AML in Print

Oakland Tribune
Sunday, December 5, 2004

Gifts aren't supposed to keep on giving in the form of stress

LEAVE it to Americans to turn a joyful and sometimes generous act - giving a gift - into something that creates frazzled nerves and stress.

From the insanity of the malls the Friday after Thanksgiving to last-minute Christmas shopping Dec. 24, we've entered the frenzied month of gift-giving and gift-getting.  And gift worrying.

Santa Claus has it easy.  On his list:  All the good boys and girls of the world. Off his list:  All the bad ones.

Those of us who are not jolly old elves do not have the luxury of such clear instructions.

It's not enough to have to think up and buy and wrap gifts for the people in your life.  Before you do any of that, you have to decide who's on your list in the first place.

Learning to say thanks

Leaving someone off your list can be a sticky social situation, especially when that person shows up with a gift for you.  

It's many peoples' etiquette nightmare.  You see a friend or acquaintance during the holidays and they have a wrapped present in hand.

Your mind starts to race.  You briefly consider whether you have anything on your person at this very moment that could suffice as a gift.  Your keys -no.  Your wallet - no.  Your cell phone - they'll never believe you bought it for them.  Is a pack of gum a sufficient holiday gift?

You are caught in a social snare.

What do you do?  Well first, you shouldn't worry so much.  Second, remember the manners your parents taught you, says Castro Valley etiquette consultant Sylvia Montgomery.  

"You just say, thank you so much!  It was so kind of you, she says."  "When you're giving gifts, it's not supposed to be to get something else.  If someone is giving you something it's from the heart.  A gift is not supposed to be on the condition of getting something in return."

Just say "No, thanks"

If the pressure's getting to you, sometimes the right answer is to put up the white flag and surrender.  Don't give gifts at all.

Connie Jo Cotton, who lives in Palo Alto, says she goes all out to get presents for her nieces and nephews, but when it comes to her girlfriends, she'd rather skip holiday gifts.  

She'd rather give a fiend a gift on her birthday, because it feels more special that way.

But what do you do if you and your friends have always exchanged gifts?

The answer is to just address the dilemma up front, says etiquette expert Lisa Grotts.

"I got an email from my good friend Sandy that said, "My husband and I have spent a ton of money on our remodel.  Is it OK if we don't exchange gifts?  I wrote her back and said, "Thanks for letting me know early" Grotts says.

"If you do normally exchange gifts, just say, instead of exchanging gifts, let's go out and throw ourselves a cocktail party.  Let's all treat ourselves to a massage or a pedicure and be with each other"

Of course, there is one instance in which you shouldn't shirk gift-giving duty.

"When you go to a party at someone's house you always bring a hostess gift, Grotts says.  Flowers are always nice, but I say if you're going to send an arrangement send it beforehand or afterward."

Little gifts for a household with children are always nice, as is as a nice, neutral candle, a box of chocolates or a bottle of wine.  Do find out if your hostess drinks alcohol before you give a bottle, though.

Grotts says during the holidays she bakes a kitchenful of zucchini breads to hand out as little token presents and hostess gifts.