Christmas,  Holiday traditions,  Oakland Press columns

Unwrapping the stress of holiday giving

“Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.” ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Gift-giving can be as emotionally loaded as it is enjoyable — especially as we approach the Christmas season. As psychologists and etiquette experts agree, the stress of buying and exchanging gifts can dull our holiday sparkle if we don’t plan ahead.

“Some people may feel social pressures to give gifts, but not in the same spirit as others,” says Irene S. Levine, PhD, psychologist and co-author of The Rules of Friendship. “If someone is depressed, for example, it might be particularly difficult to enjoy the spirit of the holidays.”

The high expectations tied to holiday giving seem more problematic if our budgets are limited, she adds. And if our calendars are stacked with commitments this season, the self-imposed pressure of “finding the perfect gift” only adds to our anxiety.

With some careful thought and planning, however, gifting doesn’t have to be so stressful.

What do they really want?

Etiquette experts say it’s best to choose gifts from the perspective of your recipients. Before you shop, make a list of what’s meaningful for each person and make your decisions based on their interests or needs, advises Elaine Swann ( of The Swann School of Protocol.

Just because a random item is cheap or on sale doesn’t mean your recipient will want or need it.

If you can’t afford to buy a present that someone would really enjoy or find useful, then think outside the gift box. Ask yourself what you can do for them. Think in terms of special activities, favors or services — and think of the cash you’ll save on wrapping paper and ribbon.

Your retired uncle (who’s in the process of downsizing) probably doesn’t want more stuff, for example, so why not treat him to a holiday lunch? Give him your time and undivided attention over a club sandwich — and insist on picking up the tab.

And while it might seem cliched, a batch of your favorite Christmas cookies might come in handy for the working mom who has no time for holiday baking. Or how about offering a night of free babysitting?

If you’re running short on shopping time, consider a gift subscription to a magazine that would appeal to your receiver’s passion or hobby. Whether it’s cooking, crafts, pets, science fiction or home decor, you’ll find a publication devoted to it. Jot a note announcing the gift subscription in your Christmas card — and you’re all set.

To gift or not to gift

While gifts are always part and parcel of the winter holidays, they needn’t be over the top and shouldn’t be over budget.

Some families opt to draw names at Thanksgiving, buying only one Christmas gift for the family member whose name was pulled from the “Secret Santa” box. Others choose to skip the gifts, donating money instead to a favorite charity in honor of a deceased family member.

And don’t forget: A small gift for your host is always good form when you’re invited to a dinner party or holiday gathering, according to etiquette experts.

In any event, it’s never a good idea to give more than you can afford, Levine reminds us.

“Don’t give with the expectation of receiving a gift of equal value,” she says. “People have different notions about spending, and a gift isn’t necessarily an indicator of their feelings for you.”

Do make sure your gift is “in concert with the recipient’s values,” Levine adds. In other words, don’t buy the musical meat thermometer for your vegetarian aunt.

Avoiding hurt feelings

Whether you’re scaling back on the cost of gifts or prefer to stop exchanging them entirely, experts suggest you discuss your plans before you attend a gathering where gifts will be exchanged — especially if you’re breaking away from previous holiday traditions.

While the conversation might be awkward, it’s best to be honest, advises Maralee McKee of The Etiquette School of America ( And there’s no need to over-explain.

“Be sure to let them know this has nothing to do with how you feel about them,” she says. “Assure them it’s due to whatever your particular reasons may be and nothing more.”

All said and done, the secret to stress-free holiday gifting lies in managing expectations as well as your time and budget. As the old adage goes, the real value of a gift lies in the thought and care you put into it. ~Cindy La Ferle

This feature article was originally published 11/11/22 in The Sunday Oakland Press and online here.

Throughout my career, I've worked as a book production editor, travel magazine editor, features writer, and weekly newspaper columnist. My award-winning lifestyles features and essays have appeared in many national magazines and anthologies, including Newsweek, Reader's Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, Writer's Digest, Victoria, Better Homes & Gardens, Bella Grace, and more. My weekly Sunday "Life Lines" column ran for 14 years in The Daily Tribune (Royal Oak, MI) and won a First Place (Local Columns) award from the Michigan Press Association. My essay collection, Writing Home, includes 93 previously published columns and essays focusing on parenthood and family life.

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