: lasers. Pointing out stars and constellations is easy and fun with a green laser. The normal red ones don't cast a visible beam, because their light is linearly polarized and doesn't catch the dust in the air. Green lasers are now available for as little as $50. The maximum legal power for a handheld device is 5 mw, and around here, that's enough to cast a visible beam - although you won't readily see it in light-polluted suburbs or when the moon is bright.
Some companies on the Web advertise more powerful lasers. Beams look brilliant with a 20 to 35 mw green laser. Expect to pay around $140 for these illegally boosted devices. If you buy one, be very careful: They can definitely blind people. Don't ever let youngsters or teens handle them. And never, ever point one toward a plane.
That seems an odd note on which to close with Ho-Ho-Ho, but I will. May you have a wonderful Christmas or Hanukkah.