- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

Meghan Brown, 23, of Northwest, received a gargantuan tree topper from her grandmother one Christmas. “It was so huge, it would’ve tipped the whole tree over,” Miss Brown says.

Jeanne Catrow of Davidsonville, Md., received a scented wax bear on a stick from her mother-in-law for Christmas one year.

“I think it’s the worst Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten,” Mrs. Catrow says.

The question is — particularly today, the day after Christmas — what should be done with unwanted gifts? Is it OK to regift, donate or exchange them?

“It’s case by case,” says Peggy Post, author of “Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition,” a guide to manners. “But I always say, ‘When in doubt, don’t regift.’”

Regifting can be tricky because the gift has to be in its original packaging. The recipient also has to be sure that the giver never finds out, because that could hurt the giver’s feelings, she says.

Exchanging and donating fall in the same category, says Robyn Freedman Spizman, author of “The Thank You Book: Hundreds of Clever, Meaningful and Purposeful Ways to Say Thank You.”

“You have to ask yourself, ‘Is it really worth hurting someone’s feelings because you didn’t get exactly what you wanted?’” Ms. Freedman Spizman says.

She says it’s more important to focus on the relationship than the actual gift; the giver gave some time and thought to the gift, even if it wasn’t exactly what the recipient wanted.

“Focus on showing your gratitude,” she says. “The thank-you mantra is, ‘Take the high road.’”

Both the treetopper and the scented wax bear on a stick, however, got regifted — one went to charity; the other was passed off to another relative.

If your relationship to the giver of a horrendous gift is close and strong enough, by all means, be honest, but only after thanking enthusiastically, Mrs. Post says.

“First, try to find something you like about the gift and make sure you don’t criticize the gift in front of children,” she says.

Using tact in front of children helps them learn how to deal with awkward situations — times when things don’t go exactly their way, Mrs. Post says.

Ms. Freedman Spizman suggests using humor to soften any criticism.

“Say something like, ‘I don’t love the gift, but I love you,’” she says.

Preventing bad gifts

The best way to avoid huge tree toppers, waxed bear air fresheners and other unwanted gifts is to drop hints throughout the year, Mrs. Post says.

“Plan ahead, and say, ‘In case you would like some ideas for Christmas next year, let me know,’” she says.

Elizabeth Howell, spokeswoman at the Burlington, Vt.-based Emily Post Institute, suggests having a list of ideas in different price ranges readily available when people ask.

“And if you really don’t want anything, you can always say, ‘Here’s my favorite charity, please make a donation to it,’” Ms. Howell says.

While saying this, however, make sure to be appreciative of past holiday gifts, she says.

“‘Last year you gave me a great coffee maker, but please don’t give me anything this year,’ and then suggest a charity,” Ms. Howell says.

Another noncommercial gift idea for grandparents, for example, is for parents to suggest a day of ice-skating or cookie baking with the grandchildren.

“There is so much pressure to get the perfect gift. It helps to have an open dialogue about it,” Ms. Howell says.

Teenagers are notoriously difficult to please, and talking to them ahead of time is a good idea, she says.

“You might be better off either giving them cash or asking them exactly where they buy their clothes and get them a gift certificate,” Ms. Howell says.

The important thing is not to wait until just before Christmas, or even worse, on Christmas, to express those wishes. Tell them by September or October, she says.

Exchange, donate, regift

Gift givers still might not adhere to those wishes. That’s where regifting, donating and exchanging comes in.

According to the National Retail Federation, exchanging holiday gifts is not as common as people might think.

“Our 2003 holiday survey showed only 5 percent of gifts are returned,” says Ellen Tolley, spokeswoman for the Washington-based membership organization, which represents 1.4 million U.S. retail establishments.

Local charities, however, say they see a boost in donations the week after Christmas.

“The busiest week for us is between Christmas and New Year’s,” says Brendan Hurley, spokesman for Goodwill of Greater Washington.

Revenue from donations that come in that week is expected to be about 20 percent higher than during an average week, Mr. Hurley says.

“There’s usually a line of cars down the block. We get everything from toys to housewares and clothes,” he says.

Ms. Howell says there is no telling how common regifting is but that it’s probably becoming more common as people have more and more surplus stuff.

According to the Peggy Post’s book “Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition,” the term “regifting” is a fairly recent addition to the English language.

When regifting — aside from making sure the item is in its original packaging and that the giver will never know — the gift has to be something the new recipient will want. The item also can’t be a one-of-a-kind item, Ms. Howell says.

“If you can’t fulfill those criteria, don’t do it,” she says.

The “safest” items to regift are food and alcohol, cash and gift cards, the manners experts agree.

Still, regift carefully, Ms. Freedman Spizman says.

“You have to ask yourself, if you didn’t want it, what makes you think someone else will want it?”

More info:

Books —

• “The Thank You Book: Hundreds of Clever, Meaningful and Purposeful Ways to Say Thank You,” by Robyn Freedman Spizman, Active Parenting Publishing, 2003. This book offers advice on how to create everything from simple thank-you notes to edible ones.

• “Art of Thank You: Crafting Notes of Gratitude,” by Connie Leas, Beyond Words Publishing, 2002. This book gives advice on when, and when not, to send a card, whether an e-mail thank you is ever appropriate and how to get children to write thank-you notes. It shows how a note of appreciation is as beneficial for the writer as it is for the recipient.

• “Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition,” by Peggy Post, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. This 876-page book covers everything from how to raise well-mannered teens to getting through divorce with grace. One chapter is devoted to giving and receiving gifts. It features tips on how to write thank-you notes, how to pick out appropriate gifts and regifting.

Associations —

• Goodwill of Greater Washington, 2200 S. Dakota Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20018. Phone: 202/636-4225. Web site: www.dcgoodwill.org. Goodwill of Greater Washington is a nonprofit organization that aims to educate, train, employ and place people with disadvantages and disabilities. The group, which funds its programs with revenue from its retail stores, accepts donations at seven locations, including Arlington, Manassas, Gaithersburg and Washington.

• The Salvation Army National Capital and Virginia Divisional Headquarters, 2626 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20037. Phone: 202/756-2600. Web site: www.salvationarmysouth.org/DC.htm. This national Christian organization has dozens of thrift stores that accept donations in the Greater Washington area, including Alexandria, Herndon, Takoma Park and Wheaton.

Online —

• The Emily Post Institute, a Burlington, Vt.-based etiquette company that offers seminars and books, has a Web site (www.emilypost. com) that provides holiday etiquette tips, including thank-you and gift advice.

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