'Tis The Tip Season

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I like giving gifts to people, whether they are friends or family. I like seeing them smile. I don't get upset if I give someone a present and he or she doesn't give me one. I really get into the spirit of giving, and I think most people do.

But the problem comes when we have to give gifts to people we hardly know or don't know at all. I'm talking about those who have "service jobs." Those who deliver our newspapers and mail, those who cut our hair and the guys who wash our cars at the carwash are among those that many of us give "tips" or holiday gifts to. We don't even know some of their names, but we feel obligated to give them presents. Which ones should we tip, and which ones may we skip? Is money appropriate for all of them? If so, how much? All of these questions create an anxiety that can easily destroy the holiday spirit in many of us. Maybe those who feel this intense anxiety should have given bigger tips to their therapists.

Many service workers depend on holiday gifts as part of their income -- just as many people depend on tips throughout the year. I don't resent this at all. What makes it difficult is that there are no guidelines. We tip a waiter or a waitress based on a percentage of the bill. But how do you figure out a percentage of what you're supposed to give a letter carrier or a newspaper delivery person since you're not paying them anything?

One method, of course, is to ask your neighbors how much they give them. But maybe the neighbors are being stingy, or maybe they're being overly generous. Or maybe they're being devious, and purposely giving you a low number so they'll look good.

Again, I'm happy to give gifts to the many people who perform services -- especially for those who go "above and beyond" the call of duty. For years, we had a wonderful FedEx delivery woman who not only carried the boxes to our house and hid them in our secret place if we weren't home, but she always had treats for our dog. Obviously, it was our pleasure to give her a holiday present. Our letter carrier is pleasant and helpful, and our newspapers are always left just where we like them. I'm happy to give these people holiday gifts.

But sometimes these presents can fall under the category of "defensive gifts." It goes completely against the holiday spirit, but often, people feel they have to give a person a gift... or else. Admit it. Haven't you ever worried that if you don't give the person who delivers your newspaper a good Christmas gift that your paper will end up in the bushes for the next year? Hasn't it at least crossed your mind that if you don't give your haircutter a nice holiday tip, your next hairstyling might render you bald? And if you park in an underground garage, do you worry that some dents might mysteriously appear on your car if you don't slip the guy who manages the garage a few extra bucks at this time of year?

Of course, we shouldn't have any of these thoughts. Odds are, even if they don't get a tip or a present, the people who perform services for us will continue to do so just as if they got a wonderful gift from us. We hope.

Another weird thing about these obligatory gifts is that the people we give them to have to give obligatory gifts, too. After all, whoever delivers your mail has his or her newspaper delivered, garbage picked up and, yes, mail delivered. So the money - or gift -- you give one of these people might be passed on to someone who serves them and so on and so on. Your money or chocolate chip cookies could end up in the hands of somebody you never intended. By proxy, you could be giving a gift to your letter carrier's manicurist.

So, where does it stop? Right here. I'm happy to tell you that I'll continue to see the world in my own weird way even if you don't give me a gift. In fact, I don't expect any presents from you at all. There. That should take some pressure off you. Of course, I do tend to write my best columns when I'm wearing a new sweater.

E-mail your questions and comments to Lloyd Garver

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver