Gifting Guidelines: Understand the Unwritten Rules of Gift-Giving

Gifting Guidelines: Understand the Unwritten Rules of Gift-Giving

Understand the rules underneath holiday giving

Before making a holiday gift list, get in touch with underlying assumptions about gifts and giving. Knowledge is power!

Christmas is coming! Do you understand the unwritten rules of gift-giving?

Each of us carries within ourselves a set of rules about gift-giving. Seldom acknowledged and rarely discussed, these rules determine what we give, how much we give, and to whom we give. Despite living only in our minds and expectations, the unwritten rules of gift-giving govern everything from the office Secret Santa exchange to the family's morning under the Christmas tree.

Problem is, “unwritten” means that gift-giving rules are subject to interpretation—both in our own minds, and in our dealings with others. Even in a single family, it's common to find members with radically different ideas when it comes to "the rules" of gift-giving.

Why is it so important to get a grip on the rules behind holiday giving before we make our Christmas gifts list?

First, if you don’t understand why you gift as you do, it’s easy to enter the land of the absurd: making a midnight raid on the supermarket’s toy aisle when you discover that one child’s stocking holds fewer gifts than his brother’s. 

Second, following one version of the unwritten rules can lead to conflict with loved ones, who may hold a different view. Scratch the surface of gift-giving disagreements, and you’re likely to find a rules conflict. 

Young adults take on debt to give their own parents gifts the empty nesters neither need nor use. A determined crafter feels let down when a handmade gift—the product of hours of work --is unwrapped to a lukewarm response from the recipient. None of the parties can address the real conflict unless they understand the source: a failure to share the same assumptions about the act of giving.

The place to start? By understanding your own set of gift-giving rules. Bringing “the rules” into focus is the first step to bringing sanity and simplicity back to the season—and being clear about your own underlying gift-giving assumptions can ease conflicts with others.

How do you and your family interpret the following gift-giving rules? There are no right or wrong answers:

  • Get a gift, give a gift: gift exchanges must be reciprocal.

  • Even-Steven: gift exchanges must be of equal value.

  • Once begun, never undone: gift exchanges, once established, must not change.

  • Come one, come all: gift exchanges must extend to every member of a relationship category.

Get a gift, give a gift

It’s a few days before Christmas, and the doorbell rings. A neighbor appears, offering a pretty basket of quick breads. You thank her, and graciously—but your heart sinks because you haven’t prepared gifts for the neighbors this year, much less baked goods.

Gotcha! You’ve just been tripped by reciprocity: the belief that for every gift received, one must be given.

As a general rule, reciprocity has an even-handed fairness to it, but applied to cases, it can be overbearing. A knee-jerk “like for like” exchange doesn’t account for differences in resources, intent or ability. Your neighbor likes to bake, is good at it, and enjoys her gift-giving rounds of the neighborhood. You don’t, but feel compelled to reciprocate anyway. Result: stress!

Know where your comfort limits lie on the issue of reciprocity, and prepare accordingly. If you’re a fervent believer in the principle, set aside a few “just in case” generic gifts before the season to be ready for the inevitable surprise presents.

If you’re more relaxed about the issue, focus on your response, not reciprocity; it’s likely to be the payback the giver will value most. Your neighbor will leave your home glowing when you clap your hands, damn your diet and insist on sampling the breads right then and there, along with a cup of tea and a good chat.


You’re a veteran shopper of outlet malls, and this year, you scored the perfect gift for your fashionista sister: a luxurious natural-fiber sweater marked down to a bargain price. Wrapping the sweater for the family gift box, you pause. Laid out next to the book you’re giving your brother, the sweater’s inequity strikes you—even though you paid the same amount for each gift.

What do you do? Add a gift card to brother’s gift? Set the sweater aside for Sis’s birthday to avoid a comparison? Give the gifts as they are? Welcome to the slippery world of Even-Steven!

The notion that gift exchanges must be of equal value has as many heads as a sack of snakes. 

If your version of the rule declares that gifts must be of equal value, how do you decide what “value” is? Full retail price or the actual amount spent? For homemade gifts, do you consider cost of materials or the time spent to create them?

More important, how will you assess your end of the exchange? Will you be disappointed if your sister’s gift to you is more modest, less “valuable” than that perfect sweater?

Be aware: Even-Steven calculations can be a flashpoint for holiday conflict, especially if there are status or financial differences between parties to the exchange. 

An affluent auntie can cause resentment with lavish gifts to her nephews, if the children’s parents can’t afford to match or reciprocate her largesse. A well-meaning boss can ruin office morale if she chooses an inappropriate employee gift: a $25 gift certificate to her favorite boutique, where even the toilet water starts at $40. A family member who plays by the law of averages ("I gave a big gift last year, so will scale back this year!") can bump up against a loved one's preferences for year-by-year equality, to hurt feelings all round.

Think carefully about how you assess value when giving. Embracing a more flexible measuring stick is a powerful holiday stress-buster, even when other parties to the exchange may not hold the same view. Divorcing considerations of what you paid, what else you gave, and what you got in return allows you to reach for the true values of connection and gratitude that, ideally, underlie the practice of giving gifts.

Once begun, never undone

It was a nice idea, that first year after you moved across the country: sending gift baskets of local specialty foods to the folks in your old neighborhood. The second year, they sent you a box of your favorite sweets. Five years later, the packages are still jetting from coast to coast. What will you send this year?

Examine where you stand on the notion of longevity in gift exchanges. If you feel that once begun, gift exchanges should continue from year to year, think carefully about beginning new ones. Since you value the continuity that the ongoing exchange provides, be sure that the exchanges celebrate your deepest relationships—and the other party shares your view.

If you’re more comfortable with a dynamic view of exchange longevity, send the neighbors a lovely card this year and breathe easier. Chances are, they’ll be relieved that you’ve called a halt to an exchange whose time has come … and gone.

Come one, come all

Who is included on your gift list? If you give a gift to one member of a group—family, friends, co-workers—do you believe you must you give equal gifts to all?

For example, Christmas at the in-laws’ house is rich in tradition. There’s oyster stew on Christmas Eve, plum pudding for dessert—and a Christmas morning gift exchange among all five children. And their spouses. And their children.

Coming up with more than 20 gifts each year wracks your brain and wrecks your budget. You’d love to scale back the annual extravaganza, but you know that your husband would object—strenuously. That towering annual pile of presents? It’s a family tradition--and a classic issue of "come one, come all" when it comes to gift-giving.

Family history and tradition will play a part in where you fall on the equality spectrum, and there are no right answers.

For many, the act of giving one-to-one is central to their expression of the holidays. If scaling back the number of gifts or giving selectively feels wrong, consider setting cost limits to reduce the burden of celebrating all those relationships.

Others find that scaling back group gifts by drawing names, white elephant exchanges or an informal “no gifts” agreement enhances their holiday and reduces seasonal stress.

For them, the trick is to negotiate the change in a loving way, and to understand that others may feel more invested in individual gifting than they do.

Knowledge is power

When it comes to the unwritten rules of gift-giving, there is only one right answer: the one that is right for you! By taking a long, hard look at the beliefs that underlie your giving decisions, you empower yourself to give consciously, in harmony with your own values. By knowing where you stand on these issues, you'll be able to address any conflicts with others in a loving, measured way.

Unwritten or not, there are rules to giving and receiving gifts. Know where you stand ... to simplify your holidays and celebrate the season!