The simple art of giving & receiving a Christmas gift

Christmas present etiquette guidelines for kids and adults alike. (Find out if you’re doing any of these gifting no-nos!)

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While riding on the subway the other day I saw an advertisement for a website that re-sells “unwanted Xmas gifts,” and I suddenly felt sad.

The ad put me in a little funk because it represents one of the things I dislike but tolerate about the holiday season: the buying of stuff and the ultimate returning of stuff. But to sell a gift you don’t want to some else? A present that someone else bothered to spend time choosing for you? It feels so wrong. Like the lowest rung of commercialized “Xmas,” which is so far removed from the essence of the Christmas I know and love. As I stepped off the train I thought that perhaps it’s just as well that Christ wasn’t mentioned in that type of consumerist ad.

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But later a deeper concern niggled away at me. My kids might be seeing these sorts of “Xmas” messages all over the place as they trek back and forth to school and other activities. I don’t want them to confuse these types of sentiments with the true meaning of Christmas—let alone think that they can sell an unwanted gift from their Aunt or Santa.

So as their mom (and therefore the guardian of their manners), I like to make sure they realize the effort that goes into choosing a thoughtful and reasonably priced present. I have a pretty large family so as I shop for them before Christmas, I bring my kids along and ask them to think hard about what would make their relatives happy. Does grandpa enjoy reading a good book? Do their cousins like to paint? Just by thinking of their individual family members this way, they are making an effort. And then on Christmas, the reward is a simple, but powerful one: seeing that loved one open a present and be delighted—even if it is feigned!

It comes down to that basic age-old lesson that my mother said before me (and her mother probably said before her): “It’s not the actual gift, but the thought that counts.” And if that is the quintessence of gift-giving—a thoughtful present—then gift-accepting, should be about acknowleding a thoughtful present when you open one.

I tell my kids that the presents that have touched me the most over the years have always involved a lot of love and consideration—my all-time favorite being a black and white photo of me as a new mom, holding one of them: my newborns. Not only because my sister chose a photo that made me look slim-ish (well done, Sis!), she also spent the extra time to mount it on a DIY wooden frame, and included a nail so I didn’t even need to work hard to hand it up. It was a lovely moment, seeing the satisfaction on my sister’s face as I cried (just a little bit!) with gratitude and joy.

MORE TO READ: Kid-friendly Christmas craft: a glowing, DIY creche

So I put together a small guide to help your kids (or maybe even your adult relatives!) learn the correct Christmas present giving and receiving etiquette:

The giver

Who would imagine that the act of giving could be such a minefield? But these points illustrate that giving is a two-way process.

Choose a present for the receiver and not for yourself. Slight confession: when buying flowers I tend to buy flowers I like that maybe the recipient won’t be as keen on. Think about the person’s taste and not your own—hard though that may be!

Don’t “oversell” your present. You don’t need to go into enormous detail about how, or why you bought the present. I have a friend who delights in explaining all the effort she put in finding the gift—and it feels awkward, like she wants the recipient to say, “oh, poor you for going to all that trouble! You’re so magnanimous!”

Don’t embarrass the recipient. This is an easy one: don’t give overly expensive presents to prove your love, your wealth, or your expensive taste. Make sure it’s a gift that will sit happily with its new owner.

Don’t give away the price. Yep, it may sound crazy but some people just love letting other people know how much they spent on a gift. But gift giving should never feel like a financial transaction (even if one took place at the store in order to purchase it).

Don’t give presents that are not actually presents. OK this is rare … but it happens. One friend told me about a woman who gave each of her children and their in-laws a “present” at the dinner table: an envelope that she’d wrapped in a ribbon. The kids opened the envelope to find their “bill” for the meal they’d eaten. Ouch. Talk about a Bah Humbug gift!

Do follow up on presents. If you say you’re going to offer a month of free baby-sitting, do it! If you’ve promised a girlie spa-day, it is your job to book it, don’t let it slip so that the gift doesn’t actually happen.

Offer an option. If you do buy a relatively expensive gift, suggest to the recipient that they can exchange if they’d like, it would be a shame to waste money.

Be prepared to get it wrong. What do you mean someone might not appreciate my wonderful taste? Yes, luckily we are all different, so be humble enough to know we might not get it right. If you’ve offered a lipstick to a friend that she never wears, don’t point it out.

The recipient

Holy macaroni, you mean we can’t express our true feelings? Er, well that depends if the gift is a hit or not.

Don’t sell your gift on one of those “Xmas” sites. You are better than that!

Smile. Yes, the most simple of rules that many people break. Look happy to receive a present, even if you know it’s going to be another Christmas sweater to add to the pile.

Say thank you. I know, I know, it’s a simple one. But when you say thank you, mean it. For a lot of people there’s a great deal of effort and financial resources that have gone into gift-buying. Recognize it!

Don’t say “aw, you shouldn’t have.” It often sounds like that phrase is code for “you shouldn’t have, no … really.” A prime example? My three brothers who are not always gracious when accepting a gift. (Sorry, guys.) They say things like, “Oh mom, you really didn’t need to buy me monogrammed socks, plain ones would have been fine.” They don’t like monograms, but what they’re not appreciating is that my mom had been wracking her brains for weeks wondering what to get her sons that might make them feel special. A simple response like, “Wow, great! Thanks mom,” would have done the trick. After all, is it really so bad having initials on socks?

Demonstrate it. You may hate me for this one—but if someone gives you an ugly sweater … that new handmade Rudolph number with its slightly too short sleeves and itchy material … it still needs to be donned at least once! What harm will you really suffer? OK, yes, if you’re photographed looking ridiculous and it’s shared on Facebook it might be embarrassing but it is Christmas!

Don’t rush down to the thrift store the day after Christmas. OK so you might really not like a present but it doesn’t mean you have to ruthlessly chuck it from your home. Also, if the giver lives in the same town imagine how they’d feel if they spotted their gift in a window two days after they’d given it! Keep it for a while and if you really have no use for it then donate to a cause that could really benefit from it.

Don’t dish on the duplicates. This is the best lesson to demonstrate gracious acceptance to your kids. So you’ve been given the same book twice: bonus, now you have a gift you can pass on with a spare at home! Just make sure not to give away one with a personal message inside.

Don’t ask for the receipt. This rule may not apply if you’ve been given clothing that might not be the right size, but otherwise, if it’s not offered don’t ask. Remember any of your unwanted gifts can be given to those who are in real need at Goodwill.

Finally with 11 days to go, the countdown is really on to December 25. My kids are adding a new figurine to the nativity scene daily: we have a veritable zoo visiting Baby Jesus, including camels and polar bears (who knew they were native to Bethlehem?!). And as we wait until the big day to add Baby Jesus we’re reminded that the ultimate gift to Man is non-returnable.


Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner was born in London and has been living in Paris for 14 years. She spends her time working as an English consultant, acting as taxi driver to her four children, and wondering if she'll ever be as stylish as the French.

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