5 ways to avoid gift-giving gaffes this holiday season

Holiday celebrations can be a wonderful time, but they can also become awkward when people don't share the same gift-giving philosophy.

Due to economic hardship or simply a principled stand on presents, some people prefer to pare down Santa's shopping list to only the youngest children, or implement a gift-exchange system rather than purchasing presents for everyone in the extended family.

But for occasions like Christmas, which are steeped in tradition and emotion, broaching the topic with loved ones or co-workers can be uncomfortable.

“It’s probably the most challenging time of the year,” when it comes to stress, says etiquette expert Karen Cleveland. “There’s an intense amount of pressure. It’s very emotionally charged, there’s a lot of idyllic expectations. It’s steeped in family traditions.”

So, how can one navigate these social landmines? Experts say it’s best to approach your co-workers and loved ones early and honestly.

“A lot of time, the spending frenzy is a function of habit versus a function of choice,” says personal finance expert Bruce Sellery.

“[People say] ‘It’s kind of always how we do it. And we’ve never really thought of doing it differently.’ Ask the question so you can have the dialogue going.”

If you haven’t had that gift-giving discussion yet with your friends, co-workers and family, time is running out, says Cleveland.

“Someone very well may have already found the perfect gift for you… So it’s a little precarious to assume that a month before Christmas you can wipe the slate clean and reset traditions,” she says. “Broach that far earlier.”

Thanksgiving is a good opportunity to talk with your family members, or even co-workers, about how you want to handle gift-giving this year.

Louise Fox, an etiquette expert based in Orillia, Ont., talked with her family several months before the holiday festivities.

“Right now, some keeners already have a gift… Just be kind and thoughtful and considerate of the person, and they can agree or not agree.”

No matter what your motivation is for changing the gift-giving protocol – whether it’s finances or a strike against excessive consumerism – the discussion can be awkward.

The best way to handle it is to be honest, Fox says.

“There’s no point beating around the bush,” she says. “You have to be straight forward about it… You should never have to spend more or buy a gift if you’re not comfortable with it.”

Explain your reasons, she says. If you are really having financial difficulties, people are likely to be understanding.

“Not everyone has the same financial means,” Fox says. “If it doesn’t work for you, you say, ‘I’m sorry. This year, it’s been a rough year for me. I would love to contribute, but I’m really not able to.’ Certainly, people have to be able to expect that.”

It’s also key to have the conversation in person, or at least on the phone, she says.

Another option is to make it clear early on, to everyone, how you plan to participate in the gift-giving tradition, says Cleveland. She cites a friend of hers who is embarking on a big trip in 2013, and has made it well known that she is making all her Christmas gifts this year.

“Which is a smart cue, because everybody knows that’s diplomatic-speak for she’s on a tight budget,” says Cleveland. “And smart friends will reciprocate with something in sync with that.”

Even if the discussion is honest and direct, people still might not come to an agreement. The only way to navigate this situation is with an easy-going attitude, says Cleveland.

“You can cross your arms, and pout and say that you are definitely not exchanging gifts, and run the risk of ruffling some feathers in the process. Do you want to be right or do you want to get along with people? Do you really want to use Christmas as an opportunity to make a point? Or, do you want to find a way to make it work and compromise?”

Another option is to alternate the gift-giving traditions from year to year, says Vancouver-based etiquette expert Margaret Page. For example, you could give everyone gifts this year and set up an exchange for next year, she says.

Other options include pooling money to make a donation or sponsor a child in need, says Sellery.

Still, it’s possible that you can’t get everyone to come to a decision, says etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau.

“They can do whatever they want,” she says. “It may not end where everybody is going to agree. The magic words at that time are, ‘Why don’t we both agree to disagree? I just wanted you to know. I can see you’re really passionate about your traditions, and I’m really passionate about this new way of living.’”

Another option for people who don’t want to spend the money on new presents is to pass on a gift that was once given to them. As people push to be more environmentally friendly and cut back on waste, there are times when this is appropriate, says Blais Comeau.

But make sure the original gift giver won’t find out and take offense, she says.

“If your worlds are going to collide, don’t do it,” says Blais Comeau. “Don’t do it if it is a family heirloom, don’t do it if it’s handmade or personalized in any way for you… Make sure to freshen up the package, and make sure the original wrapping is still there.”

Despite telling everyone that you did not plan to buy presents for everyone, a friend may give you a present anyway.

If that happens, etiquette experts say accept the gift, send a loving thank-you note, but do not feel obligated to reciprocate.

“You accept it graciously and say, ‘Thank you so much,’” says Page. “Christmas should not be about , ‘I give you, and you give me.’ [Gifts are] a way of celebrating life.”

Resist the urge to tell the generous gift giver that you got them a gift if you didn’t, says Blais Comeau.

“Don’t lie and say that theirs is on the way, that you special ordered, or that you personalized it and you have to pick it up… Whatever it is, don’t lie. If you sincerely want to reciprocate, do so at a later time,” says Blais Comeau.

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