Dear Wendy: “Should My New Boyfriend Get My Parents A Christmas Gift?”

My boyfriend asked me last night if we/he should get my parents and sister each a gift for Christmas. This is our first Christmas as a couple and the first serious boyfriend I had around the holidays. He has already met my parents and sister and they all like each other. Should he get them a gift? Should I tell my family that they all need to get him something too? So far I told him I’d let him know but I’m really not sure what the best thing to do is. — First Christmas Together

First of all, it’s important to remember that while etiquette may call for gifts at certain events and occasions, they shouldn’t be given if the giver doesn’t truly want to give them. So, no, your boyfriend and family don’t need to give each other gifts if they don’t genuinely feel the sentiment. Whether it’s proper etiquette is another issue and depends greatly on how you plan to spend the holidays. Will your boyfriend be accompanying you to your parents’ home for Christmas? If so, at least a small host gift, like a nice bottle of wine, some holiday hand towels, or tasty Christmas cookies, would be appropriate. If he’s going to be present during gift-opening festivities — like on Christmas morning or Christmas eve — definitely, a little wrapped something-something for your immediate family members (one for your sister and a joint gift for your parents is fine). These do not — and shouldn’t be — extravagant or too personal. If he’s visiting from another city or grew up in a different hometown, something representative of that place would be great — gourmet cheese from Wisconsin, Garrett popcorn from Chicago, some turquoise from New Mexico. If he isn’t planning to see your family at all on Christmas or the days leading up to it, there’s really no obligation to give them anything, although a card with a heartfelt message — “So nice to have met you last month. I look forward to seeing you again in the New Year … ” is always nice. If he really wanted to earn some brownie points, he could even send a small gift basket to you and your family to enjoy on Christmas if you plan to be home without him, but there’s really no obligation for your family to send him anything — not if this is just your first Christmas together.

I have been seeing my boyfriend for eight months and I would say that we are pretty happy together. I’ve known since our first few weeks together that he’s not into gifts — birthdays, Christmas, etc. He told me then that no one in his family does it, and he doesn’t do it for the most part either, unless it’s for his niece or someone close. On this note, my 20th birthday came a few months ago, and I went on a short vacation with my family, and he picked me up the next day from the airport. I wasn’t expecting much of a birthday treat from him, but he told me that he “forgot” and didn’t get me a present, and didn’t even wish me a happy birthday. Needless to say, hearing that hurt and left me pretty confused about our relationship for some time. I didn’t buy his excuse though, and he knew it, but he stood by this reason and took me out for a belated birthday celebration a week later. About two months afterward his birthday came, and after much debate, I decided to do a little something for him and got him a protein shake mixer, made him a card, and took him out for his birthday. While out, he expressed how bad he felt about forgetting mine and not getting me anything and didn’t feel right about me doing something for his. I told him that although I was told not to, that I wanted to do something for him since he really matters to me and because I love celebrating people’s birthdays.

Recently, while talking about Christmas coming up, I “jokingly” told him that he has to give me a Christmas gift (as have many of our friends who knew about my birthday) and he has said that he knows and he definitely will. But the thing is, is that I don’t know how much I should spend on him. Some have told me that his not buying anything for me at all in our eight-month relationship is a horrible sign and that I should get out of this relationship ASAP, or get him nothing for Christmas. Whereas others believe that I should treat him the way that I want to be treated and get him something. If I do get something for him though, what do you think would be a good idea? How much should I spend or should I expect him to spend? And most importantly, should I just get over the whole birthday thing once and for all, and not continue to hold it against him? — Forgotten Birthday Girl

Yes, you should definitely get over the whole birthday thing. I’m not saying it isn’t a big deal that your boyfriend “forgot” your birthday, but he tried to make it up to you with a belated celebration and months have passed since then. You’ve either forgiven him or you haven’t. If you have, then get over it! If you haven’t, then maybe you need to re-evaluate whether you want to be in this relationship. And if you’re waiting to see what he does for you for Christmas before you decide whether you’ve forgiven him or if you want to keep seeing him, you should probably adjust your expectations right now. The guy told you from the beginning he doesn’t do gifts. If he doesn’t get you much for Christmas, you can hardly get mad at him for misrepresenting himself. It’s like getting mad at a vegetarian for not eating the pot roast you made.

Personally, I think all this gift-giving nonsense has gotten way out of hand. Sometimes it feels like a substitute for expressing our affection through words and deeds. My husband and I rarely exchange gifts and that works for both of us. Instead, we spend our money on shared experiences — nice meals out, concert or theater tickets, vacations — and crap for home. I don’t think my husband loves me any less because he’s not giving me fancy jewelry on my birthday or whatever. But that’s us. You have to figure out what works for you and if you and your boyfriend don’t have common ground when it comes to gift-giving, you have to decide if that’s a dealbreaker for you. And you have to decide if it’s really the material value of the gift or the thought behind it. And if it’s the thought that counts, can you be satisfied with a small gift or gesture? Is the monetary value really all that important to you?

But you really want to know whether you should get your boyfriend something and if so, how much you should spend. I say get him something if you want to. Get him something if that’s what feels right to you. Don’t NOT get him something because you’re still pissed about your birthday. That’s just childish. If you would normally give a boyfriend of eight months a gift for the holidays, by all means go for it. But don’t spend a lot (like, fifty bucks tops) and don’t make your acceptance of him dependent on if and what kind of gift he gets you. If you’re going to do that, you might as well just tell him that’s what you’re doing. It’s only fair. After all, he told you he doesn’t do gifts, so if you’re going to hold that against him months and months after being warned, you should give him fair warning that that’s your plan. Something like: “I know you don’t do gifts, but I do and if you don’t get me at least a little something, I’m going to be hurt — I might even break up with you.” And if that sounds silly to you, or manipulative, or like maybe there aren’t enough other reasons for you to be together if that’s what’s going to break you up, well, maybe there aren’t. Only you can answer that.

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