A Modern Guide to Holiday Etiquette

'Tis the season to be sensitive to other people's feelings. 

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Photo by KAZUTOMO KAWAI/Getty Images

Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnists Catherine Newman, etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy, and Julie Rottenberg (television producer and writer) help you be the best version of yourself when the stress of the holidays makes you want to scream.

I do not celebrate Christmas, and this can cause problems with my colleagues. For example, in the past, I have often skipped the office Christmas party. I don't bring up my own religious views; I just say nicely that I won't be attending. Still, one of my coworkers made it clear that she resented my lack of participation. How can I sit out the festivities without upsetting anyone? — A.M.

The assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas can be completely maddening to the people who don't. I know you don't want to trumpet your differing beliefs, but perhaps your office mates would feel less irked if they understood your reasons for opting out. "I love parties," you can say, "and I'd love to socialize with all of you. But I don't celebrate Christmas, and doing so feels like a betrayal of my own religious principles." Consider suggesting to your colleagues, if it's a small company (or to HR, if it's a big one), that you shift the party's theme from "Christmas" to "holiday." Then go—and bring your famous latkes or dumplings or harira. Sure, the difference in designation might be more symbolic than material, but it draws meaningful attention to the issue of inclusivity. For all you know, other folks at work will be grateful for the change as well.

- Catherine Newman

"Can we send cards that say MERRY CHRISTMAS even to friends who don't celebrate? Or should we stick with the generic HAPPY HOLIDAYS or SEASON'S GREETINGS?" — C.M.

If you love sending Christmas cards and feel strongly that your cards should reflect your actual experience of the holiday, then by all means keep sending 'em. (Ho ho ho!) On the other hand, the fact that you're even raising the question makes me think you'd like to be as sensitive and inclusive as possible to all the diverse people in your life. I'm Jewish, but I certainly don't take offense if someone sends me a Christmas card. I'm used to it. The flip side is that it does feel nice to receive a card that says SEASON'S GREETINGS or HOLIDAY WISHES or any other more inclusive greeting they've dreamed up. (My personal favorite: a card with a cartoon deer that had one antler lit up with Christmas lights and the other with a menorah and the greeting HAPPY WHATEVER!) Because as impersonal as one of those mass-produced cards can seem, it feels slightly less so if the greeting applies to the person receiving it.

- Julie
Rottenberg

Is it proper etiquette to give a holiday gift to your own adult child but not to his partner? — G.F.

No, that is not appropriate. Your child is your darling, of course, forever and always, and you are permitted to keep spoiling him at holiday times. But once your son is in a serious long-term relationship—whatever your feelings may be about his husband, girlfriend, or same-sex partner—you must treat the new person as part of the family and the couple as a unit. This doesn't mean that you can't buy something special for your son, only that you have to purchase something of relatively equal value for his significant other as well. That's the conventional etiquette wisdom on the topic, but it's not your only option.

I'm thinking here of the time my parents gave my husband and me the set of knives that I'd been coveting—supposedly a joint gift but, truth be told, really just for me. You can do the same: Shop for your child, then designate the item as a present for him and his beloved. This won't work for a San Francisco 49ers jersey. But for home goods, artwork, and other items the two can share, it's a perfectly acceptable compromise.

- Catherine Newman

I have distant relatives who always send holiday gifts to my children, and I feel the need to reciprocate even though I hardly know them. How can I stop the exchange without hurting their feelings? — E.B.

First of all: Who are these people who have it together enough to send gifts not just to the people they know but to the people they don't?! Setting aside my own gift-giving inadequacy issues, I would still argue that while it's lovely for your relatives to send your children gifts, you do not need to reciprocate. There are always going to be a few lopsided exchanges—which is OK! Some years, you might receive a gift from someone you have nothing for; other years, you might give a present to someone who has nothing for you. I like to embrace this as part of the chaos of the season. But for these relatives you ask about, I think the best approach is to send a preemptive holiday card—and a card only. Hopefully, they'll get the message and follow suit. You never know: It might be a relief for them to end the gift exchange as well. If that doesn't happen, I would then just send a nice thank-you note, with a few extra "What a lovely surprise!" mentions thrown in to help drive the message home.

- Julie Rottenberg

My husband and I are not close with his two brothers. Nevertheless, we send holiday gifts to their grade-school-age children every year because it seems like the right thing to do. We never get a thank-you in return. After a month goes by, we inquire whether the gifts were received, and even then, only one of the brothers responds. We are frustrated and have considered not buying any more gifts, since it seems they aren't appreciated. What should we do? J.H.

The comedian Demetri Martin jokes about sending a "You're welcome" card to folks who forget to say "Thank you." Tempting, right? It's disheartening not to be acknowledged for giving a present, which is exactly why thank-you notes are so important. Your brothers-in-law apparently never got that message, and so, predictably, they haven't passed that lesson on to their children. Many etiquette experts agree that you're under no obligation to mail off goodies to your nieces and nephews. However, you should explain why they shouldn't be looking for any packages from you this year. Tell both families, via e-mail or by phone, that you've enjoyed sending them presents, but the lack of response on their part has hurt your feelings—and that as a result, you're only going to send small tokens of holiday cheer from now on (think seasonal cards). If they send back a heartfelt apology, you can reconsider. And if not? Save your gift money for people who make it a point to acknowledge your generosity.

- Catherine Newman

"How do you delicately tell a friend that the dish she has been bringing to the holiday party for years is something that no one but her and her husband likes to eat? We would like to ask her to bring something else. Is there a nice, non-hurtful way to do this?" — C.H.

Oh, this is surely the holy grail of all etiquette questions, because who hasn't been in this sticky position before? For my family, the dish was my beloved grandmother's molded Jell-O, which came every year without fail in an increasingly elaborate shape and size with increasingly more canned mandarin oranges. In your case, I'd suggest focusing on what you want, rather than what you don't want. Call your friend well in advance and say, "You know what we could really use this year? A fabulous salad." Or "A great dessert." Or anything that might be in her arsenal and is likely to be appreciated. That way, you're generating excitement about her contributing something new. If she's still stuck on bringing her usual, then I'd say, "We decided to use this year's party as an excuse to make something different, so we're asking everyone to shake things up a little. Go crazy!"

- Julie
Rottenberg

I give an annual holiday party, and guests often bring me a hostess gift. I have read so many different opinions on this subject: Don't open the present; do open the present; opening the present might make those who didn't bring a present uncomfortable; not opening the present in front of the giver might offend him or her. Ugh! Please tell me the most gracious way to receive a hostess gift so that everyone will be satisfied. T. R.

You're right that opinions differ on what to do. Nonetheless, experts agree on two basic things: minimizing awkwardness and maximizing courtesy. My preference is for opening a wrapped gift (or acknowledging an unwrapped one) at the time it is given, assuming that you can do this fairly discreetly. That way, you can express your thanks right away and the giver can enjoy the pleasure of your gratitude. Plus you can, if you like, hang the ornament, light the candle, share the candy, or otherwise visibly demonstrate your appreciation for the guest's offering. I find the alternatives to this approach less appealing. Waiting until later to open a gift is fine if you're in the middle of glazing the ham, but it can draw more attention to a gift than may be warranted. On the other hand, opening everything at once risks evoking a baby shower. Don't worry too much about
giftless guests: If they express regret, you can reassure them that their presence means more to you than anything.

- Catherine Newman