Now that you’ve finished shopping and wrapping, the tree is up, the cards are out, and the baking is under control, there’s one more topic we need to discuss. Why I would never be friends with someone so perfect. Just kidding. I’ve never met anyone who is at that point two weeks before Christmas, so you may be a wonderful human being. Or an alien. Or manic. (I’m bipolar. The one year I got everything done this early was before I started getting proper treatment.)
No, I’m talking about gift etiquette. Kids are not the only ones who open gifts and suffer from “You obviously spent a lot of money. Why on earth would you spend it on this?”
One year when I was in college, my boyfriend got me a large mirror. It was a cat amidst a bunch of houseplants with the title “In the jungle darkness lurks the tiger.” It was really cute, and definitely fit my personality. I had no place whatsoever to put it, but thought it was a great gift. My mother took one look at it and said, “Why did he get you THAT?” Can you tell she didn’t like him?
Of course, she is the one who got a pair of faux Louis XIV lamps from her mother-in-law to go with her Danish modern furniture. And a purple negligee from the same woman (she is neither the purple type nor the negligee type). They didn’t get along. I think she may have been living vicariously through me. She spent years bashing the gifts I got from various boyfriends. Fortunately she got more tactful by the time my husband started giving me gifts (or she liked him better).
While I would never advise my mother’s route of putting hideous lamps in your living room for ten years to show appreciation for the thought, I don’t recommend opening something and telling the giver “but this isn’t the one I wanted!” either. (Another relic of my pre-medicated days. My family is really, really grateful I found a decent doctor.)
I think it’s important to understand the giver. Obviously, anything you get from your child should be accepted with the same heart-felt joy they had in buying it/making it. No matter what it is, they genuinely thought you would like it and have spent a lot of time on it. Needless to say, this advice needs to go by the wayside somewhere over the age of ten.
While some teenagers still care about the recipient, I think some are more casual about the whole thing. “Oh, that’s right, you belong to the NRA. Sorry about the vegan food club membership.” Or, “I ran out of money after I bought gifts for [significant other]. But I’m sure you’ll like this soap from the dollar store. You always told me it’s the thought that counts.” A large percentage won’t care (or notice) if you return it.
Not so much with parents. Assuming they still like you and your spouse, they have put some thought into your gift(s). And they would like to think they know you well enough to know what you would like to have. So, if you receive another gift for your office (zen garden, aquarium, scorpion paperweight), be enthusiastic. They will never know that you returned it for the office basketball hoop with automatic return you really wanted.
It’s a little trickier with a spouse. He will probably notice if you return the sexy negligee for a flannel gown. By the time you are married, it is too late to tell him that it makes you feel like a slut (unless it’s a combination wedding/Christmas gift). We all know the gift is really for him, but there is usually something of a compliment in it. He won’t buy it unless he wants to see you in it. You can wear it one time for him. On the way from the bathroom to the bed. If you look as bad as you think you do, he won’t ask again. If you look as good as he thinks you do, you’ve got a new outfit.
Conversely, she’ll probably know if the boxers with “Gift from Santa” on the front disappear. (If you’re married to the girl above, you’re probably already happy with the gifts and don’t need my advice.) However, in your case, you need to find out whether it’s a joke or her idea of sexy. If they are accompanied by another pair covered in cartoon reindeer, it is probably a joke. If there’s a how-to manual for something you’ve never heard of, there are things you may not know about your wife.
Writing this has reminded me that the only thing that is done around here is the tree. And that is handled by my husband and daughter. You’re on your own with your bosses, friends and neighbors. Keep in mind: the tactfulness should increase based on the amount of damage they can do to your life/career.