- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

Karen Tessier doesn't just shop for her children at holiday time.

The stay-at-home mother of five children ages 2 to 18 also gathers, makes or hunts down offerings for her parents and her in-laws and her 14 nieces and nephews. There are the neighbors, and don't forget the mail carrier.

Don't even think of leaving out the teachers. This year, Ms. Tessier plans to assemble six gift baskets for them, each containing a Christmas candle and an assortment of hot chocolate, coffee, tea and candy.

Gift giving plays a starring role in the holidays for scores of Americans. Some, such as Ms. Tessier, say they don't really mind the extra bustle, not to mention expense, that buying or making large numbers of presents can entail. Others, however, say they feel the pressure real or otherwise to give generously and find it difficult to distinguish between obligation and appreciation.

The entire holiday effort takes a lot of organizing, concedes Ms. Tessier, a Sterling resident and graduate student at George Mason University.

"I actually am freaking out right now," she says. "Every year, I tell myself I'm going to go out and do my shopping early, but I don't. It's not so much that I get upset or pressured, it's just that it's time-consuming to think about every single individual."

"Gift giving has always been a part of Christmas," says Jean Coppock Staeheli, coauthor of "Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back Into the Season."

The events of September 11 will only slightly tighten purse strings during December, according to information released in the American Express Retail Index. On average, American household expenditures will reach $1,042 for holiday gifts this year, says Susan Korchak, spokeswoman for the American Express Retail Index. In addition, each household has budgeted $139 for holiday travel, $78 for decorations and $88 for miscellaneous holiday expenses.

Seventy-seven percent of consumers say September's terrorist attacks will not affect their holiday spending, and 70 percent say the current economy will not affect their budgets, Ms. Korchak says.

"We always do an awful lot," Ms. Staeheli says. "It makes tangible our relationships with other people. It can be a business connection, it can be a connection that is old and worn out, it can be an obligatory connection."

Ms. Staeheli says that when she and her coauthor, Jo Robinson, conducted research for their book, they asked people what they enjoyed and did not enjoy about the holidays.

"People put gift giving toward the bottom, but that's what people put most of their time and energy toward," Ms. Staeheli says. "That's the No. 1 part of Christmas that's the most difficult thing for most people: They get caught in gift exchanges that don't have any meaning for them but take time and money."

Most people have felt the pinch of this type of connection, some nearly random:

• The neighbor who appears at the door year after year, gift in hand.

• The eight teachers including the two substitutes at a son or daughter's preschool.

• The paper-delivery guy, who drops off a Christmas card that contains, in addition to his good wishes, a self-addressed stamped envelope for return tidings.

The issue is that as a "mega gift-giving society," people tend to give gifts a lot, says Peggy Post, author of the 16th edition of "Emily Post's Etiquette."

"This can be terrific," she says. "The other side is the angst that is put on people. People will say, 'Why do I have to give a gift even if I don't want to?' It is confusing. There is no doubt about it."

Ms. Post, great-granddaughter-in-law of the legendary etiquette adviser Emily Post, says people should think about several fundamental principles when deciding whether to bestow a gift holiday or otherwise on someone.

"First, consideration and appreciation is there a reason to give a gift? Second, use good old common sense. You have to do what makes sense in your situation. Your budget is something to think about," she says.

Ms. Post emphasizes, however, that gifts are not requirements of friendship or association.

"A gift is for when you want to tell someone how much you appreciate him or her, and that involves selecting a gift that you think the person would like selecting it not in a resentful way but in a happy way."

Teachers and gifts

Ms. Tessier left academia five years ago after nearly a decade at the helms of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms. She says teachers are special people who deserve thanks at the holiday season if not all year round.

She recalls her own experience as a recipient of parental largess.

"As a teacher, it made me feel good when people went out of their way to make me feel appreciated," Ms. Tessier says. "But everyone has their own way of doing things, and I never felt weird," she says, about students who didn't bring gifts. "I never expected anything, so when I got something it was really nice to even have been given a gift of any kind."

During her nine-year teaching career, Ms. Tessier says she received a variety of offerings ranging from Nordstrom gift certificates to restaurant dinners to the humble coffee mug and Christmas tree ornament. All were welcomed.

"I don't know what other teachers do with their stuff, but I keep it," she says. "Even the ornaments still make me think of kids and their families."

But the nontangibles were just as powerful, Ms. Tessier says.

"It was more the words that came with the gifts 'Thanks for all your hard work. We appreciate it. Thanks for helping my kid so much.' It was the words that come with it as much as the gift itself," she says.

As the parent of five, Ms. Tessier has plenty of teachers to think about as she contemplates the holidays.

"But as a mom, I feel absolutely no pressure," she says. "I feel teachers are so often taken for granted that this is one of the few times a year that you can show them how much you appreciate what they do for your kid. It's not so much that I owe them something I just want them to know I appreciate them."

Teachers do relish being considered, agrees Robyn Freedman Spizman, a former teacher, as well, and author of "The Thank You Book: Hundreds of Clever, Meaningful, and Purposeful Ways to Say Thank You."

But Ms. Spizman suggests parents forget the mugs when choosing gifts. "Teachers just don't want a lot of little things, and you don't want your gift to be given away."

Instead, she says, "think about lifting her day. Think about what will put a smile on her face. Try to find something that matches her interests."

Ms. Spizman also emphasizes the weight of a written or spoken gesture of appreciation.

"The art of saying thank you is one of the most meaningful ways to let someone know that their actions and they themselves matter to you," she says. "The power of a thank you becomes a valued part of your life. When all is said and done, you want someone to remember your feelings."

Cindy Siler, a systems analyst living in Loudoun County, says she is thinking about ways to show her appreciation for her two children's teachers during the holidays.

She definitely intends to send in a present to her younger child's first-grade teacher.

"I help out in the classroom, and I've gotten to know her," Ms. Siler says. "I want to express my appreciation with a gift."

But she says the conundrum is that there are so many teachers in her children's lives these days.

"My daughter's in middle school now, so she has seven or eight teachers," Ms. Siler says. "I am not getting to know the teachers like you do in elementary school. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I've been thinking about it. I ought to get something I can get for all of them and not worry about the individual teachers."

On the other hand, Ms. Siler says, she is not really sure that gifts are a necessity at all.

"I'm really debating about whether I need to or not, maybe because there's that kind of detachment there because there are so many. So if I decide not to, I'm not going to feel guilty about it," she says.

One element of Christmas Ms. Siler says she no longer ponders is the obligation to give a gift to every member of the family.

"For a while there we were trying to give all the kids birthday and Christmas gifts," she says. Once the number of children grew to eight, family members initiated an annual practice of drawing names to determine who gives gifts to whom.

"The children draw the names to give gifts," Ms. Siler says. "Each child will get one gift for a cousin. It's a fun, mystery thing. You find out on Christmas."

Frankness is key

Whether within large extended families or among friends and colleagues, most people would welcome an interruption in the gift-giving sequence, Ms. Staeheli says.

She suggests using gentle and direct conversation to break the cycle.

"Talk with your husband, kids, extended family take your own emotional and spiritual temperature and decide," Ms. Staeheli says.

"Go to someone and say, 'I wanted to talk with you about this before Christmas. We have taken a look at our resources. We're talking about cutting back across the board for everyone,'" she says.

Substituting an experience for a material gift at least that first year can soften the impact. Suggest the friend or family member come over for dessert, or ask the person for a movie or lunch date.

Ms. Post, in her book, also says frankness is key to ending a gift-giving pattern that has become a nuisance.

She writes: "Well ahead of the occasion either write or say to the person, 'I've loved your gifts, but what with the economy like it is (or the new baby or redecorating the house, or whatever seems a good reason) let's just send cards this year.'"

Ultimately, people should consider what really matters to them, Ms. Staeheli says.

"How do I want to express the love and joy of the holidays?" she asks. "Whatever that is, people should do that thing and realize that there is going to be a lot of variation."

People should decide for themselves, and gifts don't have to be an element, Ms. Staeheli says.

"This is an argument for not putting money in the paper boy's envelope if that feels wrong," she says. "There is a certain amount of social coercion. And if you don't have a feeling about what you're doing, the commercial culture will fill in that void."

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