Holiday gifting etiquette can be challenging.   Knowing how to navigate the ins and outs of gifting etiquette can make your holiday season less stressful and help you avoid those uncomfortable situations with neighbors.  Consider the following scenario:

It’s 8:00 PM on December 23rd and you are sitting on your couch both exhausted and satisfied that you have finally checked off the last item on your Christmas “To Do” list.  It is finally time to relax and enjoy what is left of the holiday season.   Just as you are about to turn on the TV to watch one of the 10 episodes of your favorite TV show you have recorded on your DVR your doorbell rings.  You drag yourself to your feet and answer the door.  To your surprise you find a neighbor from down the street who moved into the neighborhood three months ago and who you have met only a few times.  In her hands is a beautifully wrapped gift.  After some pleasantries on the porch she hands the gift to you and wishes you a Merry Christmas.  When you get back inside and open the gift you find a cute tea themed gift basket with mugs, tea, honey sticks, a tea pot, etc.  This is a nice gift which obviously wasn't made at home.

What do you do now?  This neighbor was not on your gift list and you have nothing around the house for her.  Do you have to run to the store the day before Christmas to try and find a gift for your neighbor?  Can you simply bake a plate of cookies and call it good?  We will answer these questions and many more in this holiday gifting etiquette guide.

7 Gift Giving Etiquette Questions Answered

  1. Should I buy holiday gifts for my neighbors?
  2. Once I give a holiday gift to a neighbor should I continue each year?
  3. If I receive a holiday gift from a neighbor should I reciprocate?
  4. How much should I spend on a Christmas gift for a neighbor?
  5. What type of holiday gifts should I give to my neighbors?
  6. Can I give a homemade holiday gift to a neighbor?
  7. When is the best time to give a Christmas gift to a neighbor?

1) Should I Buy Holiday Gifts for Neighbors?

To answer this question, we first need to define the term “neighbor.”    For the purpose of this article a neighbor is someone you interact with on occasion but not someone you would consider a friend.  If there is any doubt if someone is a neighbor or a friend, ask yourself this question, “If my car broke down late at night would I call this person and ask them to pick me up?”  If your answer is yes than that person should be on your “friend” gift list which can be very different from you neighbor gift list.  A neighbor may live near you or may be someone from your book club, church, the school’s PTA, etc.

When deciding whether to gift or not to gift you should consider how well you know the individual and how much interaction you have had with them over the past few months.  If your interaction is limited to the occasional wave as you drive past their house on the way out of the neighborhood you don’t need to worry about a gift.  However, if you have regular interaction you might want to add them to your gift list.  When considering which neighbors you will give gifts you should answer the following questions:

  • Has he/she given you a gift in the past?
  • Have you interacted with him/her regularly in the past few months?
  • Is there a tradition of neighbor gift giving in your neighborhood?
  • Would you like to develop a more significant relationship with this person?

If you answered yes to two or more of those questions you should consider getting that neighbor a holiday gift.  

2) Once I give a holiday gift to a neighbor should I continue each year?

Once you have started exchanging gifts with a neighbor do you need to continue to do so each year?  The simple answer is yes.  Any time you start a gift exchange with someone you should assume that will continue each year.  For that reason, you should choose wisely which neighbors will be added to your gift list.   

There are circumstances that may stop the gift giving cycle.  For example, if you or your neighbor move that is a great time to stop giving gifts unless you want the relationship to continue.  Another reason you might stop exchanging gifts with a neighbor is if you no longer have interactions with them.  Perhaps you both were serving on the same PTA committee, but it no longer exists and you have not continued the relationship.  If you have not spoken with someone since the last time you exchanged gifts you might want to have a gift in reserve, in case they give you something, but not be the one who gives a gift first. 

Christmas Gifts for Friends |

3) If I receive a holiday gift from a neighbor should I reciprocate?

Generally speaking, the answer is yes.  Proper gifting etiquette suggest you should reciprocate with a similar priced holiday gift when a neighbor gives you a gift.  Of course, there are always exceptions.  If you are not in a position financially to reciprocate you don’t need to do so.  However, at minimum you should show them appreciation with a heartfelt thank you note or a small homemade gift if possible.

So, what do you do if you are given a gift and there is no time to reciprocate as in the situation above?  First of all, don’t stress.  Even etiquette experts can feel awkward in these situations.  Susan Newman a social psychologist and etiquette expert gives the following advice:

“I’m definitely embarrassed when caught off guard this way” she told HuffPost.  “It happened to me once when celebrating Christmas with a family not related to us. My friend’s mother got me a gift that I was certainly not expecting.”

In response, Newman offered up some honesty. “I told the woman, ‘I didn’t know we were exchanging presents. I feel terrible I have nothing for you, but I just love this gift. Thank you,’ and I left it at that.”

Newman believes that’s all you’re obligated to do in such a situation. Don’t make excuses and definitely don’t pretend you have a gift at home with your pal’s name on it.

“Telling them you forgot the gift is not being truthful,” she said. “Plus, you’re going to feel just as guilty, upset or embarrassed as you do about not having a gift for that person. You’re being pressured into what you think is proper social etiquette, but it’s something you don’t have to do.”

4) How much should I spend on a Christmas gift for a neighbor?

The National Retail Federation shows that the 2019 holiday sales increased 3.8% to 4.2% in 2019 to a total of $730 billion.  

2019 US Holiday Spending |

How much of that $730 billion will come from your wallet on your neighbor gifts?   While there is no one correct answer to how much you should spend on a gift for a neighbor, there are some guidelines you should consider.  In addition to how well you know the neighbor, you should also keep in mind that they will want to reciprocate, and you don’t want to place a financial burden on them.  You also need to remember that you are starting a gift exchange that will continue into future years that will be difficult to scale back or discontinue.

As a rule of thumb your neighbor gifts should be inexpensive, somewhere in the $20 to $30 range.  There might be circumstances where you want to spend more for an especially generous neighbor, but that should be the exception to the rule.   

5) What type of holiday gifts should I give to my neighbors?

When trying to decide what type of holiday gift to give a neighbor you don’t know well there are a few things to keep in mind.  Since not everyone drinks you should avoid giving wine or other alcohol gifts unless you know for sure they would be appreciated by that neighbor.  Food or snack gifts are appropriate, but you should stay away from some of the more common allergens like peanuts.  Since more and more people are gluten intolerant you should include a variety of snacks including gluten free options.  Items such as hot chocolate, sugar cookies, homemade chocolates, or a hot chocolate gift basket all make great holiday food gifts for neighbors.

Small Christmas décor or other items for the home are also appropriate but your gift should be for the family, not just one person in the home.  Family board games, DIY gingerbread house kits and cookie dough gifts make fun holiday gifts that will keep the kids busy while they are out of school.  

6) Can I give a homemade holiday gift to a neighbor?

Homemade gifts make great neighbor gifts for the holidays.  The more creative the better.  The best place to find creative gift ideas for your neighbor is Pinterest.  You will find hundreds of inexpensive gift ideas that you can make at home.   From cookies to Christmas décor a homemade gift is a great way to wish a neighbor a happy holiday.

7) When is the best time to give a Christmas gift to a neighbor?

From the example above we have learned that dropping a gift on your neighbor’s porch on Christmas Eve is not a good idea.   As a general rule you should deliver your neighbor gifts three to five days before Christmas.  That gives your neighbor time to reciprocate if they were not already planning to get you a gift. 

If you were given a gift at the last moment is it okay to reciprocate with a gift after Christmas?  If you are going to give a holiday gift after Christmas you should consider a New Years celebration gift.  Perhaps a bottle of sparkling cider and some noise makers with a card wishing them a happy new year. 

Holiday Gift Etiquette

We hope the answers to these seven holiday gifting etiquette questions have helped you know when, why and how to give holiday gifts to your neighbors.  If you remember nothing else from this article we hope you remember that we should give gifts because we want to and we should not expect anything in return.  If you keep that in mind you really can’t go wrong.

If you have other gift etiquette questions, please let me know in the comment section below.   Also, we would love to hear you holiday gift ideas for friends and neighbors

Looking for what to do about birthday gifts for friends, family or neighbors? Check out our Birthday Gift Etiquette Blog to get all your questions answered. 

Check out our article on Housewarming Gifting Etiquette.

Check out our Do I Need to Give My Girlfriend a Valentine's Day Gift article.  

July 21, 2021 — Matt Graham


Johanna Bright said:

I have bought my neighbor a Christmas gift but have not had the chance to wrap it yet. However, she has just delivered a Christmas card and no gift. I don’t want to make her feel awkward so I’m now unsure if I should give the gift at all.

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