Uncommon Sense: A Modern Guide to Holiday Etiquette

Our resident voice of reasons shares advice for the everyday—and the holidays.

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine December 2013

uncommon sense santaIllustrations by Istvan Banyai

I want to adopt a more low-key approach to the holidays—fewer gifts, less madness. Is there a polite way to tell friends and family?

Say you’re taking a break from the excess to celebrate the season, and create a gift-giving plan that suits you. You can’t control what others choose to do, but you can feel good about starting a less-is-more trend.

I wasn’t invited to a friend’s New Year’s party. I’m crushed! Can I say something?

No. The chance that it’s an oversight does not outweigh the risk that it’s not—in which case everyone will feel icky and you’ll look pathetic. Find something else to do on New Year’s, and keep a curious eye on that friendship in 2014.

Times are tough. Do I have to give my boss and coworkers a holiday present?

No, but remember: Times will get a lot tougher without that job. Why risk losing your luster? Show your gratitude at holiday time with a small gesture—cookies, a card, or an ornament.

I found a $20 bill on the floor of the market and kept it. Should I have turned it in to someone, or am I overthinking it?

Too late now. (Yeah, you should have tried to find out who dropped it.) Take the bill and put it into the Salvation Army’s kettle, and see how much better you feel.

My teen left her e-mail open on the family computer, and I read it. Afterward I felt guilty. Should I confess?

No. Confession may be good for the soul, but an occasional glance at a teenager’s e-mail is part of vigilant parenting in today’s digital times.


I received a present that was clearly regifted (torn box, missing instructions). Is it rude to say something?

Yes, unless you say, “Thank you for the gift. I love it.” Someone thought of you, and remember what counts: It’s
the thought.

My kid’s classmate told him there is no Santa. How do I maintain the magic?

Don’t lie. And tell him you believe in Santa (don’t you?) because there’s a little bit of Santa in everyone.

I have family visiting from out of town. Do I give them my bed? Is it inconsiderate to offer a couch or an
air mattress?

No one wants to sleep in your bed except grandparents with bad backs who make the request. Otherwise, start the air pumps.

It’s always a fight with my wife over who watches what show and when. Any ideas?

A second television? If you want togetherness, consider a compromised schedule of viewing: Each of you gets to pick one show a night. If you don’t like her choice, sit with her and read a book.

My colleagues always wish me a merry Christmas, but I don’t celebrate the holiday. What do I say?

Say, “Thank you. Same to you.” Think of those wishes as a general greeting akin to “Have a nice day,” another saying that can set your teeth on edge if you let it.

If someone sends me a holiday card in the mail, do I have to reciprocate?

No. Adding people to your holiday card list is about reaching out, not keeping score.

I’m not married and have a crush on a new coworker. Is it weird to give a holiday gift?

It’s a risk and could get sticky. But there’s no better time than the holidays to give love a whirl. Get a gift card to a local coffee shop and see if your heartthrob takes the hint and invites you to share a cup.

I mailed gifts to friends out of state and didn’t get a reply or a thank-you. Can I say something?

If you want to be certain they got the gifts, by all means ask. If you’re trying to teach your friends some manners, forget it.

My officemate only eats from and never contributes to the community candy jar. What should I say?

Nothing. Move on. It’s candy! It’s not fair. But that’s life. 

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