14 Dec 2021

The etiquette of giving Christmas presents

It’s the time of year when we are all contemplating the annual Christmas gift-giving ritual. Buying presents can cause all sorts of anxieties and frustrations, but if you follow some simple guidelines it should be a pleasure for both giver and receiver:

• Ensure that you’re not a competitive present-giver: extravagant presents can cause embarrassment if they have not been reciprocated. Sometimes it’s useful to agree an upper expenditure limit well before Christmas.

• Never fall into the trap of buying a present that you really want for yourself, and that you fully intend to use, borrow or adopt. In many instances, this will be painfully obvious to the recipient, who will rightly feel overlooked and disregarded.

• Spend some time well before Christmas really thinking about your gift recipients. Try and dredge up memories of hobbies and enthusiasms and take careful note of lifestyle choices. That way you will avoid the basic error of giving, for example, a bottle of booze to a teetotaller, sinfully rich chocolate truffles to a weight-obsessed dieter, or the latest recipe book to someone who is allergic to the kitchen.

•If your memory is poor, keep a list of presents you have given. Repeat presents show an insulting lack of care.

• 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. If you’re visiting another family, or spending Christmas with your in-laws for the first time, you will have to read the runes.  Have a confidential chat with a family member well before Christmas, and check out the prevailing ethos. Then adhere to it – even if it’s not your normal practice, it is only polite to comply.

• If you have guests coming for Christmas day, you must buy them a present, even if it is only a token gift. Sitting out the gift-opening ceremony without anything to open is just too poignant.

• Take time to plan, research online and shop – a last minute shopping expedition to a crowded town-centre will leave you frazzled and grumpy, and waiting for promised online deliveries in the immediate run-up to Christmas is just too stressful. Get gift receipts whenever possible, and keep them to hand.

• If you’re giving cash – often the only thing that moody teenagers crave – 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.

• Avoid being flummoxed by unexpected gifts by ensuring that you build up a small pre-Christmas store of generic items: toiletries, chocolates or books are all good choices. Make sure you’ve got plenty of spare wrapping paper and you can avoid any last-minute embarrassment

• Even modest gifts will cause a shiver of pleasurable anticipation if they are well-wrapped and presented. Choose good quality wrapping paper, or – if you’re on a recycling binge you can use sensible brown paper and embellish it with glitter, ribbons, or hand-drawn decorations. The main thing is to look like you have taken some trouble.

• When you open presents do so calmly and deliberately. Don’t tear off the wrapping paper in a frenzy of excitement; instead, handle the parcel first and comment on the wrapping. Whatever is then revealed must be greeted with gracious enthusiasm. You can always find something positive to say about even the most unimaginative present. Never allow a crestfallen expression to flicker, even momentarily, across your face.

• Re-gifting is a potential minefield. Of course, recycling is to be applauded, and it’s certainly gratifying for an unwanted gift to find its way to appreciative hands, but employ great caution. You must be absolutely sure that the original present-giver and the recipient of the re-gifting will never cross paths. So don’t re-gift within your immediate social circle. It helps if you’re careful about noting down the provenance of unwanted gifts – re-gifting a present to the original giver is a faux pas that will be hard to forgive.

• The Christmas gift-giving binge may have taken several weeks in the planning, but it will be over in the blink of an eye. As you clear away the ocean of discarded wrapping paper and ripped-up packaging, be very careful to take careful note of the exact provenance of all the Christmas booty, especially if you’ve got small, over-excited children who are all too keen to move on to the next present, without noting who gave them what. Record-keeping is important because you must ensure that thank-you letters are sent out by the first week in January. You should certainly send them yourself, and if you have children, it is your job to ensure that they also comply.

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