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A holiday guide to gift-giving etiquette

By Jenna Milly
CNN

‘Tis the season to be giving
‘Tis the season to be giving

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SPECIAL REPORT

(CNN) - Two gleeful faces exchange beautifully wrapped presents in a burst of holiday cheer. Most of us picture this type of scene when imagining the ideal gift giving moment, not one where beat-up, re-gifted presents wrapped in old newspaper stand a chance.

So why, if most everyone dreams of the traditional exchange of warm holiday cheer, do we still give and receive poorly wrapped presents, thoughtless gift cards and the old pine-scented candles that linger with the smell of 1994?

CNN.com asked the experts of holiday etiquette and shopping what's appropriate and what's tacky when it comes to gift giving.

To Peter Post, grandson of legendary etiquette guru Emily Post, the most important thing is "giving the gift because it's coming from you and your heart."

In other words: "It should be received in the manner in which it's been given."

But many holiday shoppers need a little more guidance. For example, what do you do when someone gives you a gift but you find yourself empty-handed?

"There's nothing about having received a gift that says you have to give a gift in return," said Post, who works for his grandmother's etiquette institute in Vermont and published "Essential Manners for Men: What to Do, When to Do It, and Why" in October.

In other words, kindly thank your gift-giver. Don't stumble all over yourself in embarrassment because you didn't plan a gift for him or her.

Elementary school clerk Sue Waldrop from Marietta, Georgia, handles it this way. "I say, 'I can't believe that you are so thoughtful that you gave me something,' but I don't run out and buy them a gift."

Like many other Americans, Waldrop, 58, has a long list and a set budget. She buys for approximately 25 people and manages her total budget between $500 and $750. This is slightly higher than the average American's budget, which is around $520 on gifts this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

The experts agree. Giving gift certificates for specialty items such as food, wine, movies or coffee make great gifts.
The experts agree. Giving gift certificates for specialty items such as food, wine, movies or coffee make great gifts.

Post recommends sticking to the budget. "Don't get caught up in the old they gave me a $25 gift and I have to give them a $25 gift."

"Find the nicest thing you can find for $13. One of the neat things about shopping, especially online, the gifts ideas are already segmented into your dollar amount," he said.

Andrea Linette, creative director of Lucky Magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to the art of shopping, recommends using ingenuity when budget constraints prevent shoppers from living like big spenders.

"Think of more thoughtful gifts. If someone's really into coffee, you can get them a small gift certificate. Something that's thoughtful [and] doesn't appear cheap. Cheap is anything that seems like an afterthought," Linette says.

Thoughtfulness appears to be key in capturing that holiday cheer. But in recent years, re-gifting -- a term popularized by the NBC sitcom "Seinfeld" that means giving someone a gift you received and didn't want - reared its ugly head.

"I hate it," Post said. "I understand that once in a blue moon, there's a potential that it could work OK. But I think it's deceptive. Honesty is one of the things most important in our lives."

Post suggests telling the truth.

"You can tell somebody and you should tell someone," he said. "When you hide it, now is the chance for you to get caught."

Linette approaches it this way. "It depends who they got it from," she said. A close personal friend or family member is one thing, but an acquaintance may be different.

"If it's your boss and she's going to expect you to use it, that can be tricky. Wear it once and maybe give it away."

Sending a “thank you” to all those who gave you a gift adds holiday cheer and gets you an A+ in the etiquette book.
Sending a “thank you” to all those who gave you a gift adds holiday cheer and gets you an A+ in the etiquette book.

But, sometimes gift recipients must contend with some gifts that should never be given.

"A bathroom scale," Waldrop said, is the worst gift you could get a woman.

Post agreed that anything too personal should be avoided when shopping for someone outside your inner circle of family and friends.

"Unless it's your wife, do not give [a woman] anything that is a real personal item like a negligee. It's the wrong message." Anything too personal ranks a no-no with Post.

"I think scents would be a real mistake, a cologne -- too personal. A bathrobe wouldn't be appropriate, or underwear," he said.

Linette added to her do-not-buy list for women any appliances, weight loss gift certificates or cellulite spa treatments. For men, she said steer clear of "anything cutesy like sexy underwear, or anything like an "I love you" balloon with candy."

Do gift cards sound like a better option?

If gift cards sound like a better option to you, then you're in good company. Post agrees with the sentiment of gift cards only if the giver thinks about the interests of the recipient.

"The best kinds of gift cards are restaurant dinner and movies. I like the idea of thinking about the person, and that will really go in their world."

Otherwise, Post said, "I sometimes feel like ... gift cards are a copout."

After you've carefully chosen the appropriate gift or gift card, wrapping paper adds the festive holiday punch.

"People think gift wrapping is an afterthought. ... Wrapping a gift is part of the gift-giving and presentation," Post said.

Linette agreed. Having fun with the wrapping paper is all part of the moment. "You don't have to get it professionally wrapped," she said. Instead use creativity to make your gift special.

And lastly, Post pointed out one essential step in completing the gift-giving tradition -- the art of writing a thoughtful and timely thank-you card.

"I think thank-you notes are important, but they don't have to be incredibly formal," Linette said.

Waldrop said a thank-you is a must, no matter what form it takes. "I don't even care if it was an e-mail to me, I want a thank you."

For younger generations, e-mail and text messaging might be a way of letting someone know you liked the gift, but the experts lean toward the traditional note card. Writing cards is all a part of spirit of giving. "It would make someone feel really good, so why not?" Post asked.

The act itself doesn't have to feel like something your mother made you do. Linette said, "It's just polite and being polite is cool."


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