You've bagged and dumped the last crinkled piles of wrapping paper. Your new power vacuum has sucked up that stray foam peanut from under the sofa. The cardboard boxes are folded neatly in the basement. But the holidays aren't over until everyone is properly thanked.
Contrary to popular belief, traditional, handwritten thank-you notes are not a relic of centuries past, says Judith Martin, who writes a syndicated newspaper column about etiquette under the name Miss Manners. "As long as kindness is performed, showing gratitude will be necessary," Martin says. People who send gifts want to know not only that their presents were received, but also that they made you happy. Showing some warmth in return is the least you could do. Besides, says Martin, "no etiquette violation seems to upset people as much as the missing thank-you note."
So before things get truly frosty, why not warm up in front of a fire with a stack of stationery and stamps, and let your friends, family, and acquaintances know how much you appreciate their generosity? As Martin says, writing thank-you notes is good for the writer, too. You may not enjoy the task, "but being forced to focus on someone else's kindness is good for the soul," she says.
Here are some guidelines that will steer you through the thank-you process for the holidays and every other gift-giving occasion.
According to The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette by Nancy Tuckerman and Nancy Dunnan (Doubleday, 1995), the best thank-you letters are the spontaneous ones that come from the heart and tell why the present means so much. Length is insignificant. What counts is what you say and how you phrase it. A brief note on plain stationery always beats a preprinted, store-bought card. You could even use "cute" stationery, says Martin, as long as the recipient has the same sense of "cute" as you do.
Where to start? The traditional greeting ("Dear Elaine and Marty") is the opener of choice over, say, the less formal "Hey guys." Always follow the greeting with a vivid detail about the present. "Thank you for the wonderful His and Hers potholders" works better than the generic "Thank you for your kind gift."
When you receive a check or gift certificate, never mention the amount in your letter. You should be less concerned with the number of zeros than the thoughtfulness involved. The giver will also be glad to know how you plan to spend the money. ("Dear Grandma Sylvie, Thank you so much for your generous gift for Judah's birth. We plan to buy a bookcase for his room, since like you, he's sure to be an avid reader. I think we'll start with Dr. Seuss. . . .")
By the time your children are 6 or 7 (when they've learned the fundamentals of writing), they should begin writing their own thank-you notes. (Before then, you might have them draw pictures or dictate letters to you.) Children's letters tend to be whimsical and heartfelt. Encourage your kids to include a distinct detail about the gift. ("Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Thanks for the pink Barbie suitcase. I can't wait to leave.")
No matter how illegible your handwriting, thank-you notes are warmer and more personal when written by hand. Though you might feel the urge to type a mass mailing on the computer, log off that impulse, says Martin. Even your grandparents will recognize an all-purpose computer paragraph. What's more, sending thanks by e-mail to your entire online address book is a big no-no. Most people will find this practice rude and impersonal.
E-cards, on the other hand, are an up-and-coming mode of saying thanks. They can offer a quick opportunity to write a personal note, with the bonus of surprising graphics, notes Jacqueline Leo, a longtime women's magazine editor. "What a delight it can be to find a personalized thank-you e-card in your inbox." You should always send your own message with the e-card, as well as the message that's hardwired, Leo says.
Don't, however, assume that e-cards are appropriate for all gift givers. They can be great follow-ups if you've called people to thank them, or thanked them on the spot. E-cards also work as "thank-yous" to hosts of holiday parties. And, she cautions, you have to know your audience. E-cards may be acceptable to the gift giver who checks her e-mail often and owns the technology that will download the card quickly. But tying up someone's computer at work can be a sorry way of saying thanks.
It's never too soon to say thank you, but it can be shamefully late. "There is no rule about having three years -- or even one year -- in which to write a letter of thanks. Three minutes is more like it," says Martin in her book Miss Manners' Basic Training: Communication (Crown Publishers, 1997). For holiday gifts, give yourself about a week or two (but definitely complete your list before the first buds of spring arrive). For wedding gifts, try to write your thank-you notes two to three weeks after you receive the presents, and certainly no more than eight weeks later. Responding quickly is not only good manners; your writing will be more spontaneous and the sender won't start to worry that the gift never arrived.
Does every gift deserve a thank-you note? As a rule of thumb, always write notes for gifts received in the mail. For gifts given in person, for instance at a family gathering, it should be sufficient to exchange thanks while exchanging presents, says Martin. Some relatives -- who they are will usually be obvious -- do expect that extra handwritten token of appreciation. Keep in mind that for larger gifts it's best to err on the side of etiquette. An oral, "Gee, thanks for the car," is not enough, but writing a lengthy note after exchanging fruitcakes is overkill.
Is it appropriate to send your boss a thank-you note for a holiday bonus? After all, you might feel entitled to this predictable perk. Says Martin, "Miss Manners always believes in sending thank-you notes. It encourages people to give more." In other words, couldn't hurt, might help!
Occasionally, you might be plagued with truly ghastly gifts like crystal deer antlers, a Christmas scarf with flashing lights, or polyester neon toe socks. As unlucky as you may feel, you should give equal thanks for an unwanted gift as for a welcome one. "It's just as much trouble to select a useless, ugly object as it is a treasure," says Martin. Keep in mind that the giver probably had no clue how useless (and tasteless) that scarf might be. And you'd be wise to never let her know. You don't have to lie about it. Simply write how grateful you are to be remembered. Since every thank-you must include a remark about the present, Martin recommends using words such as "wonderful," "terrific," and "awesome." "A ghastly present can easily be any one of these, as your dictionary will confirm," Martin says.
Etiquette does provide some remedies for those items that are hideous, the wrong size, and impossible to return. You could discreetly donate them to charity, give them to someone else who might like them, or add them to a yard sale. Just be sure that the giver never knows you didn't like the gift. Remember, it's the thought that counts!