10 Gift-Giving Questions Everyone Wants Answered

It’s not the holidays until your great aunt’s unicorn-themed gift arrives on your doorstep. The problem is that you haven’t liked unicorns since the second grade, and she’s been sending these presents to you for the past 20 years.

And thus begins the season of awkward gift giving.

The holidays present a veritable minefield of scenarios that don’t exactly promote peace on earth and goodwill toward men—and that includes giving and receiving. How much should you spend on a hostess gift, especially when you have a dozen parties to attend? Do you need to buy presents for all of your friends’ kids? And how do you handle those thanks-but-no-thanks gifts from well-meaning relatives?

This is why we tapped Emily Post’s great-great grandson, Daniel Post Senning, co-author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition,” to answer 10 of the most puzzling gift-related questions that pop up this time of year.

LearnVest: My friend always gives me lavish gifts. Do I have to reciprocate?
Daniel Post: The straightforward answer is no. It’s a cliché, but gift giving is ultimately about the spirit or thought behind the present. Be truly and genuinely appreciative of your friend’s gift, and reciprocate as best as you can in spirit, if not dollar for dollar.

Relatives whom I know can’t afford gifts send me a present every year. Should I say something?
[At the Emily Post Institute], we often say that you want to receive a gift with the same spirit of generosity with which it is given. In this case, you should receive the gift and be appreciative, but if you anticipate hardship for that person, talk to the individual ahead of time. Discussions about money during the holidays should be open, candid and honest. Use simple language by saying, “We’re really trying to keep it minimal this year. I so appreciate everything you’ve done in the past, but this year a card will be just fine.”

I have relatives staying with me for the holidays, and I don’t normally get them gifts. Should I make an exception this year?
If there will be a big gift exchange, it’s a nice idea to include everyone—and that means the guests in your home, too. It’s not a traditional obligation, but it’s good courtesy. You don’t need to break the bank, but you can show you care with a couple of wrapped things under the tree, so everyone can participate.

As everyone in the family gets older, I’d love to skip gifts and do something that gives us more time together, like a family trip. How do I bring this up?
Mention what you have in mind as soon as the idea hits you. Say something like, “Wouldn’t it be great if next year we did this instead?” Offer it up as an open-ended suggestion to plant the seed, and see if there’s receptivity among others. Ideally, you’ll have brought it up before the holidays, so you can follow up on the idea throughout the year and keep the ball rolling.

I get the same gift from a relative every year, and it’s not something that I actually enjoy. What do I do?
Suggest starting a new tradition, and be clear about the change in direction. For example, you might suggest a bake-off instead of presents. You could also try dropping subtle hints about your wish list to this family member ahead of time, like, “Boy, I’ve got a closet full of sweaters. It’d be nice to get a hat this year.” And if you get the same gift, anyway, just smile and be thankful.

My friends and I have always given gifts to each other’s kids, but now that they’re older, I’d like to stop. How do I broach this?
It’s natural for traditions to evolve, but it’s nice to get everybody on board ahead of time. So whenever you’re dealing with a change in tradition, it’s best to talk to everyone involved as soon as possible to explain why you want to make the change. A good approach is to say something like, “It’s getting to be too much for all of us to get gifts for each other. Why don’t we draw names this year or just have a get-together instead?”

A lot of my friends have had babies recently. Do I have to get them all gifts?
No. Just because your friends are having children doesn’t mean that you’re obligated to get their kids presents. But one good thing to keep in mind: If you want to stay involved with friends who are entering this phase of their lives, engaging with their kids is not a bad thing.

We have so many holiday parties to attend this year. Do we have to buy a gift for each and every host?
If you’ll just be making a quick visit, you don’t necessarily need to bring something. Generally, with hostess gifts, the threshold for gift giving starts when someone cooks you a meal. If that’s the case, bring a bottle of wine, some nonperishable sweets, a centerpiece or an ornament. You don’t have to go all out, but the thought is nice.

A friend made a donation on my behalf to a nonprofit that doesn’t support my values. What do I say?
First, thank your friend for the gift. But then ask if you can have a separate, private conversation about the donation, and then broach the subject gently by saying, “I love that you’re thinking about ways to help other people, but there’s actually another organization that I like to contribute to.” You don’t have to turn the talk into a big political discussion—just tell your friend that it’s about fulfilling the thought behind the gift in the best way possible, and that you’d be more comfortable putting the donation toward a different nonprofit.

I want to make handmade gifts this year, but I don’t know if the recipients would appreciate them. Should I do this?
Execution really does matter. Your D.I.Y. gift shouldn’t just be a last-minute, cheap alternative—it should be something that you genuinely think the person will like or appreciate, and that you really want to invest the time in making. If you’re unsure, test the waters a bit first. Ask some leading questions to help you figure out if they like crafty items. Mostly, people just want to know that you’ve invested time and care into your gifts, that you’re not just handing out cookie-cutter presents because it’s easier for you.