Presents are never given because they are felt to be obligatory, but because people enjoy expressing their affection and appreciation in a tangible form. You choose a present when something catches your eye and suggests itself as a source of delight for a particular person. When you receive a present, your pleasure in it and the feeling it symbolizes obliterates any awareness of its material worth.
Do you believe this? Miss Manners is trying to.
But people keep interrupting her by asking if they have to give something to this person or that, how little they can get away with spending, how they can get others to give them something they want rather than something of that person's choosing, and what do they do about people who give cheap presents or none at all.
What a nasty, troublesome business it all seems to have become. Miss Manners is beginning to think that nobody deserves to get anything until we all manage to get greed under control. Not only is it supposed to be the thought that counts, but unworthy thoughts should not stand up and be counted.
Miss Manners will now answer those calculating questions, and then she wants to hear no more of them.
If you care enough about a person to spend Christmas or some personal occasion (birthday, wedding, graduation, anniversary and so on) with him or her, it is customary to give a present. If you care, but will not be participating in the celebration, it is still nice to send a present. If you don't care at all, but the other person seems to expect you to, you may send a warm letter and no present.
You should realize what Miss Manners is doing for you in saying this. She is allowing you to cut from your Christmas list those with whom present-exchanging has become meaningless, and is relieving you from investing more than a few kind words in a wedding, for example, that doesn't mean anything to you. Of course, she expects you to ignore the fact that some presents that you expect will not arrive.
This is another extremely important point. No one has a right to expect presents, and, therefore, attempts to choose them -- manipulating others into buying for you things that you want to buy for yourself but with their money -- are inappropriate on any occasion.
Does this mean that Miss Manners is a curmudgeon opposed to little children writing their wishes to Santa? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. It is charming for a person who wants to give a present to find out, by whatever subtle means, what the other person would like; it is not charming for the recipient to volunteer the information to whoever will listen.
If you get something you absolutely don't want, you may quietly exchange it, donate it to charity, or give it to someone who would appreciate it. You cannot moan over the loss of the money involved, which could have been applied to something else.
And that brings Miss Manners to her final word on the subject of budgeting presents. One spends a reasonable amount in terms of one's own resources -- not the resources or hopes of the recipients -- to get as "nice" a present as one can. What does "nice" mean? It means that you can never give anything below your own taste level -- something you wouldn't want, but suppose is good enough for others. It means that the present must be "thoughtful," whether you made it for free or spent a lot; that it was chosen to please that particular person.
The one rule about money is that you not overwhelm someone by giving something so valuable as to be inappropriate to the relationship or occasion.
But, then, a well-bred person, not being aware of cost, wouldn't notice it if you did. MISS MANNERS RESPONDS
Q. I have a little brother who sometimes slurps real loudly when we have soup. I don't think that's proper behavior, and I don't think you do, either. That's very unusual for him. I've already tried telling him to stop. What do I do next?
A. Miss Manners is charmed to think that you and your brother get along well enough for you to teach him the important things of life, which certainly include the ability to eat soup without slurping. She suspects the good relationship has something to do with the loyalty and respect you show him by mentioning that improper behavior is unusual with him.
So the problem is a technical one. It is not enough to tell him to stop slurping; you need to tell him how to stop slurping and still get soup into his mouth.
The simple trick, which eludes so many people, is to hold the spoon slightly above the mouth, rather than slightly below. From above, you can pour the soup over the side of the spoon into the mouth instead of inhaling it upwards, as must be done if the spoon is too low.
Your brother is lucky. Many people go through life without ever finding this out.
Q. How late can you mail Christmas cards? Every year we have the problem of the people who send them to us when it's too late to pretend that we had them on our list already and aren't just mailing them after Christmas because we were going to drop them from the list unless we heard from them.
A. The last day for mailing Christmas cards is Dec. 25. However, Dec. 26 is a fine day for mailing New Year's greetings.
Q. It's all very well to say that Christmas is too commercialized -- nobody will argue with that. But how do you avoid the materialistic atmosphere that gets into even the coziest family gathering, when the most important part of the day is obviously opening the presents? Every Christmas we go to my mother's, where we have a big meal with my sister's family, my aunt and uncle, and their children and grandchildren. We are all on good terms, and it ought to be a lovely, warm occasion. But the conversation among the children is about nothing but "What did you get?" and the grown-ups, too polite to do that, talk instead about food -- "Have some more" or "I ate too much." We are not very religious people, and maybe that's the trouble. My husband's family traditionally went to church on Christmas, so at least there was some time of the day not focused on appetite (for food or toys).
It's not that I'm trying to convert my family to stricter churchgoing habits, but I wish there were a way to make this Christmas just a tiny bit more -- can I say spiritual? -- or at least slightly less base.
A. What you need, in a hurry, is some family tradition.
Christmas Day was traditionally filled with events -- not only going to church, but caroling, visiting, and annoying the poor. One no longer drops in on other people's celebrations uninvited, and the poor have rebelled against being used as supernumeraries in others' Christmas pageants.
However, you can still organize your own activities in your own family. Reading aloud from the Bible or some Christmas-related books such as Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"; singing carols, making the children who take music lessons play Christmas selections for the family; recounting stories about past Christmases in the family; asking each person to tell what Christmas means to him or her -- almost anything will do.
You just have to ignore protests that the activity is corny, or that you've all done it before. It is the simplicity and the repetition that makes a tradition, and the children who have to be pried from their electronic games to participate this year will look forward to it next year.
Q. We hold open house every Christmas, inviting some people in advance and bring others back from church with us -- just people we happen to see but hadn't thought of beforehand. It's just lots of eggnog and cookies, and people seem to enjoy it very much.
My question is about those who bring presents. They're not really supposed to, but a few people do. I'm always afraid of this embarrassing other guests, who might then think they were supposed to, and I also feel funny about accepting these presents because I'm not giving them anything (or I'd have to have something for everyone and the whole open house idea would be impossible).
Should I open the presents when they are given to me? Should I send those people presents afterward?
One other question: I invited some Jewish friends, and they said they couldn't come. Was I wrong to invite them -- were they offended because they don't celebrate Christmas?
A. Unless you can open the presents inconspicuously -- and how can you, with other guests to greet? -- it is better to put them aside and thank the people the next day, by telephone or note. You don't owe them presents; you gave them a lovely day.
There is a whole range of reasons that your Jewish friends might have had for refusing your invitation -- from not wanting to participate in a Christmas celebration to having another Christmas celebration to attend. But however differently different Jews may regard Christmas -- from a religious holiday which they do not celebrate, to a winter festival which they might -- they are all aware that it exists, and it cannot be considered offensive to mention it.