Gifting Guidelines: The Unwritten Rules of Gift-Giving

Unwritten Rules of Gifting

Be aware: Even-Steven calculations can be a flashpoint for holiday conflict, especially if there are status or financial differences between parties to the exchange.

An affluent auntie can cause resentment with lavish gifts to her nephews, if the children’s parents can’t afford to match or reciprocate her largesse. A well-meaning boss can ruin office morale if she chooses an inappropriate employee gift: a $25 gift certificate to her favorite boutique, where even the toilet water starts at $40. A family member who plays by the law of averages ("I gave a big gift last year, so will scale back this year!") can bump up against a loved one's preferences for year-by-year equality, to hurt feelings all round.

Think carefully about how you assess value when giving. Embracing a more flexible measuring stick is a powerful holiday stress-buster, even when other parties to the exchange may not hold the same view. Divorcing considerations of what you paid, what else you gave, and what you got in return allows you to reach for the true values of connection and gratitude that, ideally, underlie the practice of giving gifts.

Once begun, never undone

It was a nice idea, that first year after you moved across the country: sending gift baskets of local specialty foods to the folks in your old neighborhood. The second year, they sent you a box of your favorite sweets. Five years later, the packages are still jetting from coast to coast. What will you send this year?

Examine where you stand on the notion of longevity in gift exchanges. If you feel that once begun, gift exchanges should continue from year to year, think carefully about beginning new ones. Since you value the continuity that the ongoing exchange provides, be sure that the exchanges celebrate your deepest relationships—and the other party shares your view.

If you’re more comfortable with a dynamic view of exchange longevity, send the neighbors a lovely card this year and breathe easier. Chances are, they’ll be relieved that you’ve called a halt to an exchange whose time has come … and gone.

Come one, come all

Who is included on your gift list? If you give a gift to one member of a group—family, friends, co-workers—do you believe you must you give equal gifts to all?

For example, Christmas at the in-laws’ house is rich in tradition. There’s oyster stew on Christmas Eve, plum pudding for dessert—and a Christmas morning gift exchange among all five children. And their spouses. And their children.

Coming up with more than 20 gifts each year wracks your brain and wrecks your budget. You’d love to scale back the annual extravaganza, but you know that your husband would object—strenuously. That towering annual pile of presents? It’s a family tradition--and a classic issue of "come one, come all" when it comes to gift-giving.

Family history and tradition will play a part in where you fall on the equality spectrum, and there are no right answers.

For many, the act of giving one-to-one is central to their expression of the holidays. If scaling back the number of gifts or giving selectively feels wrong, consider setting cost limits to reduce the burden of celebrating all those relationships.

Others find that scaling back group gifts by drawing names, white elephant exchanges or an informal “no gifts” agreement enhances their holiday and reduces seasonal stress.

For them, the trick is to negotiate the change in a loving way, and to understand that others may feel more invested in individual gifting than they do.

Knowledge is power

When it comes to the unwritten rules of gift-giving, there is only one right answer: the one that is right for you! By taking a long, hard look at the beliefs that underlie your giving decisions, you empower yourself to give consciously, in harmony with your own values. By knowing where you stand on these issues, you'll be able to address any conflicts with others in a loving, measured way.

Unwritten or not, there are rules to giving and receiving gifts. Know where you stand ... to simplify your holidays and celebrate the season!

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