The time has finally come: This Christmas will be the first I’ll be spending with my partner’s family, and not only her close family — every last aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, grandma, grandpa and that one weird lady who’s somehow lumped into the bunch, too. Which has presented me with a serious conundrum: Who the hell do I buy gifts for out of that multitude? Do I need to buy a bottle of wine for every aunt and uncle? Should I take a trip to the toy store to grab gifts for the young ‘uns? How much should I spend on the parents?
If you can’t tell, I’m on the verge of changing my name, fleeing the country and never having a girlfriend ever again. Surely I’m not the only one currently in this pickle, though? In an effort to save all of our desperate selves — and ideally, earn bonus points with our partner’s families — I asked for advice from a large assortment of gifting, relationships and etiquette experts. It’s my gift to you (and myself).
Aileen Avery, gifting expert: If you’re meeting your partner’s family for the first time, you don’t want to go overboard or look like you’re trying too hard. A nice bottle of wine — one bottle per couple is enough — for the parents and/or siblings (make sure the parents aren’t AA members, and the siblings are old enough to drink) or a box of Belgian chocolates will suffice. Also, keep the gift-giving to parents, close siblings and maybe a few nieces and nephews if they’re young.
Alternatively, you can ask your partner about her family beforehand. Say the dad likes to read — get a leather-bound book written by one of his favorite authors (get it signed by the author if you want extra points). You’ll also want to get the intel from your partner or partner’s family about what the appropriate procedures are. Large families sometimes draw names (or maybe just names of kids under 18) so you’re not spending a whole paycheck on gifts. If it’s a smaller family, then you should get a gift for everyone attending the get together.
You should spend the most on the parents, as opposed to the grandparents, uncles, aunts and so on. $50 to $100 is a ballpark figure. However, it’s not about how much you spend — if you’ve done your homework, you can figure out a thoughtful gift that will remind them of how wonderful you are each time they see (or experience) it. If you’ve known them for some time, work from their personalities and hobbies. Does mom like beer? Get her a subscription to a beer-tasting club. Does dad likes to cook? A gift certificate from Williams Sonoma would be appreciated.
Navigating gift giving with people you want to impress, but don’t know well, however, is tough. You don’t want to look like you’re trying too hard, but you also don’t want to look cheap. Asking lots of questions from other family members and your partner and using your creativity is the key to great gift giving, during Christmas and all of the gift giving holidays throughout the year.
Jeanette Raymond, couples therapist: First things first, consider your motive: Are you giving these gifts out of duty, obligation, or to impress? Alternatively, are you giving these gifts out of joy and gratitude? What you give depends on your motive.
If you feel you have a duty to give, it really doesn’t matter much — simply get something within a reasonable price range for everyone. Wrap them in glitzy stuff because — in this case — it’s the image, not the thought that counts.
If you want to impress, you should get something special for your mother-in-law, since she’s the one you want to make the biggest impact on. Make sure you know her taste, and buy something that matches it. For the father-in-law, get something you know he enjoys, but of the best quality. For other family members, figure out the main influencers and get them something sophisticated. Also, buy the children a popular game or an app they can download.
If you’re giving out of obligation, figure out the rough prices of the gifts you received and find suitable things (or gift cards) that are equivalent. Make all the gifts similar to avoid arousing envy or comparison.
If you’re giving because you actually care about your partner’s family members, think first about the person you’re closest to: What is their passion? Get something connected to that passion — maybe it’s a subscription to something they love, or something to complete a set they’re collecting. Either way, make it personal and thoughtful. Then do the same for the next person down the line, and so on. But only give to those you’re close with: You don’t have to give everyone something, because then you’re reverting to giving out of duty or to impress. For those you aren’t close with, bring food and drinks for everyone to enjoy.
Daniel Post Senning, etiquette expert and Emily Post’s great-great grandson: It would be really wise to check in with your partner or point of connection to the family affair to figure out what the established and existing traditions are. In some cases, you would really want to participate, and guess what, there are going to be packages under the tree with your name on them, and you’re going to want to reciprocate. However, gift giving is not expected, necessarily, and you don’t have to participate in religious holidays that you don’t observe.
As far as choosing gifts, there really is some real wisdom in, “It’s the thought that counts.” When it comes to deciding what would be appropriate to give, the idea is that you’re showing appreciation, showing gratitude and honoring the relationship you have with that person, so you want to think about the person, your relationship with them and what fits. It’s not about a dollar amount.
You can think about things they like and would appreciate. You can think about things of significance to you that you want to introduce or expose them to. You can go for disposable luxuries, or little things that you cycle through. Those can be anything from nuts and cheeses, candies, soaps or candles. It’s always nice to get someone a nice version of one of those things.
Jacqueline Whitmore, international etiquette expert: The man is going to earn lots of brownie points if he brings a gift for his partner’s mother. Maybe her favorite flowers are lillies, and he brings her a bouquet of lilies. Do you have to bring gifts for the grandparents and cousins? If grandmama is there, it would be nice, because grandmama is an extension of the mother and daughter.
It can also be fun to bring a gift for the children, like a new niece or nephew in the family. When you appeal to the children and the in-laws, you’re golden.
Nick, a married guy with more than a decade of shared Christmases under his belt: Oh, young one, you’re going about this all wrong. Honestly, I struggle to know what to buy my own parents, let alone someone else’s. Parents-in-law often remain somewhat inscrutable, so accurately guessing what they happen to want or need on any given Christmas is like trying to score a bullseye on a dartboard strapped to a drunken jazzercise instructor, using your shoe as the dart.
So don’t bother. Instead, make a deal with your partner. From our very first Christmas together, my wife and I have done the same thing: I buy gifts for my family from both of us, she buys gifts for her family from both of us. It’s easy, it’s effective, and best of all, it takes at worst half the effort it otherwise would. Why anyone would do this differently is completely beyond me.