Before you know it, there will be Christmas presents lovingly handed to you while the anxious eyes of the gift givers, with their fingers crossed, will watch to see whether you’ll like what you’ll find.
Sometimes you’ll take off the lid of the box, pull back the tissue paper, and gasp in awe.
Sometimes you’ll take off the lid of the box, pull back the tissue paper, and do your best to hold in your gasp of, “What in the world?”
I’ve been in both situations. I’ve felt your joy, and I’ve felt your disappointment.
Yes, yes, we all know, it’s the thought that counts and not the gift.
But that’s only half the story.
We’re not wrong to feel disappointment if someone close to us gives us something that isn’t “us” at all.
You see, every gift has two parts: The first part is the gift itself. The second part is the emotion it stirs within us.
One of our greatest needs is to feel that others “get” us — to know that we’re “known.” And when people we love (spouse, close blood relative, or best friend) give us a gift that isn’t anything we’d ever desire, we’re left thinking, “Do they really know me at all? Why didn’t they care enough to search long enough until they found something that’s ‘me’?”
Was this gift a best effort that simply ended in a wrong choice? Or was it a slight of “This will do. I’m busy.”? These are the questions that will circle a path from our minds to our hearts.
Whether you open your gift Christmas morning with a gasp of awe, an internal “aw shucks,” or something in between, here’s your guide to knowing what to say and do.
The Five Manners of Opening Christmas Gifts
Many families have a tradition about who hands out the gifts and in which order they’re opened. The tradition you have is the right one for you. The following applies to opening gifts in general and won’t impede any family tradition you may have.
1. Notify the giver when the gift arrives. Even if you place the gifts under the tree and don’t plan on opening them until Christmas morning, when you receive gifts in the mail, make sure to call, text, or email the givers to let them know they arrived safely. Also let them know that it was kind of them to think of you, and that you look forward to opening their gift! People worry whether their gifts arrive safely. Calling puts their minds at rest. Plus, it shows that you appreciate them for thinking of you with a gift, even though you don’t yet know what it is. (This puts into action the “It’s the thought that counts” principle of gift giving and receiving.)
Grace Note: It’s nice, if it can be arranged, to Skype, FaceTime, take some smartphone video or photos, or somehow let the other person(s) join you in opening the gift even if they’re not with you in person. It’s a gracious use of our technology. It doesn’t matter that you’re in your pj’s, your hair is a mess, and you don’t have any makeup on. No one should care. It’s Christmas morning with someone you love. Go with it! If none of this is possible, make sure to call or contact the givers as soon as possible and let them know you appreciate their gift.
2. Read the card first. You don’t have to read out loud the personal sentiment written on the gift tag, or the words on a Christmas note or card attached to the gift. But do read the card first, announce whom the gift is from, and thank the giver right before or as you start opening the present. “This gift is from Aunt Valerie. Thank you Auntie!” (Again, we’re putting the “It’s the thought that counts” principle of gift giving and receiving into action, and it’s another way to show appreciation.)
3. Have children unwrap all their gifts before they start playing with a particular one. Children are easily distracted, and once they start playing with one gift, it makes it hard for them to refocus on slowing down, getting back to opening their other gifts, and thanking the givers. You can read more about this in the post I wrote about how to get our children to say thank you and actually mean it when they open gifts.
4. Don’t ask recipients whether they liked the gifts you gave them — at least not today. You worked hard thinking of, making, or buying what you thought was the perfect gift for Uncle Brad, and yet when he opened it, his face didn’t show the level of pleasure you were hoping for. He said thank you, but that’s about all, and you don’t know whether your gift is a dud or he just isn’t showing a lot of emotion.
Why not come right out and ask him? Because if he didn’t like the gift, he’s being pressed into saying he did so he won’t hurt your feelings. If Brad did like it, he’ll go on about your gift more than is normal for him in order for you to feel OK. When he opens gifts from others and doesn’t say as much, those people are now going to be left wondering whether Brad liked their gift, because he’s not saying much. It starts a cycle that doesn’t end.
If we shouldn’t ask, how are we ever going to know that we’re picking out gifts people like? Prior to the next time you make or purchase a gift for the person, say something along the lines of, “Caroline, your birthday is coming up, and I want to get you something that you’ll really enjoy. I’m not sure whether my Christmas gift hit the mark. Is there something special you’d like for your birthday?” Now that time has passed since Christmas, emotions are lessened and you’ll get a more realistic glimpse into how your gift was received.
If your gift didn’t thrill her, she might say something like, “I don’t wear a lot of scarves, but you were kind to think of me. For my birthday, since summer is coming, I’d love a new white purse — one with a long strap so I can wear it cross-body.”
If she did like your gift and used it, she might say something like, “I wore both those scarves so many times last winter! They’re lovely! For my birthday, surprise me! Although if it will help you, I am on the lookout for a new white purse that has a strap long enough that I can wear it cross-body.”
5. Don’t tell people you don’t like their gift, and don’t ask where they bought it. “What?” you say! “But Maralee, I should be candid. Plus, I’m taking the present back to the store to get something I’ll actually use. That’s both honest and thrifty. Those are good things. And besides, she’s my sister; she won’t mind. It’s all very practical.”
You’re right, you’re being practical. And practical is good — except for sometimes. This is one of those times.
When it comes to gifts, there’s a fine line between practical and problematic.
If Sister Sue didn’t put thought into your gift, then you’re right, she probably won’t assign negative thoughts to your taking it back to the store. However, if she did put thought into your gift, it ties into what we talked about in the opening, the emotional part of every gift that goes along with the practical.
Your wanting to return her gift means she made the wrong choice. She might smile and tell you it’s fine, but it almost always stings.
And next time she goes to buy you a gift, it’s going to be harder on her to pick one out because she’s going to second-guess everything she considers buying for you — even if she is your sister, spouse, mom, or best friend. (Note: People understand needing to exchange a gift of clothing for a different size or fit.)
And if it’s really, truly fine with you that someone tells you they want to return your gift, you’re great. But you’re also in the minority, a tiny minority. Keep in mind that others, even family members, probably aren’t in that minority.
Concerning where your gifts were bought: the reason recipients don’t ask that (whether they’re just curious or so they can return a gift without telling) is because asking that amounts to asking how much the giver paid for it. If it came from a garage sale, a thrift shop, or is being regifted to you, the giver might be embarrassed. (Not that there is anything wrong with buying things at these places; great gifts can be found at all of them.) The giver just might not want to tell you about finding the beautiful necklace you love at the dollar store while friends or other family members are in the room.
Grace note: If you buy a gift and the store offers gift receipts (receipts that show where items were bought and allow them to be returned but don’t show how much you paid), place the gift receipt in the box with the gift. If you receive a gift you’re not going to use but don’t know how to go about returning it, it’s fine to regift it (that’s a post for another day), send it to a consignment shop, sell it at your next garage sale, or better yet, donate it to a great charity.
The Number One Gift-Giving Don’t
Don’t put a gift in a box from a store where it wasn’t bought. Putting your bargain find in a Sak’s Fifth Avenue box (or a similar store) will be very embarrassing for a recipient who tries to return it to the store! Also, it’s a purposeful misrepresentation of your gift. Plain gift boxes are sold (usually in packs of three) near the cards and gift wrap in almost every store, or use a Christmas gift bag instead of a box.
It’s Christmas! I hope yours is merry and bright, and I pray that what’s around the tree (the people you love and the memories of those who are no longer with you) brings you more joy than anything under the tree.
May you feel Christmas to the core of your soul! May you walk in it, breathe it in, and taste it on your tongue!
May your children who can’t wait…one…more…minute for Christmas delight you!
May you find joy in the midst of any mayhem! May you not care about scattered toys, messy kitchens, or unmade beds, and instead laugh, reminisce, tell stories, read, drink hot chocolate, and be amazed by the simple beauty of a strand of lights on a tree. May all five of your senses sing a choir of gladness for the fact that Christ chose to come to Earth for you and for me.