DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have heard that it is not proper to thank people for Christmas gifts. This does not seem reasonable to me, especially when gifts have been packaged and mailed, and the giver is not present upon receipt. What is the official rule of etiquette about Christmas gifts?
GENTLE READER: Let Miss Manners guess where you are getting your etiquette information.
The subject arose with someone under an obligation to thank either you or another benefactor, such as that person's grandmother. When you mentioned that, there was a counterattack in the form of a declaration that such an expectation was selfish, because true generosity exists for itself, not with any thought of being thanked.
Got that? The person who gave the present is condemned as ignoble by the very person who benefited but wouldn't trouble to acknowledge it. Miss Manners trusts that you are not so naive as to fall for such sophistry.
Generosity and gratitude are permanently paired. Those would-be etiquetteers who declare expressing thanks to be no longer required have done only half the job. They must also then abolish the custom of giving -- or, what always turns out to be the case with them -- accepting presents.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am married with two children, 14 and 4. My 4-year-old son is currently in treatment for cancer.
My family has been very supportive and kind. One of my sisters, who has no children and a lucrative career, usually shows up for a visit with very expensive gifts for the 4-year-old. This Christmas season, she has been more extravagant than usual, I assume as a result of my son's illness.
I have gently suggested that she should come for a visit with no gifts, so that my son appreciates her presence more than her "presents." She was offended at the suggestion. Is there any polite way to limit her gifts?
GENTLE READER: Probably not. Buying them is a comfort to your sister.
What you can do is to use the presents to encourage a bond between them. "Oh, look what Aunt Sophie has brought you!" you can say. And then announce to them both that Aunt Sophie will teach him how to play the game, ride the vehicle, read him the book, or whatever.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I was raised on the East Coast in a home where we always used cloth napkins. I continue to use them. They are put back on the table and used another day.
My son and his wife were disgusted by this and said it must be a hangover from the austerity of the war years. I replace them when they seem to need it -- sometimes several days. Is he right and I am wrong?
GENTLE READER: Perhaps he has a full-time laundress, and you do not.
And perhaps he has no idea what those fanciful round silver objects are, which are often elaborate, sometimes with whimsical themes, and carry engraved names or initials.
These are called napkin rings, functional items that once appeared even in fully staffed households. (A good laundress is hard to find, and one wouldn't want to overtax her.) They are meant for family use only, never, as they are now sometimes used, as decorations for guests' napkins.
You will notice that Miss Manners is refusing to consider the possibility that a properly reared son is trying to convert his parents to paper napkins.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, email@example.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)