18 Dec 2023

Gifting Gaffes

We all acknowledge that the exchanging of gifts is an important part of our Christmas ritual, but many of us tie ourselves up in knows about this pleasing custom and find that it is the cause of a great deal of anxiety, tetchiness and over-spending.

Buying Presents

It can be useful to agree an upper expenditure limit well before Christmas. This will ensure that you’re not a competitive present-giver: extravagant presents can cause embarrassment if they have not been reciprocated.

Some families circulate Christmas gift lists, which alleviate stress and ensure that gifts are really hitting the target. Other families will find this practice over-pragmatic and likely to destroy the mystique of the gift-giving season. These practices will be a well-established part of family lore, which you will need to respect. In these more straitened times, a‘Secret Santa’ agreement ensures that you will only have to buy one present, within a pre-agreed price band (but most children will fail to see the magic of this arrangement and should be exempt).

If you’re giving cash think about giving it in the form of a gift token (after checking that it’s for an appropriate store or service). Alternatively, supplement the cash contribution with a small, jokey present; it will soften the transactional nature of the gift. If you have guests coming for Christmas day, you must buy them a present, even if it is only a token gift.

Gift-giving should be reciprocal, so one way of guarding against social embarrassment is to build up a small pre-Christmas store of generic items: toiletries, chocolates or books are all good choices. You will then never be blindsided by an unexpected present. If you have not made any preparation and someone unexpectedly presents you with a gift, try and evade any embarrassment by saying something like, “I haven’t bought you a gift, as I thought it might be more fun if I took you out for dinner/drinks/tea etc in the new year.”

Receiving Presents

Receiving PresentsWhen you open presents do so calmly and methodically and avoid frantic ripping. Handle the parcel first and comment on the wrapping. Often you will find yourself being anxiously observed by the giver (the moment when a present is unveiled can be extremely tense for both parties), so make sure you address your remarks to them. Never allow a crestfallen expression to flicker, even momentarily, across your face as it is likely to cause consternation in the nervous onlooker.


Every present, no matter how dull, inappropriate or unimaginative, should be greeted with gracious enthusiasm. You can always find something positive to say about even the most functional present (eg “grey socks? Thank you, these will be ideal for wearing with my work suit!). If you are puzzled by a gift or can’t begin to think why you have been given it, never let your confusion show. Just say something bland like “A hacksaw! That will be really useful!”.

It clearly makes economic sense to find a new home for unwanted gifts, but you must recycle presents with the utmost caution outside your social circle. Only re-gift if you are confident that the original present-giver and the recipient of the re-gifting will never cross paths, so you are probably wise to avoid re-gifting within your immediate social circle. Never make the mistake of re-gifting a present back to the original giver – that is a faux pas from which it is hard to recover.

If you really don’t like, or want, a Christmas gift it could possibly be returned or exchanged, but this must be approached with discretion. The simplest situation is if you are given a present, for example a book, that you already own. You can say something gracious and complimentary like “That’s a really good choice – in fact I’ve already got it and I love it! Would you mind if I changed it?”

If you know the giver well, react positively to the gift on opening. Then tactfully mention (once the Christmas giving spree has died down) that you really appreciate your present, but you’re not sure it’s, for example, the right colour, size, style etc. Never disparage the choice (“You know I don’t like bright colours”), instead say something like “It’s a beautiful colour, but I think I’d find it a bit too bright” – it’s much better if you can blame yourself, not the giver. Then say something like “I wouldn’t want your generosity to go to waste, so would you mind if…”. Only do this if you are convinced that you won’t hurt the feelings of the giver.

If you’re concerned that the giver will be really upset by any indication that you don’t like your present, you could consider returning it or selling it, but only do so if you’re completely confident that your subterfuge won’t be uncovered. You don’t want your mother-in-law to innocently ask “Why don’t you ever wear that lovely cerise scarf I gave you last Christmas?”, when you know full well that you have taken it back to the store and exchanged it.

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