Graceful Answers For The Holidays

Sheryl Shade, author of the etiquette books "As a Lady Would Say" and "A Lady At The Table," dropped by The Early Show Tuesday for an "In The Family Circle" segment about holiday etiquette with co-anchor Hannah Storm.

The segment is presented by The Early Show and Family Circle magazine.

Shade is the owner of Shade Global, a marketing and representation firm. She has represented numerous Olympic athletes, and coordinates marketing, sponsorship, and underwriting for documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

While her credentials reflect upscale experience, Shade's advice is nothing if not practical, as she demonstrates in her solutions to common dilemmas that pop up at this time of year.

  1. Shade fielded questions from people including Sharon and Richard from Norfolk, Va., who wanted to know, "because we have a lot of people of different faiths on our Christmas list, if it's appropriate to send Christmas cards or if we should choose a more appropriate type of card to send everyone?"

    Shade's answer: A sincere wish for peace and good will on earth is never out of place. If you wish to send traditional "Christmas cards," especially cards with a religious message, and if you have friends who will appreciate them, go ahead and send them, certainly.

    If you have friends who celebrate the holidays in other ways, or if you're not certain how they celebrate, they will probably appreciate more generalized greetings, so you might equip yourself with a stash of cards of both types.

    If you figure some of your friends would prefer not to acknowledge Christmas in any specific way, they will not be insulted if they don't receive a card. A good bet, in any case, is a photo card featuring your children, your grandchildren, or the family cat and dog.

  2. Another question comes from a reader of Family Circle magazine, in a letter published in the current issue: "In a recent discussion, I learned that many of my friends sent an e-mail wish list for their children to friends and family for Christmas-shopping purposes. I had been brought up to believe that it is impolite to assume anyone will give you a gift. I thank all givers for their gifts, then simply return or discard the ones I don't feel are appropriate for my child. The consensus among my friends was that it is far more rude to return a gift behind the giver's back than to tell people up front what gifts are acceptable. What is your opinion?"

    Shade's answer: It is more than a little presumptuous to send out gift suggestions, unless friends or relatives have specifically requested them. For many people, part of the fun of giving a gift is selecting it, or even making it, themselves.

    If a friend doesn't ask what you or your children would like, it's inappropriate to attempt to dictate what sort of gift is "acceptable." (Would any well-mannered person possibly think of doing such a thing?) And no, it is NOT rude to return a gift. (And there's no reason to assume that you have to do it "behind the giver's back.")

    In fact, when we're talking about a gift for a child, it's perfectly appropriate to say, "Thank you so much for the toy soldier set you gave Mikey. It's just the sort of thing he likes. As it turns out, he likes it so much that he happens to have that particular set already. Would it be OK if he exchanged it for something else?"

    A gift is a gift, no matter what it is. That's an important lesson for children to learn, as early as possible. You may not be able to prevent them from announcing, "But I've already got one of these," when they open the box, but you can encourage them to say, "Thank you," no matter what's inside the package. And you can set a good example by doing the same thing yourself.

    The more I think about this idea of a "wish list" for children's gifts, as if the parents were establishing a sort of "bridal registry" for their kids, the more I'm astounded by the audacity of it. Are people supposed to log on to indicate what they've bought, so duplicate presents don't arrive? Maybe they're making the list available to family and friends who have actually asked for help in buying for the kids. Otherwise, it is in the worst possible taste.

    As I understand it, Christmas is a time of giving and sharing and good will. It isn't supposed to be a time when you throw a tantrum because you didn't get precisely what you wanted; it's a time to be grateful for what you're given. And that's true, and a good lesson to learn, whether you're 6 or 60.

    I'm thinking that, if the giver is present when the kid opens his gift, and it's obvious that the kid is disappointed, the giver may very well tell the parents, "I'm not too sure Mikey liked his oil paints," or "I didn't know Mikey already had his own oil paints," and then offer to exchange the gift, or provide a receipt so the parents can exchange it. If the giver makes this gracious offer, the parents accept it without embarrassment. In their thank-you note, they mention this special generosity, mention the replacement gift, and emphasize how much Mikey is enjoying it.

  3. In another question, Christina and Jessica from Brattleboro, Vt., wanted to know whether they should get their boss a present or not, knowing that he's going to give them a Christmas bonus.

    Shade's answer: When it comes to gift-giving at the office, the food chain runs downward, not upward. A Christmas gift from your boss (especially if it comes in the form of a bonus) is the boss's way of expressing his gratitude for your good work, and acknowledging your importance to the company.

    Unless you and he are personal friends, there is absolutely NO reason you should worry about getting him a gift. In fact, to do so might suggest that you consider the bonus check is a "present," not the reward for good service that it is. Still, it's never wrong to say thank you. In fact, be sure to say thank you, so the boss understands how much you appreciate his acknowledgement of your good work.

  4. Finally, Ann Angelo from Burnsville, Minn., had a question practically everyone can relate to: "I'm at a private holiday party, and I am using the bathroom, and the toilet won't flush. There is a line outside. What do I do?"

    Shade's answer: Put down the lid; step outside the door; and say to the next person in line, "I'm afraid there's a problem with the plumbing." Do not take it upon yourself to make an announcement to the entire assemblage. Then simply say, "It will probably be a good idea for me to tell (the host of the party) about it." Then simply call the host or hostess aside and give her the news. From there on out, it's his or her responsibility to handle the situation. Unless you are a licensed plumber, don't even offer to fix the toilet yourself.