Whine all you want about the commercialization of Christmas — incessant jingle-bell-infused TV, and the Chipmunks stalking you through a nefarious network of tinny speakers — but like it or not, much of the holiday is devoted to giving people stuff.
If you expand your list to include your mail carrier, the garbage guys and the kids' teachers are you caving to the tinsel-draped mall-machine created by big business? Not so fast. Isn't the point of all this gift-giving to say thank you, and I appreciate you, or at the very least, I notice you, to the people who help make life better? I hope so. Here's a quick guide.
The question of cash. Cash gifts are most appropriate for service providers you pay directly on a regular basis. Essentially, if you pay their wage, or tip them in the normal course of business, then cash will work and most likely be happily received. Gift cards are abundantly available in almost every grocery store if you prefer plastic over paper funds, and you can pick something suited to their age and tastes to give it a more personal touch.
Is it too personal? If you want to pick a personal gift and you feel you know the recipient well enough to make a good guess, by all means go for it. Stay away from perfumes, toiletries, clothing and home decor. But be sure to include a gift receipt and spend the same amount you would have given in cash.
Nanny. The typical bonus for a full-time or regular nanny is one week to one month of her (or his) usual salary. The range depends on how long she's been with your family, and your budget. That figure might knock the wind out of you, but think about it: she (or he) cares for your children when you can't. I'm sure your children are angels, but she deserves it. Have the children give her something as well — a hand-crafted goodie or framed picture of their smiling faces is perfect.
Daycare. Daycares come in all shapes and sizes, from a small home-based to a chain-style center with too many employees to buy for. If your kiddos have one teacher you can follow the same guidelines for teachers (see below) and do a shared goody basket for the office staff. For bigger centers, think of something the whole staff will enjoy. Bring in a carton of gourmet coffee and baked goods. Or get together with other parents and plan a pizza party or box lunch delivery — just call the director to arrange the day. If you plan to get them sweet treats, think about doing it earlier, rather than later. You can check them off your list and they get treats before they're feeling that late holiday sugar saturation.
Babysitter. If you have a regular babysitter, one with a weekly or monthly schedule, the same guidelines apply as for a nanny. The amount you give can be equal to one typical evening's wages. For a younger teen or tween who is more of a mother's helper — one with shorter daytime shifts or who helps while you are at home, an extra $10 or a plate of cookies will make their day. If you have a few different ones you call sporadically, don't bother unless you use one during the peak of the season, in which case just tip them a few extra bucks.
Teachers and coaches. If this is someone who interacts more with your child than with you, have the kids make the gift and write the note thanking them for what they do. Coffee mugs chip, but artwork and hand-written notes from students shore these folks up in the long haul to retirement. Throwing in a Starbucks card and plate of cookies doesn't hurt either.
Hairdresser/barber/manicurist. If you have a go-to person for your grooming needs you may want to double the tip on the visit closest to Christmas (before is best, but early January is fine too.) Tips are treated as income so you might give cash in a card instead of doubling the tip line on the receipt. The card makes it more personal and lets them know you planned ahead and didn't just make a math error.
Gardener/house cleaner. If you contract with a company for yard, landscape or cleaning services and they send someone different each week, there is no need to gift. If, however, you hire a sole proprietor and they do the work themselves, a gift is a proper thank you for scrubbing behind your toilet or pulling your weeds. If you go the cash route, the amount is up to you, but a good place to start is the cost of one typical visit.
Garbage haulers. They may look like tough guys, but they'd still love a kid's thank you in the form of a note or picture, if you have the time and the inclination. You can also leave them gift certificates for a drive-through close to your house with a note that says "Lunch is on us!"
Mail carriers and delivery drivers. By law postal workers can not accept cash and can only accept a gift valued at $20 or less. Stick to store-bought goodies in sealed packages. Unless you have a home office and your business receives packages regularly, there is no need to gift the UPS or FedEx driver.
Libraries, school office. Think of places your family frequents with a small staff that may vary day to day. Have your kids draw a picture or write a note thanking them for the work they do. Take in a group gift to liven up the workspace like a poinsettia or a basket with small grab-n-go goodies like trial sized lip balms or hand creams, wrapped chocolates or candy canes.
Finally, get the kids in on the process. As chaotic and harried as this time of year is, it provides an opportunity for children to learn the art of gratitude and the pleasure of giving. Who knows, you might learn something, too!
Emily Metcalfe Smith lives, parents and writes in Edmonds, Washington.