Holiday Gift-Giving Etiquette, Explained

Not sure if your gift will delight or offend? Our etiquette experts can help.

Wrapped holiday gifts

Gift-giving etiquette can feel confusing. Are you worried about what to give your babysitter or your hairstylist? Wondering how to smooth things over when you receive an unexpected gift (and you don't have anything to give in return)? Wishing you had a better sense of the best holiday gift for that hard-to-shop-for friend?

Here's one hard-and-fast rule for good gifting: "Always gift from your recipient's perspective," says Elaine Swann, founder of Swann School of Protocol. "Look at their life, interests, what's meaningful for them, what they might enjoy, and make your decision based on that."

Still stumped? We asked some etiquette experts to weigh in on some of the most common gift-giving questions.

01 of 06

When Your Gifts Don't Seem to Hit the Mark

We all have that family member or friend who graciously receives a gift from you, and then you never see them use it. (What ever happened to that K-pop T-shirt for your teen niece?)

"It is satisfying to give gifts that are well-loved and well-used, but remember that giving should be motivated by generosity," says etiquette expert Catherine Newman. "That being said, you may need to consider a new approach."

Gift ideas: Opt for gift cards to shops you think they like—or even a cash gift with a note suggesting that they pick up something special for themselves. (You might even follow up to ask what they decided to buy—to give you gift-giving inspiration for the next time.)

02 of 06

When You Receive a Gift—With Nothing to Give in Return

There's no need to make a big deal about apologizing for this gift-giving etiquette issue. "Just be gracious and say thank you," Swann says. "That awkward moment will pass quickly—so don't go overboard with the apologies or run out and buy something last minute."

Gift ideas: In the future, plan ahead and have a stash of gifts you can use for those unexpected gift-giving moments. "I have a gift closet for regifting throughout the year, filled with items that are very nice, brand new, and may be very useful for someone else," Swann says.

And don't forget about the power of words in a well-written thank-you note. "Write something very thoughtful in a card," Swann says. "There's nothing like putting pen to paper and saying something special to someone."

03 of 06

When Your Host Says, "No Gifts, Please"

The "no gifts, please" request can make you feel awkward, but it's best to follow your host's request. "It feels rude to show up at a party empty-handed," says etiquette expert Julie Rottenberg. "To make matters worse, there are always a few of those people who will still insist on bringing a big, expensive gift, making those of us who dutifully followed instructions look―or at least feel―lame."

Gift ideas: If you can't bear to show up empty-handed, you can cheat a little and offer a small token gift. Think something edible, like chocolate, wine, or cookies. "That way, you're not disobeying their instructions―and you've got something in hand," Rottenberg says.

04 of 06

When What You Get and What You Give Are Out of Balance

Whether you're the ultra-generous friend who went overboard with a lavish gift, or you're the recipient of the gift, this can seem a little sticky. Keep in mind that there likely isn't an agenda behind the imbalance. "A true present is a no-strings-attached act of generosity, and true graciousness means receiving the gift in that spirit," Newman says.

If it really bothers you, speak up. "Say, 'I appreciate your generosity, but I wish you wouldn't give me such expensive gifts because they make me feel bad that I can't reciprocate,'" Newman suggests. "She may not stop, but at the very least, you'll have expressed your misgivings and started a conversation."

You might consider setting a budgetary limit for gifts between the two of you, so you can both feel comfortable.

Gift ideas: That old saw about "it's the thought that counts" definitely rings true. Your friend won't expect a lavish gift that will put you in debt. Just think about your friend's interests and your history together, and come up with something thoughtful that fits your budget.

05 of 06

You Aren't Sure Who to Give Gifts to—or What to Give

Sure, your parents and your kids are a no-brainer, but what do you give your babysitter, hairstylist, or mail carrier?

You can consult our guide to holiday tipping, but Swann also recommends thinking of your holiday gifting budget like an onion. There's the core group who will likely take up most of your gift-giving budget, and the outer layers may get smaller gifts or thoughtful notes. "Give gifts to the people who make the biggest impact on your life," Swann says. "But make sure you stay on budget."

Gift ideas: Cash is generally preferred for most people in service professions, though an additional, more personal gift would be thoughtful for people who are a big part of your life, like a nanny or your assistant. (Think a food-related treat or a nice bag.) Keep in mind that lavish gifts are prohibited in some professions, such as letter carriers or doctors, so it's worth asking before you indulge.

06 of 06

When You Don't Want to Exchange Gifts

You don't need more stuff—and neither do the people on your holiday gift list. But that doesn't mean you have to act like Scrooge and stop the gifting. "It's poor form to beg off giving and receiving gifts during the holidays entirely," says etiquette expert Michelle Slatalla. "And you know that your mother is not going to listen, no matter what you say."

Gift ideas: Rather than give up gift-giving entirely, gift experiences in lieu of the latest gadgets or goodies. "Offer your best friend a nonmonetary present, like a night of babysitting," Slatella suggests. "Give nieces and nephews no-cost 'love coupons,' to be redeemed for an afternoon of sledding or a homemade pizza lunch. If you have a special skill, share it—lead a yoga demonstration or give a knitting lesson. Remember: The point of the holidays isn't to drop a lot of cash—it's to make a meaningful gesture, and that doesn't cost a thing."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles