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Yule rules: Decoding holiday etiquette

Santa still likes to receive milk and cookies for his troubles. photo: phil king / flickr

When my son was a toddler, someone bought him a holiday T-shirt that said, “Dear Santa, define naughty.” Everywhere he wore that shirt, people got a kick out of it. Why? Because even responsible people love to play with the idea of stretching the codes of conduct.

As we grow older, it’s harder to get away with breaking the rules — even those standards of etiquette that often stump us around the holidays. There are too many responsibilities, too many obligations, and it’s tempting to entertain the thought of ditching some of them: maybe cutting a few folks from our holiday gift lists, skipping this year’s office party, or forgoing that family get-together and escaping to a tropical island. In December, misbehavior is the ultimate fantasy.

Alas, there’s no escaping the gift-giving, card-writing, party-hopping requirements of this highly demanding season. While we can’t help you get out of anything this month, we can tell you what’s considered naughty and what’s considered nice. We’ll help you decipher the rules of holiday etiquette so that you stay on the right lists — not just Santa’s, but everyone else’s, too.

What’s the tipping point?

As you probably know from experience, tipping is an end-of-year cash gratuity you give to service providers such as doormen, hairdressers, dog walkers, newspaper delivery people, and babysitters, to thank them for their exceptional service throughout the year. You can tip anywhere from $20 to $100 per person, depending on your relationship with the person and how much money you have to spare. You can give people you see frequently throughout the year, such as hairstylists and personal trainers, the cash equivalent of one visit, or a gift of equal value. Full-time employees such as live-in housekeepers and nannies should receive a holiday tip equal to one or two weeks’ pay, along with a more personal gift. Present your mail carrier and any regular delivery people with a gift card or other small token of thanks, keeping in mind that the U.S. Postal Service and some private companies like FedEx have caps on the gifts employees may accept.

Who does get a gift?

It’s considered inappropriate to give cash gifts to professionals such as lawyers and doctors, so instead show your appreciation for these folks with a modest gift such as a food basket, bottle of wine, or gift certificate. Before acknowledging your child’s teachers, check the school’s holiday gift policy. If gift-giving is allowed, present each teacher with an appropriate gift that your child helps to select, such as a bookstore or office supply store gift card, a restaurant gift certificate, a picture frame, or a homemade present. Gifts aren’t as common at middle schools and high schools where each child has five or more teachers, but you might want to acknowledge a special teacher or adviser. If your child attends daycare, a tip or small gift is appropriate for those who have direct contact with your child. A handwritten note should accompany every gift you give.

How do I work the office?

If you have an assistant, that person should receive something generous in addition to their holiday bonus. If you have a few direct reports, treat them equally with a not-too-personal gift such as a book, a CD, or tickets to a sporting event. Buying a present for your boss isn’t required, but if the person is well regarded you might consider a pooled gift with your co-workers. And generally, there’s no need to purchase presents for all your colleagues, but a Secret Santa or white elephant exchange could be good for office morale. If your company throws a holiday party, make every effort to show up, dress appropriately in festive yet modest attire and, of course, behave yourself. Drunken office shindigs have gone the way of the three-martini lunch, and acting unprofessionally, even one night of the year, could negatively affect your career.

Anything else to know about gifts?

It goes without saying you must always thank someone who has made the effort to give you a present. Although an e-mail may be acceptable for some friends and acquaintances, a handwritten note is still the gold standard and a gesture many still expect. But the burning question on many people’s minds is whether it’s OK to regift something you know you won’t use but cannot return. The answer is, only if the gift is brand-new and still in its original packaging, and is something the recipient truly needs or wants. So if your younger sister’s toaster just broke and you happen to have an extra toaster, still in the box from Aunt Susie last year, send it to your sibling. Just don’t make thoughtless regifting a habit or cost-cutting strategy. If you need to trim your gift list this year, because of money difficulties, tell people in advance. Giving something handmade, such as baked goods or a coupon for a service like babysitting, is a nice way to give without jeopardizing your financial security.

How do I handle holiday invites?

Today, only the most formal parties seem to dictate a printed invitation. With almost everyone now online and a widespread emphasis on going green, online invitations have become the norm. If you decide to send an invitation digitally, take into account that technology is sometimes unreliable. Double-check e-mail addresses and other contact information, and phone those who haven’t responded by the deadline or, in some cases, even opened the invitation (you can see that information on Evite). If you receive an invitation, remember to RSVP promptly. If people go out of their way to phone you and ask you to an intimate holiday dinner, call them back instead of e-mailing. Most hosts are feeling frantic as the holiday nears, and they need to solidify guest lists and other details as soon as possible, so you should give them the courtesy of a quick and decisive reply.

Are holiday cards still the norm?

Paper invitations aren’t the only casualty of technology. While the U.S. Postal Service still gets flooded with holiday cards every season, people are finding it increasingly tempting to distribute holiday greetings through Facebook, e-mail, and other digital venues. This practice is becoming more acceptable because it’s considered much more green, not to mention much less expensive, than using paper. However, if you’re a traditionalist who still loves mailing printed cards (and receiving them) then lick away — at the stamps, that is. We may not readily admit it, but many of us enjoy finding lovely holiday greetings in our mailbox and displaying them throughout our homes. Keep in mind that, even if you’ve decided to go digital this year, you should continue sending cards to your great-grandma (who’s never owned a computer), your Uncle Bob (who still uses a flip phone), or any Luddites in your crowd, to keep everyone happy.

What do I wear?

Today’s holiday parties can run the gamut in terms of attire, from “festive” to “corporate casual” to “white tie.” Whatever the suggestion, respect your host’s wishes by showing up appropriately outfitted. When the invitation is vague, you might be temped to go casual, which has become the norm here in laid-back San Francisco (much to the dismay of those of us who enjoy dressing up). Again, at least go for some festive attire and no, we’re not talking about an ugly reindeer sweater. And for God’s sake, don’t show up to church or synagogue in sweatpants and sneakers — even those of us who are only going to church to make Mom happy would say that’s sacrilegious.

How can I be a gracious guest?

When you do show up at a party, don’t turn up empty handed. A thoughtful hostess gift doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be fun and personal and perhaps a little more creative than the standard bottle of wine. Delight your host with a delicious scented candle, a pretty holiday ornament, a fun decorative soap, a holiday CD by his favorite singer, or even something from your kitchen or garden. Right after coming through the door and saying hello, it’s always nice to ask your host if you can do something to help. But if your offer is declined, back off — some people really don’t want guests in their kitchen. If you are staying in someone’s house not just for dinner, but also for the entire holiday, put some extra thought into a gift for your host. And keep in mind that unless you are specifically asked to stay longer, three nights is usually the max. Be clear about your arrival and departure times so your host isn’t left guessing.

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Maryann LoRusso is a writer, editor and the founder of, a fashion, culture and lifestyle magazine for women.