Etiquette Questions, Answered: Holidays and Gifts
What’s An Appropriate Welcome Gift For a New Neighbor?
Q. I’ve often been told that when you visit a new neighbor for the first time, it’s proper to give the host or hostess a bottle of wine. But I do not consume alcohol and do not want to be embarrassed by refusing to imbibe with them. I would love to know what gesture might be an appropriate alternative.
A. What’s most important is that you welcome your new neighbors, whether or not you do so with a gift. If you do choose to bring along a little something, wine is certainly not the only—or even the most customary—choice. Also, you may not be the only one who doesn’t drink. Perhaps your neighbors don’t, either.
Classic house-warmers include a pot of soup (especially nice if the family is still unpacking); a welcome basket with local maps and information; or flowers, a potted herb, or a perennial from your own garden. My family always brings new neighbors something home baked, such as muffins, cookies, or brownies. Partly this is because my kids hope to be invited to stay and have some; partly it’s because when we moved into our house, one lovely neighbor brought us a pie, and we’ve never forgotten cutting it into warm slices on our first night home. (Six years later, we still refer to that particular neighbor as “the pie guy.”)
Whatever you bring, your neighbors are lucky to have such a thoughtful person living nearby.
Want to Ask Your Own Etiquette Question?
Submit your social conundrums to Catherine at realsimple.com/modernmanners. Selected letters will be featured on the website each month.
My Grandkids Never Wear the Gifts I Send. What Should I Do?
Q. I often buy cute clothes, shoes, and accessories for my granddaughters, but I never see them wearing these items. What’s more, when I babysit, I sometimes look for the clothes in their closets but can’t find them.
These girls are my only grand-children and I love buying clothes for them, and I cannot understand why they disappear. I have mentioned the missing clothing, and my daughter-in-law pleads ignorance. I have done nothing to hurt this woman and am baffled by the situation.
A. It is satisfying to give gifts that are well loved and well used, but remember that real giving should be motivated by generosity toward others. That being said, it doesn’t make sense to spend money on clothes that aren’t being worn, so you may need to consider a new approach.
Start by acknowledging the possibility that you and your daughter-in-law don’t share the same taste in children’s clothing and that her pleas of ignorance may be motivated by an effort to spare your feelings. Although it’s possible that she is being honest (and is simply disorganized), the most likely explanation is that she is donating or packing away your gifts because the clothing is not her—or the kids’—preferred style.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have the pleasure of dressing your granddaughters. Two options spring to mind: One, give them a gift card to a clothing store, and follow up to see what they picked out. Or, two, find out where your daughter-in-law likes to shop, and go online together so that you can order the items that she or the kids are most drawn to. You’ll learn more about what they do like wear—and have a much better chance of seeing your gifts in action.
- I Mailed a Gift to a Loved One and Never Received a Reply. What Should I Do?
- How Can I Be More Involved With My Nephews?
- Must I Reciprocate Gift-Giving to Relatives I Barely Know?
Want to Ask Your Own Etiquette Question?
Submit your social conundrums to Catherine at realsimple.com/modernmanners. Selected letters will be featured on the website each month.
How Can I Get My Friend to Stop Buying Me Expensive Gifts?
Q. No matter the occasion, my friend gives me ridiculously lavish gifts. Once, she gave me an entire line of dishes and serving pieces that must have cost at least $500! I appreciate the gestures, but they make me feel indebted. Plus, I just don’t have the kind of money that she does, so I get uncomfortable. How do I make her stop?
Name withheld by request
A. Ridiculously lavish gifts! If I had such problems, I would be eating off fancier plates. Oh, I’m kidding, I am—and your quid pro quo feeling of indebtedness is completely natural. But a true present is a no-strings-attached act of generosity, and true graciousness means receiving the gift in that spirit. If you accept her offering enthusiastically and enjoy it fully, you’ll have given her more than money can buy.
However, if the crystal champagne flutes and the Limoges gravy boats are making you squirm—and even posing a risk to your friendship—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.” She may not stop, but at the very least you’ll have expressed your misgivings and started a conversation. And she’ll get to share her thoughts, which might surprise you. She may feel indebted to you for your friendship or guilty about her relative wealth. Or maybe she just wants to give you nice things. Open the dialogue, clear the air, and then relish the gift of having such a thoughtful friend.
Would it Be Offensive to Send My Jewish Friends a Christmas Card?
Q. I’m Christian. Will I horribly offend my Jewish friends if I send them a Christmas card?
Name withheld by request
A. It’s unlikely that you will horribly offend your Jewish friends unless you send them a holiday ham. As a half-Jew myself, I can say with confidence that Jewish people are not oblivious to the fact that lots of folks celebrate Christmas.
However, what is potentially offensive, not just to Jewish friends but to anyone of a different faith, isn’t the festive greeting—it’s conveying the impression that everybody shares your Christian beliefs. You obviously care about the feelings of your friends who are of different religions. So why not buy a handful of generic holiday cards to mail out? Or if you prefer to stick with your regular Christmas cards (assuming that they are not explicitly religious, but rather of the red-cardinals-in-the-snow type), add a “Happy Holidays” or even a “Happy Hanukkah” to acknowledge the recipient’s faith.
One way or another, do send a holiday greeting. I’m sure that you would hate for your friends to see your card on someone else’s refrigerator and conclude that they had been excluded from the seasonal well-wishing.
Should My Husband and I Make Thanksgiving Plans With His Parents' or Mine?
Q. I come from a divorced family, and so does my husband. Every year on Thanksgiving, we wonder: Of the four sets of parents, which one should we take our kids to visit this year? (All live nearby, which makes the decision even more challenging.) We try to be careful with our choice, but it’s tricky, and we have inadvertently caused offense in the past. How can we avoid upsetting any of our loved ones this time around?
Name withheld by request
A. Yay for an abundance of grandparents! As problems go, it’s a lovely one. You’re right, though, that this family landscape requires some delicate navigating.
I would suggest that you opt for a rotation system: Each set of grandparents can look forward to the pleasure of your company once every four years. Of course, you may need to consider certain factors, such as how you divvy up other holidays and whether any grandparents will be stranded on their lonesome. (And which set is likeliest to torment you with their disappointment. Just kidding! Sort of.) This year, visit the neediest parents—or the ones you haven’t shared a Thanksgiving meal with in the longest amount of time—then let the alternating begin.
My husband, Michael, and I have solved (or tempered) a similar problem with our folks by adding an extra, low-key celebration the day after Thanksgiving. That’s when we join my husband’s father and stepmother, along with his stepsisters and their families, for board games, jigsaw puzzles, and leftovers. This leaves everyone free on Thursday to satisfy other obligations and to look forward to a relaxed post-holiday gathering.
Whatever you decide, be open about how hard the situation is. Tell them, “I wish we could spend the holiday with everyone, but we can’t,” and give thanks for such a wealth of kinship.
— Catherine Newman
I Mailed a Gift to a Loved One and Never Received a Reply. What Should I Do?
Q. I often send gifts by mail to friends and relatives. Many of them never send a thank-you in return. I’m tired of calling and saying that I wanted to make sure my gift didn’t get lost in the mail. Any ideas?
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
A. You are indeed in an awkward position. If you send a gift through the mail, rather than personally handing it to someone, you have no way of knowing if it arrived unless the recipient acknowledges receipt. It is rude for the recipient to force you to follow up.
These days people are less formal, and many have given up the handwritten note for other ways, like e-mails and text messages, to say “thank you.” But not sending so much as a “thx” text is a sign that the recipients don’t appreciate your gifts or your feelings. You may want to cut back on your giving until they start showing a little gratitude.
Can I Give Money to a Recently Unemployed Friend?
Q. Is it all right to give cash in a card to someone who has lost a job?
Name withheld upon request
A. It depends. Do you know that this person is strapped for money? Not everyone who gets laid off or fired is broke. If she has enough savings to see herself through this challenging time, skip it. Make another considerate (and nonfinancial) gesture. However, if she is suffering and you can afford to give cash, please do so. It will be appreciated, particularly if you handle the situation with grace.
Give the money as a gift, with no strings and no expectations of repayment. That way, you won't begrudge how it's spent, and the recipient won't feel indebted.
Hand the money directly to her with a card that says, "I know you're going through a rough patch and wanted you to know that I'm here for you. I hope you'll accept this gift and feel no obligation to return the favor."
If you think such an offering made face-to-face would embarrass the recipient, you can make a no-name-attached cash gift through an online intermediary. The nonprofit website Giving Anonymously (GivingAnon.org) will forward your contribution, mailing a check to anyone you designate and giving the person a phone number to call to confirm receipt and, if she wishes, to send a word of thanks.
My Daughter Thinks There's No Santa Claus. What Should I Do?
Q. My neighbor’s kid told mine there’s no Santa Claus. What should I do?
A. Don’t worry—you can still save Christmas. Every child goes through a skeptical phase. I remember a time when even I didn’t believe in Santa, as ridiculous as that sounds now. I was seven, an age when it’s natural to start wondering how a fat, bearded man with a bulging sack of toys manages to squeeze down every chimney in the world in a single night. “How do you explain that?” I asked my mother suspiciously.
Luckily, she had a good answer. She said, “I can’t. But just because I can’t explain how something works doesn’t mean it’s not real. Take TV. You don’t understand how it works, but you believe in that, don’t you?” I nodded. “How about airplanes?” she asked. “One minute they’re on the ground, the next—whoosh! You’ve ridden in one. Can you tell me about them?” No, I admitted.
“Well,” she continued, “then I don’t see how you could expect to explain how Santa does what he does. He’s magical.” Besides, the proof is in the pudding, she added. “If you believe in him, he brings you presents. If you don’t, he won’t.”
That last bit was the clincher. It persuaded me, and years later it persuaded my three daughters. They are now 22, 20, and 14, and all three tell me every year that they believe in Santa.
Of course, the big guy did hit a few rough patches with my kids. For example, I remember getting a call from another mother reporting that one of my daughters, who had just turned seven herself, was instilling doubts about Santa among the playground set. I telephoned the eminent pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton to ask his advice about what to say to her. To my surprise, his suggestion closely echoed what my mother had said in the past, with one addition. After pointing out that nonbelievers don’t receive gifts from Santa, “you should tell your child that you believe in Santa, too,” said Brazelton.
I should? “Well, don’t you? I do,” he said firmly. “We all believe in Santa on some level or other, right? If we didn’t, we would be in deep trouble.”
After you’ve talked to your child and allayed her fears (with luck, she’ll start addressing an envelope to the North Pole right away), take a minute to speak to any other parents whose children have been involved in the great Santa debate. Let them know, in a lighthearted manner, that the age of reason is threatening to catch up with your child and that you would appreciate it if they would ask their offspring to curb the “Is he real or isn’t he?” talk. Tell them that you will encourage your child not to badmouth the idea of flying reindeers, either. “I know that it’s natural—laudable, even—for our children to question something that they can’t explain,” you can say, “but in my house we’re taking a pro–Santa Claus stance. We prefer to believe in magic.”
How Do I Host Religiously Inclusive Holiday Functions?
Q. How do I host religiously inclusive holiday functions?
A. When you’re the host, your primary job is to make your guests feel happy and relaxed. That means trying not to force-feed your religious views (along with the yams and the Brussels sprouts) to a reluctant audience. The good news: If you’re sweating over how to break Thanksgiving bread with a family that includes, say, Southern Baptists and Reform Jews, you’re probably sensitive enough to avoid offending anyone.
After all, you don’t have to abandon your own faith and traditions simply because nonbelievers are present. If you want to lead a prayer before the feast, for instance, consider prefacing it with a statement that puts others at ease, like “I’ve always loved saying grace before the meal. Please join me if you feel comfortable doing so.” It’s also fine to ask people to bow their heads or join hands in the spirit of camaraderie (as long as you realize that your guests are free to refuse, or to let their thoughts drift wherever they please).
If you’re willing to put aside overtly religious speech for the occasion, you can opt for a gracious, nonreligious invocation instead—one that reminds everyone why you’re celebrating and takes note of how happy you are to have your loved ones together. Try something like “We give thanks today for the bounty of friendship and family we are lucky enough to have gathered around our table.”
Or skip that formality entirely and group-source the opening to the meal: Ask everyone at the table to take a turn sharing what he or she is grateful for. Sure, you may have to endure a testimonial or two from someone expressing thanks for a time-share or a kitchen renovation, but you’ll also hear touching sentiments about family, health, and home.
This all gets a little stickier during the December holidays, of course. Use the same mindful tack when hosting a tree-trimming party or a Hanukkah latke party—and know that a guest probably won’t attend if she thinks she’s going to feel uncomfortable.
If the tables are turned and you are invited to a religious gathering (e.g., a midnight Mass), look at it as an anthropological opportunity. You don’t have to adopt other people’s customs to learn about them. A good rule of thumb at a church or a temple is to follow the cues and stand up or sit down with the rest of the congregation. You can also win brownie points with pals and relatives if you go the extra mile and ask them about the rituals related to their faiths: Your girlfriend will be delighted if you ask her where she got that beautiful menorah, as will your sister-in-law if you inquire about how your nephew fared as one of the wise men in the Christmas pageant.
And if you decide that all this is too difficult? Opt to host (or even attend) gatherings on holidays when God isn’t often invoked. New Year’s Eve, anyone?
Read more advice about your etiquette conundrums, and see our Modern Manners blog.
How Strictly Must I Stick to My Secret Santa Spending Limit?
Q. Do I have to adhere to the spending limit on a gift swap at work?
A. Generally, yes. Just because you can afford to go over a $15 or $20 price cap doesn’t mean that you should. After all, the idea of a Secret Santa exchange is to level the playing field between givers. However, if the bobblehead doll that your coworker would love is just a bit more ($3 to $5, tops), then…eh, I’d say go for it. Be mindful, too, not to spend significantly under the target amount. It’s not courteous to give less than you receive.
Can I Complain When Someone Regifts?
Q. Every year, my sister-in-law sends me something that she has obviously regifted. How should I reciprocate?
A. You shouldn’t. Your brother and his wife may be having financial troubles that you don’t know about, she might not realize that what she’s doing is obvious, or maybe they’re just taking a stand against our consumerist culture. So don’t confront her or complain, since regifting doesn’t really deserve the bad rap that it has. (Don’t you own something that’s nice and unused that you know someone else would love?) Accept the gift graciously, and try not to take it so seriously.
How Should I Handle Donations Made in My Name?
Q. What should I do if someone makes a donation in my name to a group that I don’t support?
A. What would you do if someone gave you a glow-in-the-dark reindeer sweater that plays “Jingle Bells”? You wouldn’t shriek and hand it back. No, you would politely say “Thank you.” Do the same thing in this case. However, if you’re concerned that this person might make the same kind of charitable gift for you in the future, take your friend aside after the holidays and explain that you’re unhappy about having your name associated with an organization whose beliefs don’t align with yours. Her feelings might be hurt, but she won’t repeat the mistake.
If you’re the person who likes to give charitable presents, choose a cause that you think will be palatable to everyone on your list—the American Red Cross, for instance—and steer clear of those that take a political or religious stance others may find objectionable.
When Is It Appropriate to Give Money?
Q. If I don’t know someone’s taste, may I give cash in lieu of a present?
A. I wish my parents, aunts, and uncles had given me envelopes filled with greenbacks when I was 16. Certainly the gift of cash is more appropriate to give to some people than others. The tweens and teens on your list will prefer it over any T-shirt or book that you pick out. Gift cards are a safe option for a child’s teacher or a minister. For parents, siblings, and close friends, stick to actual gifts; you might offend them if you slip a few Andrew Jacksons into their stockings.
Can I Politely Decide Not to Exchange Gifts This Year?
Q. I don’t want or need any presents. So can I opt out of exchanging gifts with family and friends?
A. Um, no. There’s no etiquette rule that says you must exchange pricey cookware or gadgets. However, it’s poor form to beg off giving and receiving gifts during the holidays entirely. (And you know that your mother is not going to listen, no matter what you say.)
Instead, find other ways to give: Offer your best friend a nonmonetary present, like a night of babysitting. 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.
How Do I (Nicely) Avoid Celebrating Halloween?
Q. Halloween is not my holiday. How do I (graciously) limit my participation?
A. We all have our favorite and not-so-favorite holidays. I have never liked Valentine’s Day. My prejudice against cupids and Be Mine candies dates back to grade school, when the event usually devolved into a popularity contest. But come next February 14, if my husband brings home a long-stemmed red rose and suggests a romantic dinner, I am not going to say no, am I?
If Halloween makes you go, “Boo, humbug,” try adopting that same detached attitude. After all, many people adore this occasion; it’s practically a national holiday for children. There are certain fundamentalist religions that don’t observe it, but if you’re not a member of one of them, you’ll look like a crank if you complain too loudly. And unless you live alone in the middle of nowhere, you probably can’t opt out entirely.
So: If your own kids plan to go up and down the street ringing door-bells, you must answer yours cheerfully when other Harrys and Hermiones come calling. If you don’t have children or yours are grown, it still behooves you to fake Halloween cheer to keep the peace with your neighbors. These strategies can help you survive the evening with grace.
Fake an interest in costumes. You don’t need to don a full SpongeBob ensemble to look like a good sport. But at least act as though you enjoy the idea of dressing up. Remember: Virtually anything can be a costume. You probably have clothes in your closet that are so old that you can go as someone from a different era. Wear them. Or a hat—any hat (extra points if it has a jaunty feather).
Be laissez-faire about the candy handout. If it gives you no pleasure to admire every pirate or fairy on the doorstep, just leave a large bowl of fun-size chocolates out on the stoop. It is perfectly acceptable to tape to the bowl a slightly menacing warning: “One per customer—this isn’t your supper” strikes the right tone, if written in sinister kidnapper lettering. Check the supply often and refill as necessary, because the children, all hopped up on sugar, will probably ignore the note and grab handfuls. But don’t worry about it! This holiday is predicated on extortion. Try, if you can, to see this as part of the fun.
Outsource trick-or-treating. If your tykes need a chaperone while they cruise the neighborhood, try this sneaky idea: Invite a few other parents and their children to use your house as Halloween headquarters for the evening. When they ask if they can bring anything, say the price of admission is two or three bags of candy. Then play the hostess. Make a big pot of chili and serve wine before they start making the rounds. Afterward, while your pals take the kiddies from house to house, you can beg off, saying you have to do the dishes and man the front door.
And, look, it’s nine o’clock already! Time to turn out the porch light and scrub the fake blood off your vampires.
How Can I Express Gratitude for a Thoughtful Gesture?
Q. To honor the memory of my mother, a high school English teacher who passed away last year, the parent of a former student created a stained-glass window and installed it at the school. He refused to accept a gift or payment in return. But my sisters and I would love to present him with a token of our gratitude. Would it be inappropriate to give him a gift, regardless of his wishes?
A. Your mother sounds like a true inspiration. Certainly the artist who donated the window felt that way. He asked not to be paid because he made the gesture out of respect for your mother, to thank her posthumously for being an important influence on his child’s life and on the school. You’re right—that is lovely.
A nice side effect of his act has been to make you feel good as well. It is perfectly appropriate for you to let him know that, by offering him your own gesture. Send a thoughtful gift—like a perennial to plant in his garden—along with a handwritten note that says something like “Every time my sisters and I think about that beautiful window, it makes us happy. It will serve as a constant reminder of our dear mother—and of how much she meant to her students and to her community.” Who could possibly be offended by that?
Should I Send Holiday Cards?
Q: In a world with constant Facebook updates, isn’t the ritual of sending holiday cards obsolete?
A: Not to sound Scroogey, but let’s be objective about the situation. Once you buy cards, sign them, address the envelopes, affix 44-cent stamps, and trudge to the post office with your stack, you will have spent $100 or more to mail the same photo of your children and dog that everyone saw months ago when you uploaded it to an online album called “Summer Vacation 2010.” Given the bad economy, this money might be better spent on presents, helping you stay within your gift-buying budget (imagine that). Or you could donate the sum to charity. Or you could go crazy and treat yourself to, say, a new pair of boots. (I just saw some tall ones with low heels that would work with dresses and pants.)
“I wish there were some way I could get people not to send me holiday cards,” I recently said to my husband. “They’re such a waste.”
“A waste of what?” he asked.
“Time. Money. Paper. Et cetera.”
Here we are, a nation of people throwing out our old fax machines and canceling landline phones. And yet we cling to the anachronistic tradition of sending holiday cards.
“What time-honored ritual are you coming out against next?” my husband asked. “Trick-or-treating?”
Certainly not. While Halloween annoys me because my dogs bark whenever the doorbell rings, I do like seeing kids in costume, especially the pirates and Cinderellas. Plus, there are the leftover miniature Krackel bars.
But he made me wonder: Am I too negative about holiday cards? I admit to a little defensiveness about my own inadequacies in this area. The last year I mailed cards—2005—they didn’t actually go out until 2006, necessitating this salutation: “Let us be the last to wish you a Happy New Year.”
Maybe that memory was clouding my judgment. After all, there’s nothing I look forward to more each year than the old-fashioned holiday letter written by one of my most future-loving friends, Kevin Kelly. As a founding editor of Wired, a technology magazine, Kevin is constantly predicting the death of books, the demise of paper, and the end of reading, for goodness’ sake.
And yet…every December, he mails a letter. It’s not one of those dutiful end-of-the-year summaries that illuminate little about the person who sent it. It’s a thoughtful, charming message full of wisdom; he’ll recount his travels with his children, relay a thought-provoking question, or expound upon a theory about why most people are kindhearted if you give them a chance.
Why does he go to the bother of doing this every year? I phoned him to find out.
“Taking a step back and marking the passage of time is an even more valuable exercise these days, when we’re all so perpetually busy,” he said. Besides, he added, paper is the only form of communication that is accessible to everyone on your list, old and young, plugged-in and not.
Sending a content-free card may not be worthwhile, in my opinion. Writing a meaningful card, however, is time and effort well spent. When you do it, people feel genuinely connected to you—far more so than they would by reading your Facebook update or having a quick catch-up chat on the street.
“Maybe I should do it,” I said, and as I said it, I realized: I. Really. Should.
Can I Bring a Guest to a Holiday Party?
Q. When you receive an invitation to a holiday party, is it OK to bring a guest if it’s not mentioned on the invitation? I’m single.
A. If you’re invited to a cocktail party for a reasonably large crowd, one where an extra person won’t make much of a difference, it might be fine. But why not call to check anyway? It’s a courtesy that your host will appreciate, if only so she won’t be forced to greet your plus-one by saying, “Welcome to my home…um…whoever you are.”
However, if the party is more formal (or intimate), check to make sure there’s room at the table for your friend or date. Chances are, holiday spirit will prompt your host to say, “The more, the merrier.”
But don’t think only about the feelings of the party thrower. Consider whether your companion would feel at home at the event. Say the host is inviting her six best friends from college to an annual holiday reunion, where you will all spend the evening reminiscing. I’ll be blunt here: Don’t bring a friend. I’d also suggest you keep guests away from your office party, especially if your coworkers plan to spend the time exchanging quips about the hopeless IT department.
Should Holiday Traditions Ever Be Retired?
Q. My mother still fills stockings for me and my siblings (we are all in our 30s or 40s). Most of the stuff is not quite to our liking, and as a result it goes in the garbage or to Goodwill. Would it be OK to ask her to stop? Or should we allow her to continue because she likes to do it?
Name withheld by request
A. I commiserate, because as I read your question, the first image that popped into my head was of my mom, who annually hauls out a coffee can decorated with red felt to resemble Santa’s boot. (She keeps replacement tree lightbulbs in the toe.)
My idea of how to observe Christmas tastefully is a little different from my mother’s, and you seem to feel the same way—therein lies your discomfort with her stocking-stuffing ritual. It can be distressing to be reminded of how different you are from a beloved relative, particularly during a season that celebrates closeness. I mean, we sprang from these women’s loins, after all, so how could we have such radically different opinions about something like what constitutes a gift-worthy centerpiece?
I feel your pain. But, honestly, let your mom fill the stockings. She does it because it reminds her of when you were little. Letting her enjoy that feeling again is the nicest gift you can give her.
Is a Typed Thank-You Card Acceptable?
Q. My handwriting is terrible. Should I type my thank-you cards instead?
New York City
A. Together, you and I could write many an eloquent but nearly indecipherable note of thanks or condolence, because both of us suffer from Horrible Handwriting Syndrome.
But I’m afraid neither of us is off the hook when it comes to penning personal notes. Yes, it may take more effort to make your chicken scratch legible. Yes, you may have to throw away several cards in the process. Still, handwritten words are a uniquely thoughtful gesture; even before the recipient reads what you wrote, she will get the message that you care.
And I’ve discovered another benefit to putting pen to paper. The more you do it, the better your handwriting becomes. (Even my sorry scribble has improved a bit.) The technological revolution has both helped and hurt people like us. While e-mailing and texting allow us to hide our bad handwriting, they can also keep our penmanship at an abysmal level. So the next time you labor over writing a card, be assured that you’re doing something good for the recipient—and yourself.
Must I Reciprocate Gift-Giving to Relatives I Barely Know?
Q: 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?
A: 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, say, 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.
How Do You Opt Out of the Office Holiday Gift Pool?
Q: The administrative assistant in our office always organizes an effort to get everyone in our department to contribute to a Christmas gift for our boss. I love our administrative assistant, and understand that with everyone being budget-minded these days, a $5 contribution from 20 people gets a nicer gift. But I would rather get our boss something on my own, and plus, the choice of gift the last couple of years has been a little lame. What do I do?
A: While I sympathize with you wanting to get your boss a gift you feel good about, the last thing you want to do is look like a brownnoser, or like you’re too good for the group-gift effort. So if your main complaint is that you haven’t liked the previous gifts that have been purchased, why not take a more active role in choosing the gift? You could preemptively thank the administrative assistant for always being so on top of this, while offering to take the burden off her shoulders this year by choosing the gift yourself. Or, better yet, have a list of possible gifts at the ready. Because while straying from the group will certainly allow you to buy your own, possibly nicer present, in the process, you might wind up making the rest of the office look lame or less generous, which I'm guessing is not your intention. Whereas, if you attempt to work within the group-gift system, you'll win points by improving the gift choice, and you won't just appear to be more of a team-player, you’ll actually be one.
I No Longer Want to Exchange Gifts. How Do I Stop?
Q: I’ve been giving/sending a Christmas gift to my friend’s “child,” who is now 33, since he was a baby. He is now married, lives at a distance, and I never see him. How do I stop the gifting? I intended to stop last year, but he sent me a gift, so I felt I had to reciprocate. Help!
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York
A: You sound like the cigarette addict who says “I can stop at any time!” but you can’t! Because the answer to your problem lies right in your own hands: Stop the madness. Back away from the department store and the packing tape and the post office. I promise you, if you’re feeling like you want to get off of this gift-giving merry-go-round, there’s a mighty good chance your friend’s son feels the same way, but one of you has to stop first, and I nominate you. It was a lovely tradition for you to send your friend’s son a gift all these years, but if you’re feeling that the time for that tradition to end has come, listen to that little voice and don’t worry about who got whom the last gift. And be prepared, he might continue to send you a gift even after you stop sending them, but THAT’S OKAY. This is not a tit-for-tat contest. A gift is not a contract. He’s an adult. He knows you care about him. He’ll be fine. And, of course, if you want to continue sending a holiday card to stay in touch, that’s okay, too. But I hereby give my blessing and encouragement to mark this season as the end to a tradition whose time has come and gone. You’ll never look back!
What’s the Etiquette of Gift-Giving to Supervisors?
Q. When I was a manager, I felt uncomfortable receiving gifts from the people I supervised. I always felt that gifts should go down the chain of command, not up. Am I wrong?
A. In my first job out of college, I wasn’t sure if I should get my three supervisors a holiday gift. I decided to err on the side of caution and bought each a little something. I’ll never forget the debilitating awkwardness in their offices as I sat there for what felt like an eternity, watching each one open the present, muttering, “Oh, you shouldn’t have” and “Well, now I feel bad that I don’t have anything for you.” As soon as I had delivered all my gifts, I vowed to never do it again. Still, there will always be those who like to give gifts to people they work closely with, no matter the hierarchy. So as uncomfortable as it may feel to you to receive a gift from someone you supervise, try to be appreciative and positive, and look at it as a rare time for your underling to get to call the shots.
What Should I Do When the Host Says “No Gifts”?
Q. If a couple asks you not to bring a gift to their holiday party, should you bring one anyway? If so, what do you bring? I don’t know their exact taste.
A. Of all the quandaries in the world, the “No gifts, please” request is one of the most flummoxing. It feels rude to show up at a party empty-handed. Still, you want to respect your hosts’ wishes. To make matters worse, there are always a few of those people (you know who you are) who will still insist on bringing a big, expensive gift, making those of us who dutifully followed instructions look―or at least feel―lame. In general, I’ve adopted the following approach: If the invitation or the host makes a “No gifts” request, I observe it, meaning I don‘t bring a gift. But I do think it’s nice to bring a token of some sort, preferably something edible, like chocolate or wine. That way, you’re not disobeying their instructions―and you’ve got something in hand. And as for your concern about not knowing their particular tastes, go ahead and pick something up that you love and would want to introduce to someone else. Remember: It’s just a gesture, and as always it’s the thought that counts.
Should Children Open Gifts in Front of Guests?
Q. Should a child open presents at his or her birthday party or wait until everyone has gone home?
A. I feel strongly that no gifts should be opened at any party, regardless of the age of the guest of honor. When little kids are in attendance, they’re going to go bonkers—wanting their own Zhu Zhu Pet or Lego set and feeling badly if the present they brought isn’t well received. And if that’s not reason enough, delaying gift opening teaches the birthday kid to focus on the fun of the party itself—not the loot she’s going to bag. As for adults, I stand by my no-opening-gifts-in-public policy (that goes not just for birthdays but showers and anniversary parties, too). It’s a bore to watch someone else open presents, and it’s just as agonizing for the recipient, who has to ooh and aah at the right decibel over and over again. And then there’s always someone who is going to feel self-conscious about what she brought once she sees everyone else’s offerings. Who needs it? A personalized thank-you note will tell the gift giver everything she needs to know.
Must I Give a Gift for a Fifth Shower?
Q. A friend of mine is in her fifth pregnancy and having a baby shower. I have always gone out and bought nice, thought-out gifts for her, but she saves everything from her previous pregnancies, and I’m still buying expensive gifts for her. As she has never been to a shower in my honor, am I still committed to giving her yet another gift?
A. First of all, your fertile-myrtle friend is allowed to get pregnant as much as she pleases, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep buying expensive gifts for her. I say, once the babies start outnumbering the parents, you can choose to pull back on your gift giving, in terms of the kind of gift you buy or whether you buy one at all. Of course, if you’re going to the shower, you probably don’t want to show up empty-handed, but that doesn’t mean you have to go out and buy yet another expensive cashmere onesie. You could bring cookies, or a box of clementines, or even just a thoughtful card. Having said that―and I know you didn’t ask about this, but I can’t help myself― I say that if you don’t feel up for attending yet another shower for this person, you have my permission to skip it. I’m even going to go farther out on a limb here to say I think anyone who invites people to five baby showers is in need of some kind of a talking-to. If you’ve had enough of these baby showers (and it sounds like you have or you wouldn’t be writing me), it’s perfectly OK for you to send regrets and best wishes for another healthy baby. At a certain point, there are only so many showers we can all attend in our lives, and it sounds like you’ve fulfilled more than your quota for this particular friend.
What’s the Time Limit on Sending a Thank-You?
Q. How long after the wedding do you have to send wedding-gift thank-you notes?
A. Ideally, you want to send them as close to the wedding as possible. But we all know that is not always doable, since gifts keep trickling in for months after the big day. But still, even if it is over a year or, heaven forbid, many years since you received a gift, it's not too late to send a thank you. When penning the note, I would address the fact that it's been so long (apologize profusely in some self-deprecating way), but then offer up the same appreciation and detail about the gift that you would have if you had written the note the day the gift arrived. I can't think of anyone who has ever minded getting a thank-you note, no matter how damned late it showed up.
What’s Appropriate for a Bar or Bat Mizvah Gift?
Q. My mom and I have been battling over the following issue for years. On her side of the family, there are 16 first cousins, and at age 32, I am the youngest of them. Most of us are married with children, and therefore my husband and I have been invited to many Bar and Bat Mitzvahs recently. My mom says you should give the same price range of gift at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as you would give at a wedding. I disagree. For most weddings gifts, my husband and I give between $250 and $300. I can’t imagine giving that much, especially to a young man or woman on the verge of turning 13. Please let me know what is the correct amount to spend for this particular family event.
Woodbury, New York
A. The good and bad news is that there is no one right number. Your mother is allowed to give whatever outrageously large or small amount she sees fit—and so are you. I happen to agree with you that giving the same amount for both events feels exorbitant. But I’m starting to wish you had both been invited to my wedding, given your proclivity for such large gifts! So I hereby invite you to break free from following your mother’s lead. This sounds like a perfect subject for you two to agree to disagree, and then stop talking about it, go dance the hora, and let your gifts and cards speak for themselves.