Is there is an obligation to buy presents for people who are, in fact, hired professionals doing their jobs? Did our parents (or grandparents) set this precedent, or is it a new trend?
Every year about this time, with a renewed sense of urgency, I begin to make plans to avoid the pitfalls and oversights that contribute to a stressful holiday season.
I should make it clear that I love the holidays: the crisp air, roaring fires, children returning home from college and big family dinners. It's hard not to be enchanted by the season. But then again, it's hard not to be overwhelmed, too. The trick is to plan ahead properly and simplify the traditions to allow the reality of the holidays to match the expectation.
Simplifying gift giving within our family is easier now that our children are young adults. But the other list of people who deserve to be remembered is not so easy to determine.
This year I turned to my friends and family for some advice, as I was curious about their most successful gift ideas for those people who make our lives more valuable, easier and, essentially, happier: our children's teachers, the house cleaners, the newspaper delivery person, the babysitter and the hair stylist. But others who might make your list could include your child's pediatrician, lawn maintenance people, the mail carrier, the school bus driver and others.
An interesting discussion then started around how this tradition began and whether there is an obligation to buy presents for people who are, in fact, hired professionals doing their jobs. We all tried to remember if our parents (or grandparents) had set this precedent, or if it was a new trend begun by a generation of over-scheduled families dependant on these services to manage their busy lifestyles.
The general feeling seems to be that a gift is called for if the person providing the service has a personal connection with you. This would explain why people don't generally give a holiday gift to, say, the person who delivers the fuel oil.
Once you decide who makes your list, then the question remains what is an appropriate gift. Among those I spoke with, it is generally believed that cash would be most appreciated by these individuals. In recognition of my clean house, and my sanity, I usually give the cleaning person an extra check equal to a normal week's pay. And because she does make my life happier, it is impossible not to demonstrate my gratitude on a personal level by wrapping a box of chocolates.
The same basic matrix can be applied to most everyone on the list: doubling a tip for your hair stylist on your visit closest Christmas; an extra check for the babysitter equal to an average week's pay; and a small amount of cash tucked into a card for the person who delivers the newspaper.
One friend did say that she gave her loyal babysitter, who spent a great deal of time with the family, frequent flyer miles for a trip. Teacher gifts are a bit trickier. Particularly when the kids are in preschool and kindergarten, we can convince ourselves that the teacher has a special bond with our child and, therefore, think of them more as a family member. The general recommendation is to resist the urge to have your child's handprint matted and framed as a token of the mutual affection you share for your little one. If teachers are good, then they do have a great relationship with your child and every other child in the class. Multiply that by the number of years they've taught and you're talking a museum's worth of finger-painted masterpieces.
It is best to find a personal item that is practical, avoiding the urge to buy school supplies. Suggestions include note cards, a wall calendar, gift certificates to a bookstore or some flowers of the season like amaryllis or paper whites. Happily, as children get into elementary school, there is usually a ‘room parent’ who has thoughtfully arranged for a group present. At the middle school and high school levels, it becomes more about your child's relationship with a specific teacher. Certainly any teacher whom you or your child has asked to write a recommendation, whether for a summer program or a college application, deserves a personal gift.
The wish to remember all these people at the holidays comes from the enormous gratitude we feel for their yearlong gifts of order, peace of mind and time. It is a business to them, but it is happiness to us. This column hopes to share some simple insight and a bit of wisdom that comes from surrounding oneself with good advisors: our friends and family.