OK, Jolly Season's over. Before we enter into the short Season of Wild Abandonment, followed by the even shorter Morning of Remorse & Reform, Miss Manners would like to put in a cruel word.
Next year, give them lumps of coal.
Not your entire holiday list. Only those on it who have indicated that they would prefer not to receive what you have bestowed upon them.
The way to tell if a present had the happy effect that you intended is to pay attention to the recipient's reaction. Did opening it bring on an exclamation of pleasure and gratitude? Were additional appreciative references to it made on subsequent occasions? If you could not hand it over in person, did it inspire an immediate letter of thanks, brimming with enthusiasm?
These responses indicate that you have succeeded. That should be ample incentive to continue, on future occasions, to think of what would be pleasing, to take the time to track it down, to undergo the expense of buying it and to suffer the nuisance of sending it.
Less gratifying are impersonal responses -- those that are late, mechanically rendered and formulaic. A Gentle Reader who chastises Miss Manners for refusing to dumb down the requirement for letters declares that "Thanks for the present" e-mails are "indeed new, modern and acceptable" -- and then pathetically adds, "when you consider the alternative -- nothing!"
Whether only-just-better-than-nothing responses are enough to sustain generosity probably depends on the relationship of giver to recipient. When there are family ties, notoriously those of grandparents to their minimally responsive descendents, disappointment is tempered by the fear that in the absence of presents, there will be no bond left. The response, therefore, is often to resort to that most impersonal and formulaic of presents -- a check.
Checks, however welcome to those who prefer cash to signs of thoughtfulness, at least produce the response of an actual live signature. Unless, of course, your bank has switched to sending you only reproductions of your checks, with the signed back not shown.
Miss Manners' gentle critic is certainly right that a widespread response to receiving presents is silence. A cashed check or a delivery receipt may be the only evidence that the present has been received. How it has been received remains unknown.
An alternative that may be even worse is the consumer complaint. Bestowers of presents are told that what they offered was not to the taste of the recipient, who asks for a receipt or gives it back to be exchanged.
These actions have the virtue of being honest. The beneficiaries of your generosity honestly don't care that you put yourself out for them, and they frankly dislike what you gave. Those who complain that effusive thanks may be faked -- and those who probe to test if they are -- don't know what they are risking.
Miss Manners has been told of numerous methods of stimulating more palatable reactions to the burden of being given presents. The conventional method is to inquire whether the package was lost, but this can no longer be counted upon to prompt shame and apologies in miscreants. Gentle Readers are reporting that they are being told, "Oh, yes, it arrived." Others have tried giving presents of writing paper and stamps, or sending self-addressed envelopes, sometimes with fill-in-the-blanks or complete letters merely to be signed.
This is silly. The whole concept of exchanging presents rather than doing our own shopping is to give others pleasure. If there is no sign of this having worked, one ought to quit doing it.
But Miss Manners is not completely heartless. Give them one more week.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is the difference between white tie and black tie? When are each of these called for?
GENTLE READER: In simpler times, going out socially at night called for white tie (black tailcoat with satin lapels; black trousers with one stripe of satin braid; white waistcoat; starched shirt with winged collar; and white pique bowtie), while a casual evening at home required only black tie (black suit with satin or grosgrain faile lapels and -- classically -- double braid on the trousers; pleated shirt; black silk or satin bowtie).
These days, it is the hosts or organizers of the social occasion who make the call. Often, Miss Manners notes, in vain.