Do I Have to Reciprocate All Christmas Gifts?

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

So a friend of mine asked me for my address the other day so she could mail me a Christmas gift, and now I’m wondering if I’m obligated to reciprocate. We met online about five years ago but we’ve never actually spent time together in person. I know her interests very well and had some cute ideas right away, but I had no intent to get her something before she asked for my address. HOW HELP?


Giftless and Feeling Guilty

Official Etiquette:

Miss Manners wrote a lovely essay about choosing which holiday traditions to celebrate while remaining thankful and polite about all overtures made to you. You can read it here.

Our Take:

Victoria: So basically the answer is yes, it’s totally fine not to give a gift in return if you weren’t going to in the first place.

Jaya: Totally. You know, thank her and everything, but it’s really out of the blue.

Victoria: Yeah, actually! This JUST happened to me.

Jaya: What!

Victoria: [Redacted] texted me and was like, “I broke the rules and got you a Christmas present because I happened to see the perfect thing and you aren’t allowed to get me something in return.”

But then again, there are some years that I do a small homemade Christmas present for all my friends and some years that I don’t and its all fine either way.

Jaya: Yeah, I think it depends on your friends and traditions, but I do think at some point we all end up agreeing that holiday presents are for family and like, really really close friends or a Secret Santa group or something.

Victoria: Yeah, although some people go totally nuts with gift giving. Like- there’s a part in Love Actually where Emma Thompson is wrapping gifts for her kids friends and I’ve always been so confused about why you would give Christmas gifts to random children.

Jaya: I think after a certain age, if you’re one of those people, you have to accept that as your thing and not everyone’s thing.

Victoria: Haha yeah, totally.

Jaya: Like, do it because you found something great for your friends, not because you’re trying to backhand pressure some gift-giving exchange onto people who don’t have the capacity or energy.

Victoria: Yessssss

Jaya: And you know, a million times, a gift is a gift. So Matt was on the phone with his mom the other day and asked if she wanted anything for Hanukkah, and she was like “of course not, Hanukkah is for children.” Which is sorta great, like it’s totally a kids holiday pumped up to compete with Christmas so Jewish kids don’t feel left out, but the adults know it’s for them. I sorta wish we could have a bit more of that sensibility all around. I mean I love gifts and holiday spirit and stuff but it does cause a lot of anxiety.

Victoria: Eh, I mean it depends. That whole “love languages thing.” One of my favorite parts of Christmas is exchanging gifts with my family and my family does tend to be very gifty. But yeah, not like, with the neighbors.

Jaya: Love languages is a good way to put it, as much as that concept isn’t perfect. I think here it totally works.

Victoria: Like, the rest of the “gift giving” times of the year are very one sided- one person gives and one person receives, whereas “Christmas” is more about the exchange. Haha which I just realized totally contradicts our advice that you don’t HAVE to give a gift in return.

Jaya: Hahahaha it does! I mean, the exchange is great if you’re predisposed to like the exchange or see it coming.

Victoria: Yeah, exactly. It’s very lovely with your family is what I’m saying.

Jaya: That’s the thing that throws me. Like, I’ve bought gifts for my parents and siblings and husband, because I spent Christmas morning with them. And we did the Secret Santa thing with friends, which was fun, but also totally voluntary, like, you didn’t have to sign up.

Victoria: Yeah! It was fun!

Jaya: Which I like more than just getting a gift out of nowhere from someone I’ve never met. I mean I understand internet friendships are 100% real friendships, I have many, but still.

Victoria: Oh right, this person is an internet friend. Does she say specifically that she is sending a gift. Because maybe its just a Christmas card? Oh yeah she does. Lol. Read the question, Victoria.

Jaya: Hahaha

Victoria: Well, I would say, just comfort yourself knowing that its probably something small. And maybe it is Anthrax! This is a person from the internet after all.

Jaya: Hahahahaha! So right like, holiday cards are another thing. Some people love sending out holiday cards, and some don’t, but it’s not like if you get one you have to make one to send back. I always think I’m gonna do them and then I remember it’s extra money for me to send something most people are gonna throw out.

Victoria: Lol yeah, I want to do Christmas cards, but whoops, I did not. If it comforts you, my mom always displays all the cards they get for the whole month. And my sister and I go through and make fun of the Christmas letters, so its not such a waste.

Jaya: Hahaha that’s good. Yeah I think I always forget until I get one, and then obvs it’s too late.

Victoria: Haha yeah. My sister and I did them last year, but she did all the work sooooo…Okay, this year I will buy cards on clearance in January and then I will do them. This is my resolution.

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.)

A Very Germy Christmas

If everyone is sick on Christmas, just go out for Chinese.

Hi Victoria and Jaya!

I have a question about handling social situations gracefully when illness and contagion are involved.

We spent Christmas with my husband’s grandparents (in Hawaii, no less!).  On Christmas Day, we arrived at their place in the morning to find Gramps’ wife sick in bed with some kind of undetermined stomach bug/food poisoning–so sick, in fact, that my husband wound up calling the paramedics and sending Gramps and Nana to the hospital.  We stayed at their apartment all day: finished roasting the turkey, carved it, refrigerated a couple platefuls and froze the rest, and cleaned up around the place.  Over the next couple of days, my husband and I spent several hours visiting at the apartment while Nana recovered.  As we prepared to leave Hawaii, my husband started to feel very unpleasant.  To spare you the gory details, he’s not as sick as Nana was, but the flight back home was NOT a good time.

Obviously, our situation was more fraught with obligations than most because of a) Christmas and b) grandparents.  But…shouldn’t people cancel invitations when they may be unpleasantly contagious?  And, is there a polite way to excuse oneself from social situations if someone is obviously sick and you’re worried about catching what they have?  I don’t want to make anyone feel like their home is a den of filth, but stomach bugs are no joke.

Thanks for reading!


Not-So-Merry Christmas

Official Etiquette:

Miss Manners says that an ill host should cancel a party.

Our Take:

Jaya:  Omg that Christmas sounds so sad!

Victoria We had a Thanksgiving once when I was very little where my cousin had some sort of illness and made everyone sick. And people still talk about her being Typhoid Andrea (although it wasn’t typhoid and it was 27 years ago).

Jaya:  Oh my god! Well yes, there was a reason Typhoid Mary was put on an island, and forced to stop making fruit cups for everyone.

Victoria: So firstly, it’s pretty great of them to take on finishing up Christmas while the grandparents were in the hospital instead of just throwing it in and going out or something.

Jaya:  Yeah, good job/ But also this seems very difficult. It’s not like a cousin got sick and had to stay at a hotel. It was the people hosting the Christmas. So you’re sorta SOL if your hosts are sick.

Victoria I think that the issue here is probably that they didn’t really have much notice that they were going to be sick.

Jaya:  I mean I’d rather find a random diner and have Christmas there than get a stomach bug from my grandparents, but still, yeah, no one plans getting sick. (She said, as if people planned getting sick.)

Victoria And if you are flying to Hawaii, you probably aren’t really going to be able to cancel your flight at the last second. Obviously if grandma and grandpa are a short car trip away, then totally cancel. But once flights and serious travel are involved, you are kind of stuck with making the best of the situation.

Jaya:  Yeah, though, ok, they flew to Hawaii. Most people do not go to Hawaii for less than 24 hours. I’m gonna assume they had at least a couple days booked. So if they arrive on Christmas Eve, it’s perfectly acceptable for the grandparents to call and be like “look, gramps has got a stomach bug, we’ll let you know more in the morning but if he’s still sick we may have to cancel.” And obviously it sucks because you have to find new plans/call the hospital (!!!), but I think most people would rather figure something out last minute than get a stomach virus. I’m also assuming they were maybe staying at a hotel, but this definitely changes if you’re staying with them, and show up to find them sick.

Victoria But don’t most airlines not really let you cancel your flight for a refund, so you are basically out probably $1000+? I mean, if it were me, I would probably check into a hotel in Hawaii and make the best of it.

Jaya:  That’s what I mean. you’re not gonna cancel your flight, but you know you at least have the rest of Hawaii to explore after you call the hospital and get your grandparents in.

Victoria Ahhh yes, totally.

Jaya:  I’m gonna guess the grandparents did not get sick until they were airborne. Because if you’re sick two days before Christmas, you would think you’d get over it and if you get sick the day before Christmas, everyone is already there.

Victoria Although, in some families, it might be more the thing to do to go ahead with staying with the family and helping out. I pretty much get a nasty cold every time I visit my parents for Christmas and let them baby me.

Jaya:  True, but it’s not your house you’re having Christmas in.

Victoria True.

Jaya:  I think it’s amazing that they went and cooked dinner and took care of everyone. It sounds like someone needed to at least go over and make sure they were ok but yeah, you risk getting sick that way.

Victoria But to be honest, wouldn’t you expect to do that for most close family? Like if I was visiting my parents and my mom got sick, I would totally make Christmas dinner and everything. I do think it would be totally excusable to get a hotel, of course. But I also think that hotels make for happy families, lol.

Jaya:  Yeah. I can’t tell if they were staying at their grandparents’ house, but you do not need to stay there.

Victoria The whole thing depends on your relationship. And it’s always much more awkward when it’s your in-laws.

Jaya:  But in general, I think that if you are hosting an event and you get sick, it’s your job to cancel/warn everyone. Like, an aside, I just had dinner with my dad and a cousin, and when they showed up they informed me they were both getting over 104 fevers. And it’s like, uhhh, don’t be outside?

Victoria Yes, I do think they should have been given a heads up so they could plan accordingly.

Jaya:  You give someone a heads up so they can make their own decisions, by either staying at their hotel/home, or coming over and helping out but knowingly risking getting sick.

Victoria Yeah.

Jaya:  Okay now the hard part though, how do you say so if you wanna stay home?

Victoria Yeah, I think you just have to be firm and be like, you are sick and we are going to stay home/stay at a hotel. But again. a lot of it will depend on your relationship.

Jaya:  Right. I don’t think anyone will blame you for that. I think it just has to be for the right reasons. Two people with a stomach bug is a big problem, but if your cousin has a slight cough you should just suck it up.

Victoria Some families see staying at a hotel as a huge insult and some are totally cool with it. But then also, with older people, you might also see it as your duty to come in and help out. And then also, when you get married/have kids/are an independent adult, you have to assert your boundaries. And just be firm and repetitive.

Jaya:  It probably will be rough when families see staying at a hotel as an insult. But unless they’re threatening never speaking to you again, I think just saying “We only have a limited amount of vacation time and don’t want to risk getting sick, but we’re happy to help out and plan alternatives if needed” that makes sense. Yeah, kids are always a good cop out with this. No one wants to give a baby a stomach virus.

Victoria  And most people will know their own family best and how best to word it to be the least insulting.

Jaya:  Yeah, I think it’s just about holding your ground, like you said, without blaming anyone. Like, shit happens, people get sick. It’s not because you live an unhealthy life, you just pick things up. This is the hard part about the holidays. I think any hosts always feel such pressure and like “I don’t care if i’m throwing up every 15 minutes! I’ll put on dinner!”

Victoria Hahah yeah. That’s when everyone else has to jump in and be like, okay, let’s move it to my house or whatever. Holiday spirit!

Jaya:  Yeah! Go have it at the hotel bar! Make it like that scene in A Christmas Story where they just get duck at the Chinese restaurant!

Victoria Haha sure (i never saw A Christmas Story).

Jaya:  WHAT! Well, spoiler alert, dogs break into their house and eat Christmas dinner so they go to a Chinese restaurant as a family and have a great time. Probably a good lesson for everyone. Best laid plans, etc.

A Discussion of Gift Giving

For something as ubiquitous as gift giving at Christmas, there certainly are a lot of different ways to do it. We talked about some different ways we do gifts and the etiquette involved, but we would love to hear how you do gifts, in the comments!

Victoria: So Christmas is coming up, and that means buying presents!

Jaya:  Oh how do you do them? I mainly suck at giving gifts.

Victoria So I pretty much only buy stuff for my sister, my parents, and my grandmother. For all my friends, I do some kind of homemade thing. Last year I made jam. This year…I’m not telling because I haven’t given you yours yet!

Have you ever been in a group that did Secret Santas or like, a present exchange. or white elephant?

Jaya:  Some friends of mine and I actually do that, there’s this sort of automatic Secret Santa site that you put your names in and it assigns you someone. And it’s useful because instead of getting gifts for everyone you just have to do one person, so cheaper, and still nice. Last year I got two really good books, and I gave a cute vintage clutch.

Victoria Oooh that sounds awesome. I think if a friend group really wants to do more than token gifts, some kind of exchange is the way to go. It’s fun but it doesn’t cost TOO much money.

Jaya:  Exactly. I think we have like a $25 cap, but we’d probably stay within that anyway.

Victoria:  Yeah, then everyone gets something nice that they’d really enjoy but you don’t end up spending insane amounts of money on presents for people.

What do you think about a situation where one person gives another a present and doesn’t get a present in return?

Do you feel pressure to then go out and get one?

Jaya:  I mean, the nature of gifts is that they’re gifts, right? You give them out of love, not out of the expectation that you get another one.

Victoria Exactly!

Jaya:  Though with a holiday like Christmas, where the idea is gift giving, maybe that changes.

Victoria And I would feel terrible if my friends thought they had to get me something because I made them some jam.

I mean, its jam, it’s not a big deal.

And I do it because I like doing it!

Jaya:  But your jams are so good!

Victoria: Haha, thanks.

How do you open presents on Christmas morning in your family? Do you all tear in or do you open one at a time in turns?

Jaya:  We take turns, and draw it out. Basically you open your stockings as soon as you get up, and tear into that. And then we have breakfast, and then after breakfast is tree presents time.

Victoria Us too!!!

Jaya:  Aww yay! It was always torture waiting for breakfast to end as a kid but now I like waiting.

Victoria It always seemed the more “polite” way to me too, because then you have time to properly admire each gift and thank the giver.

Jaya:  Exactly. And easier to record things for thank you notes.

Victoria Exactly!

Jaya:  My grandma always kept the list, now my mom does.

Holiday Traditions and Etiquette

A Bûche de Noël, the tastiest of logs[via Wikimedia Commons]

While holiday traditions are not etiquette, strictly speaking, they carry a lot of etiquette associations. After all, the only difference between trick or treating and begging is that one is sanctioned as a single evening of fun with a lot of etiquette rules and the other is considered pretty rude.

Christmas/the late December period has many old traditions, some of which have fallen out of favor. Here are some Christmasy traditions you may not be familiar with, with some etiquette pointers in case you find yourself faced with one.

Yule Log

The origin of the Yule Log is in Scandinavian midwinter festivals, providing lots of light which to drink by. It was imported to England and other northern European countries over time and became a symbol of Christmas. Traditionally, you would light the Yule Log with a scrap from the previous year’s Log. But you had to wash your hands first, as touching the Log with dirty hands was disrespectful. Then the log had to be kept burning for twelve hours- this could be difficult as no one was allowed to tend to the fire until everyone was done eating the lengthy Christmas feast.

These types of Yule Logs are uncommon today, however, the French make a delightful Christmas cake called a Bûche de Noël (Christmas Log), which is a cake that is decorated to look like a log. My personal favorite modern day Yule Log is the log that is burned on TV with Christmas carols playing (I grew up in a house without a fireplace, give me a break!) which I watch every Christmas morning.


Everyone knows that if two people stand under some mistletoe, they must kiss. What you don’t know is that mistletoe was sacred to the Druids and when two enemies met under some, they had to stop fighting for one day. This eventually led to the custom of hanging it in a house and kissing beneath it in friendship or romance. While this can leads to lots of fun and frolicking, remember, if a person doesn’t want you to kiss them, don’t! Mistletoe be damned! Even Washington Irving wrote that every time mistletoe was used for kissing, one of the berries must be plucked from it and once the berries were all gone, no more kissing! Also beware mistletoe if you have pets in the house, because it can be poisonous to dogs and cats.

Boxing Day

Americans may be unfamiliar with Boxing Day, but it is still an official holiday in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. And despite the name, it has nothing to do with throwing out the boxes your Christmas presents came in. Basically, Christmas gifts were exchanged between friends and family on Christmas day, and then people gave gifts to their servants and other people of the lower classes on December 26. There is a lot of dispute about the origin of the name, but most ideas revolve around putting money or goods into boxes as gifts. This practice does have a modern counterpart in holiday tipping (a topic far too huge to discuss in this particular post), but unfortunately, we don’t get a whole extra day off for it.

La Befana

I really love witches (obviously), so I was quite excited when I discovered that instead of Santa Claus, a witch brought presents to good little boys and girls in Italy. La Befana traditionally comes on January 6 (Epiphany) which is when the Three Wise Men arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus. Apparently she drinks wine (don’t forget to leave some out for her!) and will sweep your floor, which to me, sounds way better than a fat dude eating all your milk and cookies.

The origin of La Befana is that she was a woman who gave the Three Wise Men shelter on their journey. They invited her to join them, but she declined. Later, having a change of heart, she set out to find the Wise Men and Baby Jesus with some small presents for the baby and her broom to help clean up. However, she never found them and has been searching for them ever since, leaving presents for the children on her way.

Christmas markets in Italy sell La Befana doll-decorations. I have one and I love that it can do double duty for Halloween AND Christmas.

The Real War on Christmas

Not a tradition, per se, but did you know that the Puritans heartily disapproved of Christmas as being frivolous (and rightly pointing out that December 25 had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus). When they Pilgrimmed it over to America-to-be, they brought the dislike with them and were able to ban Christmas entirely in Boston from 1659-1681, charging 5 shillings to anyone who seemed extra merry that day.

After the Revolutionary War, Christmas continued to be seen with some suspicion as being too English. In fact, the first session of Congress was held on Christmas Day in 1789.

BTW, Christmas wasn’t even a federal holiday until 1870 when President Grant was trying to find cheerful way to unify the North and South.

Tell me about your favorite holiday traditions in the comments!