Sticky question about holiday etiquette

Did you ever have one of those etiquette moments that stumped you? Find yourself asking WWEPD (“What Would Emily Post Do?”)? The holidays always seem fraught with those tricky questions about family and manners, especially as things change.

This year, a friend of mine asked me an interesting question:  when do you stop giving gifts to extended family members? Is there an age “cut-off” for nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.?


For our extended family, we give gifts to the kids until they’re 18 years old. It’s been a long-standing tradition on both sides of our family, so it’s hard to remember how it came to pass. But it definitely works as a good rule of thumb, and everyone so far has been on the same page.

How does this work in your family?

If your family does have “age guidelines” for gifts, here’s the really sticky part: what do you do if you try to have the conversation about when to stop gifting (as the “kids” are really now adults)… and you are completely, utterly rebuffed? And not just once, but each time you try to bring it up.

For the past several years, my friend’s attempts to talk about this have been seriously shut down, along the lines of “That’s not how my family does it” with no further discussion. Then she’s handed their wish lists for various gifts and gift cards.  It makes the Congressional “fiscal cliff” negotiations look like a congenial Kaffeeklatsch by comparison.

What would you do?

  • Do you just cut them off cold turkey and deal with the fallout after? (I shudder to think of that option — tense holiday party, anyone?)
  • Or do you get one last gift card and take a stand that it’s the last one?
  • Do you phase it out by not getting as big a present to try to transition them from child phase to the adult one?
  • Or do you just give whatever gift they requested and try not to be resentful?

Tricky. Very tricky. Especially because no one wants to look like a Scrooge during the big family party. (By the way, I asked her if I could throw this question out there to you lovely bloggers to tap into the collective wisdom, and she’s interested to see how other people would handle it).

Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and I’ll tell you what my advice was to my friend. Also, any other sticky holiday etiquette questions anyone is dealing with? Maybe we can all help each other through this season without stepping on too many toes… 🙂


About thethingaboutjoan

Mom of three who knits a little, bakes a lot, crafts a bit and blogs about it all.
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24 Responses to Sticky question about holiday etiquette

  1. Cul de Sac says:

    In those case, I just buy a small (small is the clue word here) box of chocolate or give handmade cookies in a nice packaging (about 5 or 6 cookies) so I give something and the “kids” understand I’m done with buying them gifts… I mean, gift giving should be something that is coming from the heart and that you take pleasure with, if it’s just a necessity, I think it’s wrong to go along that, so I like giving handmade cookies that is cheap costing but still very appreciated.

    • Josée, that’s exactly what I suggested to her: bake some Christmas cookies with her own elementary-school-aged kids and give them as presents. Of course, what took you mere minutes took me a couple DAYS of noodling about it in my head — should have come to the blog for advice sooner, I guess. Or maybe I should get lost on Pinterest… 🙂

      I thought a small handmade anything is a nice transition — but cookies are particularly nice (and tasty!).

      Thanks for the advice — I’m sure she’ll appreciate it. And it helps me calibrate whether my thoughts on these tricky family situations is on target or not. 🙂

  2. My family does not seem to have firm rules on this. I do believe as the youngest and the last to have kids, I definitely was short changed. I’m not bitter – just saying.

    • But your mom always did like you best! 🙂

      So, how do you handle gift-giving? Does it depend more on who you are going to visit during the holidays? Or do you just let it go?

      • At this point, I don’t give to my nieces and nephews (oldest is 17) just as my siblings don’t give to my children. Some years we do a pollyanna sort of thing. I am not so into that either. It just feels like we are exchaning gift certificates.

        If my mom does like me best, it is certainly because I am the most lovable.

      • Yeah, if you’re only exchanging gift cards, it’s not terribly exciting.

        I can also kind of see throwing over the whole gift card thing and doing a white elephant gift exchange. But man, you’d definitely need to be able to have a conversation about it with everyone AND their buy-in. Sure would pep things up a little. 🙂

        You and your “most lovable” comment reminds me so much of my husband — and he’s a youngest child too!

      • Clearly, he is lovable – you married him. I like that we sound alike. He must be a great guy.

  3. Katie B says:

    Our family is so small it’s not really an issue. I think Joseé’s idea is right on.

  4. I like Josee’s idea as well. Both my husband and I have large extended families. And if everyone got presents for everyone in each of these families, well then we all would be out of our homes for not being able to pay the mortgage! 🙂 We try to focus on homemade treats and I make sure to send out cards and notes throughout the year. Family isn’t supposed to be about the presents — it’s supposed to be about caring for one another and showing that you’re thinking about them. 🙂

    • I agree with how you’ve defined family — it really SHOULD be about caring for each other. And definitely racking up huge bills to put people out of their homes! 🙂

      And Kenley, as a fan of your blog I just have to say: Your handmade gift ideas are FABULOUS — better than what you can buy in a store and far far better than a gift card. 🙂 And that’s not even doing justice to your recipes!

  5. I totally agree that the holidays can cause many sticky social situations. My father-in-law recently sent out an email and had a separate meeting with my husband about what he would like for Christmas from his kids…the gift is over $700. How do you handle gifts for your parents? My parents never ask for or expect presents, so I’m not used to this.

    • Another tricky one. S and I usually work out a Christmas budget and then he figures out what to do for his side of the family and I think about mine. (That said — S is a WAY better gifter than I am, so he usually tosses out ideas for my side too.)

      I’ve been knitting my mom socks for the past few years now along with another little present or so. For my dad, I try to coordinate with my mom and my older brother.

      How does your husband (and his siblings) feel about it?

      • Thanks for the ideas. My husband said that he is going to give him what we originally planned (which was already an expensive gift in our mind), and his brother agreed that he is going to do the same. In a way, I feel bad because he won’t be getting what he specifically asked for, but on other hand, I am hoping he is grateful for what we do give him!

      • Good for you and your husband!

        To me, demanding gifts is along the same lines as the old adage, “It never hurts to ask” (which, to my jaded mind, means that people assume you’re going to cave in and give them whatever they want just because they asked).

        In both cases, my response is “Of course it doesn’t hurt to ask — as long as you’re prepared to graciously accept ‘NO’ for an answer.”

        Hope everything goes well. At any rate, you and your husband seem to be able to talk it out with his brother — and that’s a plus in any family!

      • I love your philosophy…hopefully he will feel the same way as you do 🙂 I really appreciate your advice!

  6. ” It makes the Congressional “fiscal cliff” negotiations look like a congenial Kaffeeklatsch by comparison.” I’ll be chuckling at that one all day! 🙂

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