Ah, Christmas presents… they look so exciting, and so full of promise, when nestled under the tree. But this festive gift-giving and receiving is jam-packed with elfy conundrums, and can feel fraught with (minor) consumer danger. Are gift cards good - or inglorious? Are met requests best, or should you go off-piste and pick a surprise? Is giving a household appliance, diet book, or jelly dildo a good idea? And is regifting ever acceptable? Fret not - we have answers to these, and many more etiquette quandaries!
In fact, we’ve chatted with a bunch of folk to get some handy tips and tales which will hopefully unwrap (boom boom) any gifting predicaments you might have. So, pour yourself a mulled wine, and let us guide you along the paper-chain-adorned path to etiquette enlightenment...
The number one rule of present buying is always to carefully consider your loved one, and think about what they’d really, really like. Not what you’d like them to have, or the first thing that fell into your shopping basket - nor the last thing on the shelf on Christmas Eve! An exceptionally thoughtful gift, which shows you really know the person you’re buying for, is magic.
"I had one really good Christmas gift year, where in addition to a small gift, I asked everyone what they desired most in their lives. And then I scoured the city to find a piece of artwork or sculpture that I felt most embodied the image that they portrayed to me. The one that resonates the most is a statue of a couple I gave my sister, because the next year she met her husband, and she always says that the statue was in the back of her mind when it was happening. Could be coincidence, sure, but I like to think being around those visuals helped solidify things for her! It was the most meaningful gifting season for me, and I’ve always wanted to find something similar, so that I’m not just buying stuff."
Ryan Shrime is a multi-talented actor/writer/producer based in California.
"Completely unthoughtful presents are just so annoying. Most people can't help but give presents that they would like but sometimes it's clear that it really should for the gift giver, not the receiver."
Abby Hitchcock is a Chef, and Owner of New York City restaurant, camaje.
The second handiest gift-giving tip is to buy something your recipient can actually use. Silly or decorative things can be winners if you’re sure they’re to the giftee’s taste. But when there’s already so much stuff clogging up the planet, isn’t it a good idea to give something with a purpose? That doesn’t mean it can’t still be fun, or lovely!
"Make sure it’s something useful! Think, is this likely to stay in the recipient’s junk drawer or just gather dust until they throw it away? Do they actually want it or need it? When it doubt, socks. I know it’s boring. I know. But whoever receives them is guaranteed to need a pair at some point. Just not plain white ones. That’s unacceptable. Have a tasteful snowflake pattern at the very minimum."
"I have to say, my mother still sends me underpants occasionally. I’m fifty-three. It’s done with love; she loves Marks & Spencers, and thinks I do too. I don’t mind Marks & Spencers, but we do have department stores in Australia, and they sell quite passable underwear. The really annoying thing is, the ones she sends me are quite nice and I usually end up wearing them and hoping for more."
Fiona Stocker is a writer who recently published the memoir, Apple Island Wife - Slow Living in Tasmania. She lives in Australia with her husband and children, and is co-owner of a small family farm and food business.
These days we’re of course spoiled with an absurd amount of choice, and can be pretty persnickety about having exactly what we like. Back in the day, a person might have asked for some cereal bowls for Christmas, and been thrilled when they received them. Now, there might be a tinge of disappointment at being given the ones painted with artisan stripes instead of roller-skating hedgehogs. So there’s often pressure to pick exactly the right thing… which can be awkward for both gift-giver and giftee. As our correspondents can attest:
"I once gave my mother in law (via my wife) VERY specific instructions of a particular football I wanted (yes I'm in my 30s, and yes it is important). She managed to get almost every detail wrong, and even though I thought I kept a good poker face, my wife soon made sure that was wasted. Horrible."
Sean Leahy is a Graphic Designer. He writes jokes on Twitter, as @thepunningman, to much acclaim (in fact, he’s been featured in Playboy’s 50 Funniest People on Twitter, and appeared on Buzzfeed, Comedy Central, The Poke, Huffington Post, Funny or Die and TimeOut). He also wrote a children's book called The Monster Café.
"OMG! This is to my husband. If you ask me what I want and I tell you in detail, why do you go off and buy something loosely connected to the thing I wanted but also completely wrong? If I want black - he buys iridescent mustard. Low key - I get high res. Classic flavour - I get an experimental curry and raspberry bar of the bitterest dark chocolate imaginable. He makes it all about him. Even with gifts!"
Tabatha Stirling is an Edinburgh-based writer, poet, book cover artist and indie publisher. Her novel Bitter Leaves will be published in 2019.
"Having asked for a “wooden salad bowl” one Christmas, I got a small wooden bowl that could serve one person one small pile of salad. The single-est salad bowl ever to grace a table, solitarily."
Emily Gordon is an editor, writer, and self-proclaimed internet person. She works in media relations for an American business school and is writing a book about cavemen.
...Which leads us to suggest that if you’ve asked someone to tell you exactly what they’d like, try and nab that thing, if you can. As with Tabatha’s frustrations, doing this can be not so much about the gift itself, but letting your loved one know that you’ve heard them. If you’re unsure about snapping up a version of a thing that will be to your recipient’s taste, you could choose, and give an accompanying gift receipt - or instead, give money or a gift card to be used specifically for that item. You could wrap a fun item to go with it - so, if they’d requested cereal bowls, give them the gift card with a box of Shreddies (or whatever their favourite cereal is!). Alternatively, if you’d rather not be constrained by a very precise request - which does naturally take some of the fun out of giving - don’t ask for ideas, and instead go off-piste, picking what you think your recipient will like - bearing in mind that golden rule of gifting, to consider your giftee very carefully!
Ah yes, it can be an excruciating experience, receiving a gift, somewhat red-faced, as you mutter sheepish excuses about not having anything to hand over in return (or fabricating an improvised story about the dog having eaten it, or a delayed parcel - gosh, isn’t the post slow?).
"Be clear on if you’re buying presents or not. It’s embarrassing when the emergency gift stash has to spring into action when you receive an albeit kind gift left on your doorstep."
Lucy Stevenson is a pub waitress, NHS mental health support worker and keen photographer. [Instagram: Luce_photos].
What do our advisor elves suggest when it comes to being ahead of the gift-giving game?
"Buy early. When you see something you know someone will like, get it, wrap it, hide it. Just remember where you put it! And always have some extra presents wrapped and ready to put under the tree! Oh, and a hidden supply of labels to hurriedly attach, if need be."
Tim’s tip about buying early is a good ‘un. Spotted something mid-way through the year that Nana will love? If you have the funds, snap it up when you first see it - financially, you’ll have spread the cost, plus you’ll avoid forgetting what it was or where you saw it, or it not being available when Christmas starts shimmying into view. As you get closer to the holidays, even the least likely things can sell out as everyone starts to roll up their elfy shopping sleeves. I spied a very merry Christmas tree-shaped soap dispenser in mid-November, and thought it’d make a fun gift for a couple of folk - though figured there would hardly be a stampede for such a thing. I swung by a week or so later to stock up - and they were all sold out! Bah humbug.
"My mum always has a few spare gifts stored in the cupboard ready to be wrapped in a hurry if needs be. One year my grandmother accidentally gave my gifts when I was a small child to my male, sport enthusiast cousins! They weren’t so impressed to be receiving Barbie dolls that year…"
"A friend of mine buys in bulk lots of books for kids and adults and gives them out to all her friends, very clever."
Mia Underwood is a Designer, Illustrator and author of a number of books, including the forthcoming Secret Woodland Activity Book, plus forthcoming My First Needle-Felting Book: 30 Adorable Animal Projects for Children Aged 7+ and Needle-Felted Animals: 35 Furry Friends to Create..
Here’s a tip from Oli:
"Lists are your friends. Surprises are the enemy. Socks are essential after 30."
He’s right that lists can obviously make for swell assistance - plus there’s the great, age-old satisfaction in being able to tick things off (I even put checkboxes on mine - bliss). Write your own wish list to aid friends ‘n’ relatives, or if you’re stuck for ideas, request them from others. My cousin was a pro with this - she would get both her children to compile a list - complete with Argos catalogue page numbers! - that was then forwarded to the family for everyone to pick from, if they were in the market for suggestions. The young ‘uns were happy to be bought something else entirely, but the lists were excellent for nabbing something you knew they’d really like.
Then there’s the list comprising who you need to buy for - handy when you’re ambling round the shops, delirious from having heard ‘I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day’ twenty seven times within two hours, and need a refresher as to whose gifts you’ve yet to stumble on…
Controversial! As you can see from these responses, how well a gift card or cash will be received depends on who you’re giving it to...
"Giving cash is always bad form. If you can't be bothered to think of even the smallest thing that might make somebody smile, then don't bother. That said, I'm not about to turn anyone down!"
"I’m not a huge fan of gift cards, despite them allowing more flexibility for the recipient. It just strikes as unoriginal or lazy on the part of the giver."
"There is absolutely nothing wrong with gift cards. Times are different and I think it is great for someone to allow you to go and get something you know you want."
Tommy Stewart is a Freelance Comedy Writer/Producer and Broadcaster.
Personally, I’d say a gift card is perfectly decent - just make sure it’s for a shop you know your recipient likes. Otherwise you’ll have generously invested in something which your giftee might find tricky to spend. So if cousin Laura couldn’t give two hoots about fashion, she may not be wild about the Topshop token, and the burger chain voucher for your vegan nephew is likely to gather dust somewhere.
If you are opting for a voucher, perhaps to add a little thought, give a small additional treat as an accompaniment - either something related to the gift card (so, say it’s a Costa card, get them a reusable cup - and on that note, these Thermos ones are great), or a fun thing, like a bar of Christmas chocolate.
Another option for giving dosh is to send a bank transfer - with a jolly message. As a way of letting your recipient know about the donation - and a fun thing to open - you could send a message wrapped in these banknote tissues.
While we’re here, you may still send, or receive, cheques (yes, they do still exist!). I’m old school, and love them, but my cousin (not a fan of having to traipse into the bank) always says that if someone has given him a cheque it’s as though they don’t want him to have the money (I know, harsh!). Remember though, that not everyone who might want to gift you money will have your bank details, or the ability to do a bank transfer. In which case, be appreciative of the cheque - it’s still money! And as Emily says:
"If you’re slipping someone a cheque (why, thank you!), don’t make a big thing of waiting until they see the amount. Let them thank you for the thought, not the value."
We can all find ourselves under pressure to splash out at Christmas, not only to spend our hard-earned dosh on things that we’re not always sure the recipient will like (eek), but worse, on gifts that we can’t necessarily afford.
"I think that people should not spend a lot of money. A friend once asked if it was OK if we didn't spend more than $50 our Christmas gifts to each other. I told her I have never spent that much money on her. I suggested $20! Having had a bunch of years with very little money, and being the very practical sort (i.e. I won't go into debt just so I can give presents I can't afford), I've hardly given presents for a number of years. Part of this is because I don't have kids and pretty much everyone I know agrees that we don't really need anything. It IS incredibly liberating not having anxiety about buying presents and instead being able to just really enjoy Christmas! As adults, presents should be small tokens of affection or edible (says the chef) so they don't take up room. Homemade and thoughtful are the two best traits--both together are extraordinary."
"Each year my friend’s mother-in-law would ask her to buy the grandkids gifts on her behalf. My friend would duly do this, wrap them and place them under the Christmas tree. Her mother-in-law was very generous, my friend felt overly generous, and those presents were always the ones the kids were most excited about, with cries of ‘How did you know, Gran?’ It made my friend feel gutted, every year!"
Going to stay with friends or family at Christmas who aren’t especially well off? Don’t get them extravagant gifts, because you’ll just make them feel bad they haven’t done the same for you!
So, the wisdom here is to be aware that not everyone has deep pockets (or any pockets!) when it comes to Christmas. You could follow Abby’s advice, and either let folk know you’re not able to spend on presents - or set a budget for gifts. If you have a big family, instead of each person buying something for everyone, you could opt for a family Secret Santa, easing the pressure and leaving only one present for each of you to ponder on.
Also, far from being cheap, handmade gifts show thought and effort that shop-bought rarely can. If you fret about your craft or culinary skills, you could give IOUs - for free babysitting, say - or an experience that may not cost a lot, but gives you and your giftee time together. A picnic, a homemade dinner, help with a project they’ve been meaning to get underway… there are plenty of things that will be hugely appreciated but don’t need to weigh on your bank balance.
"Find good ways to compensate for the kid gifts you give to the child-havers in your life and give equally fun and/or useful gifts to your childless friends and family members. Otherwise, they will feel like barren tumbleweeds undeserving of your socially reinforcing material goods. Do they have a pet? Go wild! Or do they have a hobby to which you can contribute a cool accessory? Think about why you give kids gifts, then try to translate that to someone without a kid. In fact, get even nicer presents for the childless people. Turn the tables on social convention!"
You’ve spent all that time attempting to rustle up a thoughtful, appropriate present for assorted relatives, and in barely the blink of an eye, the wrapping paper’s been ripped off and the gift has been added to a mini-mountain of who-knows-if-it’s-appreciated stuff. This can particularly be the case with overexcitable kids, eager to get their hands on the presents they’ve been waiting for since Christmas displays landed in shops (that’ll be the end of the Summer holidays, then)… As a gift-giver, it can be a trifle disheartening - so when you’re in the thick of unwrapping, be sure to take a little time, and impart some enthused thank yous.
"One year, while my husband and I stood at our front gate chatting to the neighbour on Christmas morning, their kids and ours went into the house and unwrapped every single present. We came inside to find a storm of wrapping paper strewn all over the living room and no idea who had sent us what. My husband particularly was scandalised. I thought it was quite funny – the kids were too young to know any better. We started the Christmas spirits early that year."
"Say thank you and really mean it, give them eye contact. I have a pet hate with people who rush opening their presents and don’t really care about how much effort it took to wrap it."
"I hate the Christmas gift free-for-all. Everybody tackling their presents and being done with it. Our gift exchange takes a long time, because we go by recipient, from oldest to youngest, round and again until all the presents are gone. So we’ll start with my mother. Someone gives her a gift. Everybody experiences it with her, and then the next recipient. It takes a long time, but it involves everyone in the process in a great way."
"DO NOT MAKE ME UNWRAP EACH PRESENT AND DESCRIBE WHAT IT IS TO THE ENTIRE GROUP! This has never been a tradition in my family, but it might well be in my wife's. I am not at liberty to divulge that information at present."
"Always find a way to compliment how useful/attractive/thoughtful the gift is. Even if you hate it!"
Generally, gifts should be something the recipient wants, and preferably something that’s a treat, that they wouldn’t buy for themselves. The present shouldn’t be a chore - no vacuum cleaners, or irons (unless this is something that has been earnestly requested) - and they definitely shouldn’t imply any judgement. No dieting aids, no self-help books, nothing that might make the recipient feel bad about themselves. Santa would not approve.
"Anything to do with dropping hints to lose weight is not cool."
Uh oh, another controversial topic when it comes to gifting. Sensibly and thriftily environmental, or disappointingly thoughtless? A good rule is to regift only if you think your recipient will be an enthused match for an unwanted present… and if you can’t think of a good home, better to take it to a charity shop.
"Happy to receive a regifted present if giver thinks I'd genuinely like it. Definitely the thought that counts for me."
Michael Daniels lives in London and works in Marketing research.
"I absolutely don't mind regifted gifts. Why spend money on something if you don't need to? There's too much pressure on buying, buying, buying!"
Before we move on, there’s a blindingly obvious hazard to keep in mind: make a mental note - or affix a post it! - of who gave you the unwanted gift, and be sure not to regift to anyone in the same social circle. Or worse, to re-wrap and re-gift to whomever gave you the present in the first place! Eek. And keep an eye out for labels or personalisations (an inscription in a book, for example) which will give the regifting game away...
"We received a present which had been given to another couple. The card was addressed to John and Marsha. Not Bill and Renetta."
Bill Deremer is a retired school orchestra director.
Of course, it’s all a matter of taste, but getting a thumbs up:
"Fan of impermanent gifts such as food/drink treats, events as I think too much emphasis is put on 'stuff'."
"Christmas stockings are always fun. The cheap, little things that are outside the usual wrapped wonders that you expect."
Though getting a thumbs down:
"You should NEVER give anyone fruitcake as a gift. YUCK!!!"
And here’s Virginia, being incredibly diplomatic, under the circumstances...
"I was once given an Ann Summers jelly dildo by a Secret Santa. It was at a PTA Christmas dinner. Some of the members were a bit wild and lairy and I loved them, but sex toys are really not my style."
Virginia Moffatt wears a couple of hats: she’s a procurement and contracts manager, and also a writer, and author of novel Echo Hall.
A Room of My Own Blog: https://virginiamoffattwriter.wordpress.com/
Facebook: Virginia Moffatt
"Keep your receipts!!!"
So, there we have it. A festive potpourri of advice, which will hopefully leave you less likely to encounter any awkward gifting faux pas. Though if you’ve any additional tips, we’re all (elf) ears - do let us know!