5 holiday gift-giving etiquette tips
There's a lot of confusion swirling around about gift giving during the holiday season. Giving and receiving gifts is lovely, but it can be stressful to know what, to whom, and when is most appropriate. Here are a couple of pointers:
#1 Always send a thank you
This is a year-round rule, but I think there are several misconceptions surrounding thank yous at Christmas. Thank yous are an absolute must if: someone has hosted you at their home, someone has shipped you a gift, someone has treated you to a holiday meal in a restaurant, or someone has left a gift for you on your porch/mailbox/not in person.
A lot of etiquette advice I’ve read says that if you thank the giver in person during the holidays, it’s not necessary to send a thank you, but I do so anyhow and encourage you to do so as well. Christmas is also not exempt from thank yous, as many people seem to think.
The one exception is a hostess gift, which is a thank you in itself. Simply texting, ‘It was wonderful to see you last night, and I love the beautiful napkins!’ will suffice.
I usually order thank-you cards to match my Christmas card suite each year and spend some time over the post-holiday week jotting down my notes. Be sure to send them out before New Year’s and preferably within three days!
#2 If gifts are being exchanged at a gathering, don’t leave anyone out
Oh, the last-minute guests and the random uninvited plus-ones. They happen, and that’s a whole different etiquette post. My feelings about randomly showing up to someone’s home or assuming an invitation aside, it’s the holidays. No one should feel unwelcome or left out.
We always keep a few extra bottles of wine, a holiday loaf or cookies, and some spare gift bags handy. Many times, I have hastily assembled a gift pack behind the scenes. If no one extra shows up, lucky you! Enjoy the wine, freeze (or eat) the cookies, and use the gift bags next year.
#3 Spend what you can comfortably spend (and no more or less)
The holidays aren’t a competition. Certainly, don’t be cheap during the holidays, but don’t max out your holiday budget because you feel you have to compete with expensive gifts. I would feel terribly if someone went into debt to give me a holiday gift. Gifts are about showing love and appreciation for people, as well as giving them something that they can really use. You don’t have to spend the exact same amount as someone who’s giving you a gift. If you put sincere thought into someone’s gift, that is really what counts.
That said, it can certainly be a little awkward if someone goes all out for you when you weren’t expecting it. If that happens, you could always treat them to a meal out or have them over for cocktails during New Year’s weekend to show some extra appreciation.
#4 Always reciprocate gifts
Unless you’re doing a Secret Santa where everyone draws names out of a bag, if someone gets you a gift, give them something in return. I'm not a fan of giving gifts just to give something, but it's good manners to reciprocate a holiday gift.
At a holiday gathering, this is where the cache of wine and Cape Cod loaf above comes in handy. You could also keep a few extra things like a calendar, a three-pack of Starbucks gift cards or some nice un-monnogramed stationery cards. If the gathering isn’t held at your house, pack the emergency gifts in the car! We’ve been surprised by extra guests at gatherings, and it’s embarrassing not to have something to reciprocate. Absolute worst-case scenario, you could always say, “Oh, no! It was such a struggle to get [child] out the door, we missed a couple of items as we were leaving! We’re so sorry. We’ll drop off our gift for you tomorrow.”
If, say, your neighbor comes by with something you weren’t expecting, and you don’t have any emergency gifts handy, just say something like, “Wow, thank you so much, Janet! This is so kind of you. I’m still getting myself organized; our holidays are crazy this year. Are you going to be around on Friday? I’d love to drop your gift off then - would 2:30 work?”
#5 Respect people’s preferences
I’m such a Scrooge the day after Halloween when social media flips to immediate Christmas. You saw my rants earlier this month. This year, my husband got to listen to me complain about the overwhelming influx of gift guides that swamp our feeds. Lucky guy. Of course, then my Instagram/blogger sphere showed up with some spectacular gift guides, so I consider myself chastened.
Christmas (and maybe your birthday) are the only days in a year when it’s socially and morally acceptable to write down a list of stuff you want and expect other people to buy it for you. It’s a little crazy to think of it.
If you know a person well, there’s nothing wrong with going ‘off list.’ At age 38, it’s really difficult for me to write a list of things I want, so I appreciate surprises from people who know me best.
However, if a person requests ‘no gifts’ for themself or their child, respect their wishes! Kids especially get inundated with things during this season (doubly for us, as our child has a December birthday). This creates clutter in homes, and a lot of parents don’t like the lesson that a ‘more is more’ holiday implies. If, for whatever reason, you absolutely can’t hold back, a) ask yourself why that’s the case, b) attempt to overcome your impulse and simply hold back, and if A and B fail, you could c) make a donation to a cause the person cares about or give a monetary gift for their child’s trust or allowance.
On this note as well, please consider the person’s taste and lifestyle. If the recipient is a struggling student, don’t give them something that will cost them money in the long run, like a $25 gift card to an expensive restaurant or boutique. They either won’t use it at all or will scrape to cover the extra $150. Everyone has quirky preferences (I hate drawstring pajama bottoms). You can’t be expected to know them all, but a little bit of common sense goes a long way at the holidays!