Holiday Gift Etiquette: Frequently asked Questions

It’s Holiday crunch time…there’s shopping to finish, gifts to wrap, treats to bake and cheer to spread.  During this season of holiday gifting, there are a few things to remember when about Holiday gift etiquette when giving or receiving.

Are gift certificates a do or don’t?

Gift certificates are a definite “do” when done with care. For the person who has everything, giving them a gift certificate to a favorite store is a great gift giving option. Just make sure that the store you buy the certificate from is a good “fit” for the recipient. While I personally would love a gift certificate to Godiva Chocolate, my best friend would rather suck on a holiday rock. She hates chocolate (I know, I know, you are asking yourself, “What is wrong with her?”).  If you want to play it safe, purchase a gift certificate from a big box store and let the receiver get lost in aisles and aisles of music, cosmetics, car care products and small appliances. Warning: This gift may not work for someone you are newly romantically involved with, but it certainly would work for someone you know well and feel certain would appreciate the gesture – me, just in case you care.

How should I respond to receiving an unexpected gift when I have nothing to give in return?

Here are a few things not to do:

  •  Rifle through your closet and throw something in a used gift bag, write their name on a wrinkled enclosure card and pretend the gently used scarf was purchased specifically for them.
  • Without skipping a beat proceed to make up a crazy excuse about your car being in the shop and all the gifts being locked up in the trunk.
  • Come up with an equally lame story about how the gift you have ordered for them has been lost in the mail and you are waiting for a replacement.
  • Suddenly disappear out the back door to the nearest coffee shop for a last minute gift card (see Q and A #1).

All you need to do is simply accept the gift, muster up the most genuine smile you can offer under the circumstances and say “thank you so much.” If you want to reciprocate, consider doing so in a few days, rather than later the same afternoon. If you are extremely self-confident (and you should be), wait until after the New Year and give them a fabulously creative 2013 calendar or day planner. Or, perhaps a goodie basket filled with treats, as long as they are not left over from Christmas or Hanukkah.

Should I buy my boss a holiday gift?

No one ever really likes my answer to this question but I am going to give it anyways. Generally, the answer is “no” for fear that you will look like you are sucking up to the boss. I tried to think of another word but couldn’t!

There are always exceptions and here are a few:

  • If you have been working for your boss for an eternity and you want to show appreciation,
  • If everyone else is doing it and you don’t want to look cheap or cheaper, or
  • If you simply would feel better about the holidays if you could give your boss a small token of your appreciation…go ahead and feel free to gift away.

If you do, make your gift sweet and simple, literally. A gift in the form of a home baked food item is your best option. Stay away from anything too personal or too expensive – for obvious reasons. Better still, suggest a group office gift where everyone contributes a nominal amount.

How do I handle an inappropriate gift (like lingerie from the guy I just met… or my Aunt Susie)?

Consider the intentions of the gift giver. If your aunt gives you slinky underwear, it’s probably a regift from a white elephant party she just attended. If you receive the same gift from the guy you just started dating, consider your options carefully. For Aunt Susie, smile and show your appreciation with a hug. For the guy with bad judgment, don’t smile and show him the door. Seriously, if a guy you hardly know gives you an inappropriate gift, let him know you are uncomfortable and won’t be able to accept. No apology necessary.

To a gift that was obviously re-gifted:

It’s never appropriate to put a gift giver on the spot by accusing them of re-gifting.  Focus on the fact that they thought of you and gave you anything at all. Re-gifting is not a crime and under the right circumstances may even be considered a smart move in today’s tight economy. The rules of re-gifting are: the item should be new (not gently worn), still in the original box, something that you strongly feel the receiver will enjoy or appreciate, and given from the heart.

To an unexpected proposal:

If you are thrilled, “yes, yes, yes” will do. If you are caught off guard and not ready or interested, no matter how shiny that ring may be, you have to be honest and address the issue with kindness. You can graciously say (if it’s the truth), “I am very flattered but I am caught completely off guard and want to give your proposal the time and thought it deserves. I’m not prepared to say yes to this gift at this moment. Thank you for understanding.”

Should I keep a few gifts ready for unexpected guests?

I like to stock a drawer with a few simple gifts (like beautiful stationery and linen tea towels) that are wrapped and ready to go should a neighbor unexpectedly stop over, gift in hand. Remember, if you aren’t prepared, it’s better to offer a gracious “thank you” and move the conversation with an offer of a cup of your famous hot cocoa.

Happy Holidays,


Diane Gottsman

Diane Gottsman is a national etiquette expert and modern manners professional, sought out industry leader, television personality, accomplished speaker, Huffington Post blogger, author, and the owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in executive leadership and etiquette training. Diane is routinely quoted in national and international media including The New York Times, The BBC, CNN, Bloomberg Business Week, Kiplinger, Huffington Post Canada, U.S. News and World Report, and Forbes. She is the resident etiquette expert for two popular morning talk shows, SA Living and Good Day Austin. She has been seen on The TODAY Show, HLN Headline News, WGN Chicago, and CBS Sunday Morning. Her clients range from university students to Fortune 500 companies and her workshops cover topics ranging from tattoos in the workplace to technology at the dinner table and the proper use of social media.


  1. Debbie K. says

    Diane, here’s an unusual situation I could use your take on:

    I have a friend who tries to get close to people by buying them presents. She is a very needy girl, who feels rejection very easily, even if it is not meant as such. Weeks before Hanukkah even started, she emailed me to tell me all the special gifts she picked out for every member of my family, based on our hobbies and interests. I told her “Jane, (not her real name) you don’t have to …” She replied that these were just token gifts and she wanted my family to have them. I said, “No, really, you don’t have to…” So, what does Jane do? She doesn’t give me anything. Do you think this is weird, or is it perfectly OK, because, after all, I did give Jane her answer.

  2. Josephine A. says

    My husband and I were invited by a friend to a white elephant party by who asked me what I thought about it and we talked about I and I expressed that I did not care much for them. she still invited me and we would have had to bring 2 gift. I responded that we would like to go to the party but I preferred not to participate in the gifts exchange and to let me know if she still wanted us to go…she replied that I needed to read an etiquette book and attacked me in a personal way. What should she or I have replied? My opinion would be to tell your friend that you would like their company and that the gift did not matter. After the first e-mail she send me a couple more, again attacking me personally at which time I e-mailed her and replied that we would not be attending. We are not friends anymore. Was I wrong? or as a host and friend she should have said that the gifts did not matter and to join them anyway. Please advise, this is really bothering me…thank you.

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