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Making a list? Checking it twice? Tips for out-of-practice gift givers

No matter your role in exchanging gifts, there are many do's and don’ts. Here’s what you should know this season.

By: New York Times | New York |
December 13, 2021 10:30:57 pm
gift wrapping, christmas, holidays, new yearWrapped holiday gifts in a window display in New York. (Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet/The New York Times)

By Derrick Bryson Taylor

It has been two years since the holidays felt “normal,” and you’re determined to make them special.

You spend hours combing through your go-to department store, dodging Santa Clauses and unruly crowds to find the right gift. You open and close a dozen browser windows before adding that perfect item to your basket, sending a prayer to the internet gods that it arrives on time. Then, the moment comes to hand over the carefully selected present, tastefully wrapped. But instead of squeals of joy, you’re met with an anticlimactic “Thank you.”

How should you respond?

The average American consumer will spend $694 on gifts for others this year, according to Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at GlobalData. That’s up about 7% compared with last year, when gift spending dipped 5.1% because of the pandemic, which disrupted usual family gatherings during the holidays and caused severe Postal Service delays. Both the number of gifts that consumers plan to give and the number of people they’re shopping for this year are also higher than last year, he said.

With so many gifts changing hands this season, what could go wrong? Plenty, according to Maralee McKee, founder of the Etiquette School of America in Orlando, Florida, and Colin Cowie, a lifestyle expert who has worked with Oprah Winfrey and others during his 35-year career.

“I think that when gift giving goes wrong, the person hasn’t put enough thought into the gift,” McKee said.

No matter your role in exchanging gifts, there are many do’s and don’ts. Here’s what you should know this season.

Who gets a gift?

There’s a hierarchy when it comes to giving, and it starts with those you’ve exchanged gifts with in the past for long enough that it’s a tradition.

“In most families, if your parents are still living, the parents will receive a gift,” McKee said. “The grandparents will receive a gift. After that, it’s going to vary in every family.”

Are spending limits worth it?

Setting a price limit is most useful in office and corporate settings when large groups of people exchange gifts, like Secret Santa, Cowie said.

Awkward feelings could develop if someone intentionally exceeds the limit, said McKee, who added that in such cases an explanation should be given.

“Think of the person you’re giving the gift to,” she said. “Because too often gifts are bought at the delight of the person giving the gift.”

gift giving, holidays, christmas FILE – Wrapping gifts in Berkeley, Calif. The pandemic disrupted the holidays last year. Think twice before giving cash, be sure to offer thanks, and never ask about a gift you gave but never saw again. (Peter Prato/The New York Times)

Am I obligated to give a gift in return?

Absolutely not. Giving a gift or sending a holiday card in return is not required, McKee said, but she noted that this time of year people sometimes keep small items they can easily give away when unexpected situations arise.

“Keep in mind, if you do give them a gift, you’ve opened the door for the same thing to happen next year,” she said.

Is it rude to give cash?

Cash can either alienate or delight the receiver, but it’s really a matter of personal taste or age (perfect for picky teenagers). It is, however, impolite to ask for cash.

“Otherwise, that’s a slippery slope because you’re now soliciting a gift,” Cowie said.

How do you say you hate a gift?

You don’t. It’s customary to accept a gift with gratitude, even if the giver “misses the mark,” McKee said. And it’s perfectly fine to regift the item or donate it to someone who may like it more.

When passing along an unwanted gift to someone else, “Explain the gift, why you received it and why you thought of that person,” she said. McKee also noted that a regifted item should not take the place of an actual gift but instead be treated as a bonus present.

What if you can’t afford to give gifts this year?

A person never has to explain why he or she can’t give a gift, Cowie said. But if you receive one, he said, do give a proper thanks.

“I find so often that people don’t respond to gifts,” he said. Phone calls, text messages or even handwritten notes to acknowledge gifts will do.

On the other hand, it’s fine to openly discuss why you’re not exchanging gifts, in order to help others understand your decision, McKee said.

“The first rule of etiquette is never assume,” she said. “Don’t assume because they live in a particular home or have a particular job that their finances are neat and tidy, because you don’t know the whole picture of their life.”

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