Christmas conundrums, from gifts to parties to avoiding Covid: What you need to know

12:54 pm on 6 December 2023
Santa Claus at sea beach with many gifts and decorated christmas tree - happy new year concept

Photo: 123RF

Explainer - The approaching holiday season for many is a time of gratitude, giving, and joy. But it also involves a few tricky questions and ethical dilemmas. From family gatherings to unwanted presents to avoiding Covid and even navigating grief, RNZ is here to help.

First, let's hear from Santa. What's it like being a legend, and what are some of the most popular gift requests from children?

"There's no better job in the entire world," Santa says. (Yes, Santa. He called RNZ from his grotto at Ballantynes department store in Christchurch.) "I love being Santa and helping children's Christmas dreams come true."

As for the most-requested gifts: Lego, Lego, and more Lego, from princess castles to Star Wars fighters.

"We'll be putting a lot of Lego onto the sleigh," he says. "But there's this new thing called Clixo. It's a magnetic toy that clicks together like Lego but bends as well."

Older children are also asking for Hey Clay, a non-sticky clay that can be moulded into different shapes before air drying.

Soft toys are always popular with children of all ages, Santa says. "A soft cat or bear to cuddle."

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

Gifts for the teacher

At the end of the school year, many families like to give their child's teacher a gift. Is that appropriate? And, if so, what's a good gift to get?

You're not obligated to get your child's teacher a gift. But homemade cards, letters of thanks, or drawings are always appreciated.

The manager of an early childhood education centre in Christchurch, Sarah Matenga, says teachers "definitely don't expect gifts" but a box of chocolates to share with the team always goes down a treat. What would be even better, she says, would be for the government "to recognise ECE teachers as professionals and to fund full pay parity for everyone".

Coping with unwanted gifts

How do I return, sell or donate a gift I don't like, without offending the giver?

"Different gifts and different relationships will dictate what you choose to do", says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette author Emily Post and co-president at the Emily Post Institute in Vermont.

Perhaps you're given a top that just doesn't fit with your style. Can you return it? On-sell it? Or is it best to leave it in the back of your closet and hope it eventually gets eaten by moths (or, more accurately, their larvae)?

You might be able to exchange it (many retailers offer gift receipts for this reason) but if your sister knitted it for you, "because of the amount of effort she put in, I'm going to keep it for a while and even try to wear it to appease her", Post says.

"If an item is handmade, or monogrammed, or otherwise personalised, we suggest hanging on to it for a little while."

In cases where you're given an item you already have or simply don't need, "most etiquette is going to say you accept the gift and deal with it in your own way", Post says, but there are some people who would be happy to take the gift back and give it to someone else.

If you're going to on-sell or regift an item, you need to be 100 percent sure the person who gave it to you won't be offended.

What about attending a work Christmas function?

A Christmas party scene, with a decorated tree in the foreground.

Photo: Eugene Zhyvchik / Unsplash

Bosses should ask employees if they want a Christmas party, and be clear about the event's purpose, says Bridget Jelley, director and workplace psychologist at Glia.

If people don't want to attend, they shouldn't feel guilty, Jelley says. "If we have a culture where you don't want to go - but feel guilty - well, that's a sign of a culture that may not be a healthy one."

Sending out a post-event debrief, with photos or a video, is a good way to help those who didn't attend feel included, she says.

Her colleague, workplace psychologist Jay Barrett, says parties should be celebrations, not another stressor. His recommendations: Go off-site, avoid formalities, and give alcohol a miss (or limit it).

If events are held outside paid work hours, it's understandable employees view them as 'extra'. But it's also not fair to expect people to attend during work hours if you haven't made appropriate adjustments to their workload, Barrett adds.

But don't be put off: when done right, events can greatly benefit workplace culture.

Jelley: "Work is a social environment. When you do it right, absolutely you get better connection, collaboration, and a shared positive experience that brings people together.

"That can positively impact on people's wellbeing as well as fostering creativity and innovation. It also does wonders for your workplace culture. People will continue to talk about those experiences for years to come."

Two Christmas elves sitting on a wooden board

Photo: Erin McKenna / Unsplash

Festive family gatherings

For many, family gatherings are more stressful than work ones. How can we keep our cool?

Every year, clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo fields questions from clients dreading Christmas and its associated family obligations: "A lot of people would happily skip it, they just want to be on the other side of it."

It's okay to set boundaries and speak up if family traditions no longer work for you, Wellington-based Nimmo says.

Because Christmas in New Zealand typically falls at the end of the working year but before summer holidays, many people are already exhausted before December 25 rolls around. So it's fine - even refreshing - to do things differently. Perhaps this year you'll do a day trip, rather than stay overnight at your parents' house, for example. Or instead of taking hours to decorate the ornate Christmas tree, you opt for tinsel on the pot plants or some strings of festive lights.

If you're anxious about attending a big family gathering, planning can help. Not only for what you'll take and how long you'll stay, but also for what you'll say when a particular relative inevitably comments on your relationship status, parenting, or weight. Arm yourself with some responses.

If someone makes a jibe about your weight, for example, Nimmo suggests saying something like: "I'm feeling great just as I am. How 'bout you?" Or: "That one's off the table this year, Aunty." And don't forget the power of saying nothing. "When you don't react, you take the sting out of the comment, because the offender doesn't have anywhere else to take it."

When it comes to food, presents, decorations and organising the big day - take the easy road. "You don't have to have the biggest, grandest day ever. It can just be a pitstop on the way to the holidays - when you can finally, hopefully, relax."

How can we reduce our risk of getting Covid?

A person buried under a duvet and pillow with a dose of 2023 malaise

Photo: Isabella Fischer / Unsplash

Wastewater data suggests we're still seeing elevated rates of Covid-19 infections heading into the holiday season.

Canterbury University Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank said the virus is settling into a cycle of peaks and troughs typical of endemic diseases. But unlike the flu, for example, it hasn't fallen into a seasonal pattern - in New Zealand or overseas - with a predictable winter peak. Partly because Covid is more infectious than influenza.

"But of course it's affected as well by contact patterns," Plank adds.

Case numbers have increased "notably" over the last month or two, he says, although they appear to be coming down again. "It's possible we've passed the peak of this wave." However, it's also possible the mixing and travelling that often occurs at this time of year may reverse that trend.

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says even if the current "fifth wave" has peaked, a lot of people will get infected between now and Christmas. So it's a good time to remind yourself about protective measures, such as getting a booster if you're due for one. If you're not feeling well, stay home. If you're hosting: make sure the venue is well-ventilated, encourage people to make use of rapid antigen tests (particularly if they've travelled), and support those who choose to wear masks.

Supporting those who have experienced loss of loved one

A person cupping some Christmas lights in their hands

Photo: Josh Boot / Unsplash

If this is your first Christmas without a loved one, or a pet, it's understandable you might be anxious, says an Auckland-based counsellor at Grief Centre, Matthew Flynn.

"The anxiety can make you tense and tired. It's important to look after your own basic needs, as a starting point.

"Secondly, think about your expectations of Christmas. They might be high and unrealistic. Think about what you need at this time of year and what you'd like to do. How would you like to remember the person you've lost? For the first Christmas without them and every year after that."

For many whānau, particularly if they're grieving the death of a young person, this means acknowledging Christmas will never be the same.

"The philosophy we work with is we don't move on; we just learn to live with the grief."

Talking as a group about changing plans and doing things differently can help, Flynn says. Perhaps you want to set an extra place at the table on Christmas Day, or spend some time looking at photos, or light a candle.

"My observation is people would rather talk, than not. Often, they're worried they'll bring down the mood. My answer to that is, that's life."

His main message to those who are grieving this holiday season: "Try to find some quiet time to stop and breathe and relax."

And if you're in a supportive role? While some people crave company when they're sad, others want to be alone, Flynn says. Respecting individuals' wishes is important.

"Most people say to me they don't want to be fixed they just want to be held from falling. To know their friends are there for them."

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