Is It Good Manners To Ask Someone What They Want For Christmas?

And how to graciously respond when someone inevitably asks.

1950s Christmas tree with presents


Gift giving is a tricky business. Whether you’re the giver or the receiver, there’s a whole list of dos and don’ts that can be applied to nearly every situation. Thankfully, any awkwardness can quickly be thwarted if armed with the etiquette know-how to see you through. That even applies to the question that strikes more fa-la-la-la fear in the hearts of holiday revelers than running out of spiked eggnog on Christmas Eve: “What do you want for Christmas?” It’s a loaded question, no matter which way you look at it.

“It’s the holiday season, and most everyone wants to do their best when it comes to gift giving,” says etiquette expert Erika Preval of Charm Etiquette. “Even Santa requests a list to be certain he gets it right.” Preval says graciousness and appreciation is the most important factor when receiving a gift, even if it’s one that you pointed the giver toward in the first place. Regardless of the path that leads to the gift you are given, thought and care went into the process and the proper thanks should be given—which we all know requires a thank-you note, even if you passed along plenty of thank yous in person. 

So what if you’re the one who is presently perplexed on the best gift to give those on your holiday shopping list? Mariah Grumet, Old Soul Etiquette founder and instructor, says it’s perfectly acceptable to ask as long as you do it correctly. “It ensures you are spending your money on something your friend or family member will truly enjoy or utilize,” she says. “It also shows them that you care enough to get them something they want, rather than getting them anything just to check a name off of a list.” 

For those who prefer to sleuth out the perfect gift themselves, Grumet assures that’s acceptable too. “In the end, the gesture and message that you thought of them this holiday season are what truly matters.” 

How Should You Respond if Someone Asks What You Want for Christmas?

While being asked what you want for Christmas can certainly feel awkward in the moment, (depending on the asker and how they do the asking) you can assuage any fumbling on your part by being armed with a gracious response ahead of time. 

“It's quite acceptable to tell someone what is on your Christmas list as long as they ask,” says Grumet. “It's a win-win situation: You are getting what you really want, while simultaneously giving your friend or family member peace of mind that they are spending their money on something you will actually use!” Grumet says that if there’s something specific you have in mind, try to be as vague as possible. “For example, if you really want a new sweater, say exactly that,” she advises. “By only saying ‘a sweater’ without giving additional details you allow your gift-giver to stay within their budget and not feel any added pressure.” 

Exact links and specifics should be avoided, but leading with graciousness by accepting the gesture is paramount. Grumet says a pleasant response might sound like this: “I am so grateful to be on your shopping list. Thank you so much. Something on the top of my list is a new sweater! It has been a cold winter so far!”

Preval says giving them a few choices is another way to be respectful of their budget, while helping them narrow things down even further. “If there’s something you really want, say so,” she says. “As you’d do with a registry for a wedding or baby shower, do give options at different price points. This will make the opening of the gift a surprise and show consideration to the gift giver.” 

How Should You Respond if You Don’t Have Anything on Your Wish List? 

 If you truly don’t have anything you’re hoping for this year, try to avoid the “you really don’t have to get me anything” route. “Saying you don’t want them to feel obligated to buy you anything may be received the wrong way by your friend or family member,” says Grumet. “If they are asking in the first place, they are probably looking for some help.” To avoid seeming ungrateful or winding up with something you don’t want, Preval suggests selecting a charity that is meaningful to you and being asked that a gift be made in your honor. Another option that avoids the material is to request some facetime instead. “Although it was quite cliche, having all of the woes of a pandemic, ‘the gift of your presence,’ has taken on a new meaning,” says Preval. “Share that they’re not obliged to offer a gift as they’re enough. That being said, if they’re nearby, perhaps having an in-person gathering on the calendar is a great option.”

What Should You Do if Someone Gives You a Gift and You Didn’t Get Them One?

Here’s one final holiday-gift-giving conundrum, and perhaps the most dreaded: finding yourself on the receiving end of a gift swap that you didn’t know was happening. Grumet says it’s only natural for us to focus our attention on the fact that we aren’t sharing a gift in return, which can make an otherwise joyful moment an awkward one. Instead, give your heart an attitude of gratitude and live in the moment, rather than apologizing or drawing attention to the fact that you are empty handed. “Open [the gift] and celebrate the generous gesture that they just made,” she says. “You will have the opportunity to get them a gift again in the future.”

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