Commonsense Advice for the Holidays

Jeanne Marie Laskas provides etiquette expertise on topics like gift giving, neighbors, and getting along with your relatives during the Christmas season.

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Holiday Thank You© iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Jeanne Marie Laskas is not a shrink, but she does have uncommon advice. Here, a collection of queries on giving gifts and getting along, just in time for the holidays.

Thankless Sister

My sister isn’t lacking for brains, just common courtesy. Last Christmas, she never thanked us for our gifts. Recently, my husband and I gave her our old living-room set. Did we get a thank-you? Why do you think I’m writing?! How can I tell my easily offended sister that a little courtesy goes a long way?
– Grateful Sister

Dear Grateful,

Rude people don’t take well to scolding, so try something even better: the guilt trip! Tell her how it felt to have your generosity go unrecognized. It hurt, right? So say, “Ouch.” Sometimes the gentlest cry can jolt the rudeness right out of a person.

Festive Finances

Times are tough, so what’s the appropriate amount to spend on family, friends, or the children of friends you rarely see? Do I need to send the same amount to one child year after year? Will I be judged or criticized for sending one child more than the other?


– Strapped for Cash

Dear Strapped,

Sorry, there are no easy rules for giving other than this one: Don’t forget the point of the whole deal. A gift is a symbol that shows someone you care. A symbol! As the giver, you get to choose what to give. Doling out more cash than you can afford, or because you think you have to, builds resentment and defeats the purpose. Give what you want (or can afford), to whomever you want, trusting that everybody knows that times are tough. A handmade card or thoughtful note can say more than cash.

Mean Grandmother?

My husband and I have a daughter who has given us four beautiful grandchildren. On Christmas and their birthdays, we like to give them each a toy. The problem is that our daughter invariably takes the toys away, withholding them as a form of punishment, which seems unreasonable. What can we do?
– Doting

Dear Doting,

Not very much. Your opinions are irrelevant to whatever parenting techniques your daughter employs (as long as she is not harming her children). Your daughter may be stressed-out by the demands of having four kids. An offer to help may go a lot further toward your grandchildren’s well-being than any gift you could give them.

Due Credit

I have two stepdaughters, 21 and 24. On holidays, the older one always buys me a gift but adds her sister’s name on the card. I feel phony thanking the younger daughter — I’d rather get no gift than be a part of this charade. Is it tacky to ask the 24-year-old to refrain from giving her sister credit when it isn’t deserved? Will the younger one ever learn to be thoughtful?
– Mindful Mom

Dear Mindful,

Lighten up! Your older stepdaughter is a considerate and generous sister who covers for and protects her younger sibling. Good for her! The girls’ relationship is between them. As for your role, you can’t punish anyone into being thoughtful. You can, however, model thoughtful behavior. Go spend some time with her, and get to know her.

The Lonely Neighbor

We have an older neighbor who drops by to visit — three or four times a day. Birthdays, national holidays, even Christmas and Easter. As you may imagine, this cuts into quality family time. How can we break the cycle, without breaking a kindly woman’s heart?
– Revolving Door

Dear Revolving,

The poor soul! She’s desperately lonely and has adopted you. See if she has any family nearby and alert them to her neediness. Look into local senior citizen centers and encourage her to join and sign up for activities. Help her broaden her world so it is bigger than your living room. Tell her gently that your family needs time together. Make a gift of an engagement calendar, and then schedule “special visits” with her.

Bad News Bro

My adult brother has teased my son since he was two years old: wedgies, noogies, holding him upside down by his ankles, saying he wears pink panties. He teases until my son cries. My husband and I have told him many times to stop, but nothing’s worked. We quit inviting him over, even at Christmas. This caused a family crisis. The grandparents blame us and won’t visit anymore. Now what?
– Angry

Dear Angry,

You made the right choice. An adult who bullies a child needs to be stopped. Call a family meeting to explain why you excluded Uncle. For the sake of family unity, go to family parties, but only if your brother swears he’ll cease and desist. Watch to see that he does.

Thanks, But No Thanks

An etiquette question: My son’s teacher liked my perfume so I bought her a bottle. It wasn’t expensive, but she said “no thanks,” saying she thought I gave her too much. For the record, all I ever gave her was a Christmas gift and a trip souvenir. Shouldn’t a person just politely accept a gift?
– Generously Miffed

Dear Miffed,

The school may have rules about gifts because accepting one may result in favoritism. Anyhow, the teacher said “no thanks,” so that’s the end of it.

Thoughtless Friend

I have a friend who accepts my gifts, but never gives one to me — even for my birthday or Christmas. Initially I thought my friend was too busy or had different customs. Now, I think I’m just not valued.
– Feeling Worthless

Dear FW,

If it bugs you not to get stuff in return, then stop giving this person presents. Plenty of people agree to friendships that exclude obligatory gift-giving. But if you are truly feeling not valued as a friend, then why do you value this friendship?

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