13 Gift-Giving Etiquette Tips to Feel Great About the Holidays

Published November 11, 2022
Woman holding Christmas gifts

Giving and receiving gifts is part of the joy of the holidays, but it can be difficult to know how to handle some of the situations you might face. What if you get a gift from your bestie but don't have one to give in return? How do you tell people you're cutting back on your holiday budget this year? Keep some simple gift-giving etiquette tips in mind to take the awkwardness out of these and other interactions, so you can focus on what really matters this holiday season.

Be Gracious When You Don't Have a Gift to Give in Return

It's everyone's social nightmare: your best friend gives you a gift, but you don't have one to give back. Your friend may have seen something they thought you'd love, or you two may have had a little miscommunication about whether you were exchanging presents this year.

Fortunately, there's no need to panic or offer excuses. Simply acknowledge that you don't have a gift, thank your friend sincerely for the one you're receiving, and let the moment pass. This person already values your friendship, and this little bit of awkwardness won't make or break anything between you. Follow up with a really great thank-you note.

Communicate if You Don't Want to Exchange Gifts Anymore

Sometimes, we continue exchanging gifts with someone because it's what we've always done instead of what we really want to do. Just because you've always exchanged gifts with your neighbor, your mom's best friend, or anyone else in your life doesn't mean you need to keep choosing and wrapping presents for that person. In fact, the other person may also want to stop.

Like many difficult situations, the key here is communication. Tell the other person you've appreciated all the lovely gifts they've given you in the past, but that you'd like to change things a little this year. Suggest that you both donate to a charity or that you exchange baked goods or cards instead. If it makes sense and it's something you want to do, you can also offer to have a coffee date so you can connect and catch up during the holidays.

Don't Worry About Gifts Being of Equal Value

When your friend gives you a cashmere sweater and you give her a pretty coffee mug, the difference in value can feel a bit awkward for both of you. It's important to remember that gifts don't have to be of equal monetary value to be equally meaningful. The thought is what counts, not the price tag.

However, the way you feel also matters. You can avoid this type of situation next year by setting a budget for your exchange and communicating it clearly and politely before either of you start shopping.

Only Exchange Wish Lists With Close Friends and Family

It's not always easy to know what to give someone, even a person you know well. Many families exchange lists of gifts they would love in order to make the shopping process easier for each other. However, this is a practice that only works with people you know well. With acquaintances, writing out a wish list can seem grasping or greedy.

It's more important to make everyone feel comfortable than it is to get what you want. Even if you don't need another pillar candle or bottle of lotion, know that the person who is giving it to you chose it with care. Similarly, if you aren't sure what to give and wish you had a list, realize that the thought you're putting into the choice is what matters.

Practice Gratitude for Gifts You Don't Want

Everyone knows you should say thank you for a gift, but it's the gifts you don't really like or want that test your ability to be grateful. If Aunt Sally gives you another pair of ugly socks, consider it a gratitude challenge and see if you can come up with some things you genuinely like about them. That way, when you thank her, it will be genuine.

If you really don't like the gift you received, you can also consider where you'll donate this item or who might benefit from it. Even if you don't share your plans to be rid of the hideous socks, Aunt Sally will hear your appreciation in your voice.

Handle Duplicate Presents With Care

It can be very awkward to receive a gift you already own. It's never polite to tell the giver about the duplicate gift unless you're directly asked. Instead, talk about how great the gift is without saying anything about how you plan to use it (or not use it). You can return one of the duplicate items later if you have a gift receipt; just make sure the giver won't know. This could also be a good item to regift if you can do it without hurting anyone's feelings.

If you open two of the same thing in front of everyone, compliment what a great idea it was and how thoughtful the present is. Then let the awkward moment pass and move on. You can send a sincere thank-you note to both givers later too.

Avoid Giving Thoughtless Gifts

Clearly, some gifts are truly awful. But beyond the ugly sweaters and disturbing cemetery plots, there are gifts that actually hurt people's feelings or show a disregard for their culture or perspective. Even though most people will assume a gaff like this is unintentional, a thoughtless gift can be hurtful. Before choosing a gift, think about whether there's any possible way it could cause pain. Here are some examples to avoid:

  • Sized gifts - If you don't know the person's size, don't buy a gift that has a size. A too-small or too-large sweater can be viewed as a statement about weight.
  • Alcohol - Even if a bottle of wine is a standard host gift for a holiday party, it's only a good choice if you know the recipient drinks. They may avoid alcohol for religious reasons, their personal history, an allergy, or another cause. Alcohol is never appropriate for a work colleague.
  • Meat - Many gift baskets contain summer sausage and other meats. Avoid giving these unless you know the person eats meat.

Choose Appropriate Gifts for Children

Excited sisters opening Christmas presents at home

There's no question that some gifts aren't kid-appropriate. Violent movies, alcohol, and knives definitely come to mind. However, buying an appropriate gift for a child can be complicated by factors like the kid's age, their interests, and the restrictions parents might have in place.

To buy a great gift for a kid you don't know super well, take a moment to text or email the parents to find out what the child is into right now. When it comes to potentially restricted items like video games, sugary treats, and war-related toys, also check with parents about whether your gift is appropriate for their family.

Give a Host Gift When You're a Holiday Houseguest

Unless a host has clearly stated that they don't want gifts, it's appropriate to bring a present when you stay with friends over the holidays. If it's a simple overnight or even a dinner party, a batch of homemade cookies, tasty chocolates, or another small present is perfect. If you're staying longer, plan to give something a bit more substantial, make a special dinner, or take your host out to an area restaurant to show your appreciation.

If you're hosting and will have houseguests during the opening of gifts, it's nice to have something for the guests to open. A small present is perfect if you wouldn't ordinarily exchange gifts, since something larger could make the guests feel awkward.

Use Clear Communication in a Secret Santa Exchange

Christmas party gift exchanges can be a fun way to play a game and give a present at the same time, but it's easy to get confused about some of the basics for the exchange. After all, you don't want to bring a white elephant gift when everyone else is bringing something handmade or an item with a specific value.

The best etiquette tip for these exchanges is to use clear communication. Make sure everyone knows the type of gift to buy, the recipient, whether it's a secret, and how much to spend. If you are clear about the rules, there won't be any difficult situations.

Know When to Gift and When to Tip

Knowing when to tip and when to give a present for the holidays can be a bit confusing. Do you give your hair stylist a tip or a gift? What about your kid's teacher? Although gifts are usually encouraged for people who help you and your family on a regular basis, there are times when tipping is not appropriate.

Ultimately, the distinction comes down to the person's role. If they are a professional, like a teacher or postal employee, tips are generally not appropriate. This is especially true if they work for the government or an institution. In these cases, a small gift is usually welcome instead. Service providers, on the other hand, may expect holiday tips. These can include hairdressers, dog groomers and walkers, lawn care providers, doormen, babysitters, and others. If you're unsure, it's always better to err on the side of a gift rather than a tip.

Understand the Basics of Gift-Giving Etiquette at Work

businesswoman receiving Christmas present on office party

There are some specific challenges for holiday giving when it comes to the workplace. Keep a few basic tips in mind to keep from giving your boss an inappropriate gift or making a client uncomfortable with the wrong present:

  • Coworkers - Gifts for coworkers can be a great way to show your appreciation for the professional relationship you share. If you're only giving gifts to a few people, do it discretely so no one feels left out. Don't expect a gift in return if you have not clearly communicated about an exchange.
  • Bosses and supervisors - It's always better to give a boss a holiday gift as a group, rather than individually. Communicate with coworkers about a deadline for contributing to the gift, and always include all names in your group, whether or not people contributed.
  • Clients - Before giving a gift to a client, make sure you check their policy and your company's policy regarding present-giving. Then give the gift from the entire group or company.

Always Consider Feelings When Regifting

If your uncle gave you a new drill that's exactly like the one you already own, it's tempting to consider giving it to someone else as a present. After all, regifting can help your holiday budget and reduce waste and stress on the environment.

Regifting etiquette can be controversial, but it comes down to considering everyone's feelings. Don't give that drill to someone your uncle may know and don't do it in front of him. Make sure you're giving the drill to someone who really wants it too, rather than just using it as a placeholder present. If you think about how to avoid hurting the feelings of the person who gave you the gift initially and make sure you're considering the wants and needs of the person your regifting the item to, there's no shame in passing on a present you don't want.

Think About Everyone Involved

Like almost all rules involving politeness, holiday gift-giving etiquette comes down to being considerate of everyone involved in the exchange. Good communication, thoughtfulness, and generosity are always the right choices.

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13 Gift-Giving Etiquette Tips to Feel Great About the Holidays