How to Have a Holly Jolly Holiday Season

If all else fails, watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians because it is on Netflix and it is amazing.

The holiday season can be fraught with etiquette perils. You mostly already know how to deal with your family and all the assorted drama. But how do you handle a whole month of holiday parties with their own different rules?

White Elephant Exchange:

I think White Elephant exchanges are the most fun type of Christmas present giving exercise, followed closely by it’s cousin, the White Elephant where you bring nice stuff (is there are a real term for this?).  The premise is that you find something in your home that is pretty new, maybe it’s something someone else bought you as a gift that you do not want, and you bring it (wrapped) to the party. Then all the gifts go in the middle and the guests take turns selecting a gift and opening it. The fun part is that instead of opening a new gift, a guest can “steal” one of the already opened gifts. Some people put a limit on how many times a gift can be stolen before it is “dead” and must be kept by the last person to steal it. If one person’s gift is stolen, they can choose to open one of the wrapped gifts or steal someone else’s gift.

This type of party is best for groups that don’t know each other well.

Etiquette Pitfalls:

  • Decide on the rules ahead of time as everyone plays slightly differently.
  • Be sure whether the party will be a true White Elephant with silly, useless types of gifts or the “nice” kind where people bring real gifts.
  • If it is a “nice” White Elephant party, be sure to set a price limit so the gifts are roughly the same.
  • If it is a true White Elephant, make an effort to bring something fun, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” types of things rather than true junk. [Ed note: Unless it’s a “Spite Elephant” party, in which case bring the most ridiculously awful thing you can find]
  • Try to avoid getting too competitive about stealing gifts, this is supposed to be fun.

Secret Santa:

The Secret Santa is a more refined gift exchange, in which you are assigned a person to get a gift for ahead of time. This is a nice way of doing gifts because everyone gets something personalized that they will probably like, but you only have to buy a gift for one person.

Etiquette Pitfalls:

  • If you sign up to do a Secret Santa make sure you follow through! If you are exchanging gifts in a group and you don’t show up, it will muck the whole thing up. Even if it isn’t a group exchange, if you don’t buy a gift that means that your person doesn’t get one and that is terrible. Don’t be a Secret Santa flake.
  • If you are the host, again, make sure to set a price limit, so everyone knows they are spending about the same amount.
  • Part of the beauty of doing a Secret Santa is getting a personalized gift, so put some effort into it and don’t wimp out with a gift card (unless they are really into that!)

Cookie Exchange:

A cookie exchange is a party in which everyone brings one type of cookie and brings enough that they can give, say, a dozen of those cookies to each party guest. That way, each person brings, say, 6 dozen of one type of cookie but brings home 6 dozen of six different types of cookies. This way, you can have a wide variety of cookies to eat during the holiday season but only have to bake once. A big time saver if you are really into cookies.

  • I wouldn’t say it’s RUDE to participate if you are bad at baking, but you might want to seriously evaluate your skills and perhaps bring very nice store bought cookies rather than burnt ones.
  • Don’t be stingy with your recipes, the holidays are all about sharing!
  • Make sure you follow the rules about how many cookies to bring so there are enough to go around.
  • If you are the host, be sure to inquire about any allergies and pass the information around.
  • If you are gluten-free, perhaps a cookie exchange is not the party for you (but maybe it is and your friends don’t mind gluten free cookies, we don’t judge!)
  • Try to make something a little out of the ordinary so the party doesn’t end up with all chocolate chip cookies (if you are the host, you should do your best to communicate with your guests about what they want to bring to facilitate variety- or ask everyone to send a recipe ahead of time).
  • Bring something to carry all your cookies home in!

Office Party:

Jaya just wrote a killer piece in The Guardian about office holiday parties, so you should go read that first. I’ll wait.

Etiquette Pitfalls:

  • Everyone says it, but getting drunk (unless your work culture is all about getting drunk- life’s a rich tapestry, etc etc) is a pretty big no-no most places.
  • Not going- sure office parties are, (usually) technically, optional but unless you have a REALLY good reason, you should suck it up and go because as much as we don’t like it, these types of things are noticed and contribute to the perception of your team spirit which can come into play when it comes time for promotions, etc.
  • If you are in charge of organizing the party, really think about what the people you work with are the most likely to enjoy. Some offices are big party goers, others will appreciate a dinner at a fancy restaurant more.

Gifts for Everyone:

Presumably you know what to do when it comes to getting gifts for close friends and family. But what do you do when you have to get gifts for other people?

  • A secret santa you don’t know too well- ask around and try to find something they will really enjoy.
  • Your brand new significant other- if you’ve been dating less than, say, three months, you should probably skip it or do something simple. At least talk about it! (You should also talk about it with longer term partners- you don’t want to be the one giving diamond earrings when they are getting you a new scarf. It’s uncomfortable for both parties [again unless that’s just how you guys roll!]).
  • Someone who gave you something out of the blue- you don’t necessarily have to reciprocate. Sometimes its nice to just give without expecting anything in return. But some very classy people have “backup” presents- a box of generic but nice gifts that can be given in just that kind of situation.
  • Your boss- you DON’T. Gift giving should always flow down power structures. Giving a gift to your boss can look like a bribe/sucking up. You can usually get away with little tokens, or especially home baked treats. Group gifts for bosses are usually against etiquette as well, but honestly, in some small offices, it can work because everyone truly wants to do something nice (and really only if that boss is also handing bonuses and/or gifts down.)
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