Holiday Etiquette Tips Everyone Should Know

Etiquette experts offer advice on gift-giving, re-gifting and dressing for get-togethers to help you navigate the holiday season

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It's the season of giving. It's also a time when your budget may be stretched to its limits, begging the question: Who do you really need to buy gifts for?

NBC spoke to Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post (of the Emily Post Institute, and co-author of "Emily Post's Etiquette, 19th Edition") as well as TikTok-famous etiquette expert Sofia Marbella for their essential holiday tips.

Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions for all sorts of holiday dilemmas.

Who Should I Be Giving a Gift to?

In general, you want to identify the people that are most important to you, help you or your family in some way, or interact with you on a daily basis.

Examples include a nanny, nursing home staff or live-in care providers, dog walkers, pet sitters, doctors, hairdressers, newspaper delivery people, mail carriers and teachers.

Before giving any kind of cash tip, make sure you check in with the organization that that person belongs to as some can accept cash tips and some can't.

"The USPS does have very specific rules about what you can and cannot give to your mail carriers or to the branch. So it's really important that we follow that," Post says.

Teachers are often burdened with having to buy classroom supplies with their own money, so asking them if you can help meet those needs is a great way to direct your giving.

If you'd like to give teachers something for themselves, Post says, you should also check in with the school to make sure that the type of gift or the amount or the value of the gift is appropriate.

"A gift from your child is almost always welcome, Post says. "And if you're uncertain, a note of gratitude can go a long, long way."

Marbella says parents can feel overwhelmed when their child says they need to buy a gift for 10 teachers. In that instance, Marbella says, that can be too much. You can narrow your list to just the head teacher or the principal of the school.

What If I Can't Afford to Give Gifts This Year?

For most people, inflation has affected their wallets and they may not be able to be as generous as they might have been in years past.

"We've found that rather than just not give anything or feel like you have to apologize profusely for not having the same amount or the same type of gift that you gave last year, that writing a note and even just acknowledging, you know, I know this isn't what I've been able to do in years past, but I want you to know that I'm really grateful for our relationship," Post says.

If it's a service provider that you can't afford to give a tip to this year, Post says it's important to send them a thank you note to express your gratitude and make it clear that there wasn't anything wrong with their service.

Should I Be Sending Out Christmas Cards?

Christmas cards are turning into a forgotten tradition. Marbella hails from Bulgaria, where she says sending Christmas cards is something that is socially obligatory.

"It's something that you should do always, no matter what, every year," she says. "Christmas cards are the first things that we should give to all of the people that are important in our everyday lives."

Go to the post office and send them. You want the people around you to know that you've made an effort and this small gesture comes from your heart.

What Should Be On My Holiday Cards?

Postcards with pictures are great, especially when you have small children or pets that you want to show off.

If you're sending a newsletter-style card, Post says you should try and keep the news positive and a little more generalized than specific. Some examples she gives are highlights like, "Susie is doing really well in Math," or "We're really proud that he'll be graduating this year and going to such-and-such University." Keep your newsletter-type cards to one page or less.

Post says it's fine to send holiday cards however you want, whether they're handwritten or preprinted.

Marbella says cards should always be handwritten.

Gift Cards vs. Actual Gifts?

Post and Marbella are in agreement that when it comes to gift cards, they're a welcomed gift.

"Some people think it's rude to give a gift card, but in today's day and age, we have found at Emily Post that they are very welcome and that many folks do use them and appreciate them," Post says.

Marbella prefers to receive gift cards from acquaintances and people who may not know her well enough to choose a gift for her and vice versa.

"A gift card is perfect because it's easy, you can buy whatever you want, and then it's done," Marbella says.

Lizzie Post, Co-President of Emily Post - an organization dedicated to giving etiquette advice for building better relationships - gives advice on whether or not gift cards are a good gift.

Do I Need to Bring a Gift to the Host? What Kind?

It's always a good idea to show your appreciation to someone who has invited you into their home, is cooking you a meal, or is hosting you in any way. However, it's not always necessary.

For some social groups, it's a must, Post says. "Other social groups don't do it at all. So you really want to kind of think about what fits you and your personal entertaining style."

Hosts should also never throw a party expecting to receive gifts. They're nice to receive but you would never want to make someone feel awkward for not bringing one.

Marbella says your gift should not create extra work for the host.

If you're going to bring flowers, make sure you also bring a vase for them so that the host doesn't have to stop what they're doing to look for a vase. Or you can bring a potted plant, a nice candle, or a book if you know what kind of things the person is interested in reading. For two-gifts-in-one, Marbella suggests wrapping a wine bottle in a kitchen apron.

Post recommends homemade treats so long as you make certain that your recipient isn't allergic to any of the ingredients or that you include the ingredients on a card on the exterior of the packaging.

Is It Okay to Make a Wish List and Give It to People?

"When relatives and friends of the family start asking what you or your kids might want, it is okay to tell them," Post says.

While it might feel a bit uncomfortable, remember that they are asking you what you or your kids might like. The key is to wait to send a wish list until you've been asked and not before.

It's also very important for grandparents, relatives and friends of families to ask parents about gifts that they'd like to purchase for kids to ensure that they're welcome.

"Things that would enhance everything, not become a problem, or that they're gifts that kids can actually use," Post says. "You know, sending that great, awesome saucer swing is great. But if there's no place in the apartment or the backyard for them to actually hang this awesome swing, we have a big problem."

Communication is always important.

If Someone Gives You a Gift, Are You Obligated to Give Them One?

Throughout the year, we give gifts to people to celebrate their birthdays, weddings, graduations or other occasions in a one-way exchange. But around the holidays, when someone gives us a gift we feel obligated to reciprocate.

Post says that it's actually okay if you don't have a gift in return.

"Focus on the fact that someone gave you a gift and say, 'Thank you so much for thinking of me. Thank you for your spirit of generosity.' Don't try to come up with a quick lie."

Should You Be Giving a Gift to Your Boss?

Gifting in business settings should be done with caution, according to Post. "Typically, we say you don't gift up the ladder, you gift down the ladder."

Business relationships where you give a gift to your boss are rare. Post says one reason for this is that you don't want to appear to be trying to win your boss's favor by buying them a gift.

If you have a boss who has been really incredible and you still want to give them a gift, Post recommends inviting other employees to join you in giving a group gift. If they say no, "don't gift up to the boss just on your own."

In this case, a card is an appropriate way to demonstrate your appreciation.

How Should I Dress for Holiday Get-Togethers?

Marbella says looking your best is just as important when you're having Christmas dinner at home as it is when going to an event.

The holidays are a time to celebrate being together. "Clean yourself, put on your best clothes, put on some makeup. You should be like a princess or a prince."


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♬ Anti-Hero - Taylor Swift

How Many Presents Should I Buy for My Kids?

Both Post and Marbella suggested that parents adopt the 4-gift rule or the 5-gift rule.

The 4-gift rule is to buy your kids something they want, something they need, something to wear and something to read. The 5th can be an extra something fun that they may not know they want or need.

Anything over that can turn to excess. Marbella said that when she was a young parent she made the mistake of buying her kids 10 or 12 presents each in addition to the gifts they would receive from their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and everyone else. She recently asked her kids who are young adults if they remembered all the gifts they would get at Christmas and they said they didn't.

So now, Marbella tells parents of young kids to save their money. If you feel the urge to buy them more stuff, put the money aside in a bank account that will accrue as they get older.

Is It Okay to Re-Gift?

When being careless, re-gifting can be one of the worst faux pas imaginable. When done correctly, it can be an excellent way to take something that may not be the right fit for us and give it to someone else who would cherish it.

Post recommends admitting that it's being regifted in an open and honest way. "So when you receive two copies of the same book this holiday, you can say, 'Hey, I got two copies of this, I really wanted to give my second one to you because I knew you would so enjoy this gift.'

If you don't feel like you could adhere to this, Post outlines 4 points that you should keep in mind when re-gifting:

  1. It needs to be in its original packaging and have all of its original parts and pieces and manuals, etc.
  2. Make sure that the gift isn't something uniquely made for you, that it's not something that is personalized, either with a date or a monogram or something like that. "We really don't want to be gifting things that were beautifully handmade items. So, you know that sweater that your sister knit for you for Christmas? Probably not one you should be gifting to your friend, even if it's something you end up moving on from in your life a little bit. I think that's one you might want to hang onto just for a little bit because someone put a lot of effort into this for you."
  3. Make sure that when re-gifting, you are 99.9% sure that if the person who gave you the gift and the person receiving the gift found out that it was a re-gifted gift, that they wouldn't have their feelings hurt.
  4. You need to believe the person would want genuinely want it. "This is not just a chance to get rid of your stuff, but not send it to Goodwill. This is something that you really think, 'Oh my gosh, this person would absolutely love this thing.'"
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