Should I give my boss a Christmas gift? Learn the Canadian gift-giving tradition

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Christmas in my home country is a big deal. The holidays mean a series of events, parties, and tons of shopping! You are expected to give everyone a gift so you need to prepare. When I say “everyone”, I mean everyone – from friends and family to the person who delivers the newspaper. It can get expensive. We justify this by saying “Christmas comes just once a year!”

If you came from a culture like mine and you’re wondering whether it’s the same way here in Canada, here’s a guide:

Should I give a gift to my boss at Christmas?

Having a good boss may inspire you to get them a gift this Christmas. But before you buy that special item, stop and think about it for a minute.

Gift-giving is not usually done in the Canadian workplace for many reasons. First, not everyone celebrates Christmas. Second, you may be seen as a brown noser, especially if your gift is a luxury item. Third, it places an unwanted obligation on your boss to return the favour. Lastly, your co-workers may not like it since treatment should be equal in the workplace.

You can make everyone feel uncomfortable.

Here are a few tips on gift-giving at work:

  1. Observe or ask about the gift-giving tradition at your workplace. Many go for simple practices like holding a “Secret Santa” or a gift exchange during the office Christmas party. Don’t forget to ask the gift policy, especially if you work in government. It might also be helpful to check your employee handbook.
  2. Employees earn less than their bosses, so most employers do not expect a gift. However, in some workplaces, staff pool funds together for a group gift, especially if they like their boss or if it is a special occasion (for example, the boss’s milestone birthday or retirement). For this type of gift, everyone is consulted about the item and cost beforehand. It is not usually expensive.
  3. Giving a small gift can be appropriate if you have a particular reason to thank your boss. Even then, don’t buy a gift that is too personal.
  4. You may give your co-workers small tokens. These can be things like cookies, keychains, and other small trinkets.

Is it ok to give my teacher a gift?

  1. Adult students, for example in an ESL class or a short term course, may give their teacher a group gift to show their appreciation.
  2. Children in the elementary grades give gifts to their teachers on the last day before Christmas break. This is voluntary.
  3. College and postgraduate students are not expected to give their professors a gift. This may be seen as bribery to get a high mark. Don’t do it.

Is it OK to give gifts to service providers?

In Canada, holiday tipping is acceptable for service providers like postal workers, cleaners, or baby- sitters. This depends on how long they have provided the service and if you have a personal relationship with the provider. For example, if you’ve had the same mailman or garbage collector for years and you are happy with their service, you may give them a box of cookies, candy or a gift card to Tim’s. It’s okay not to give holiday gifts or additional tips to service providers who already get tipped throughout the year like waiters, hairstylists/barbers, or food delivery persons.

Am I required to give something to my neighbours?

Gift-giving should never be required. It’s something that springs from your heart and is not obligatory. Send a gift if you have a close personal relationship with your neighbour. Holiday food like cookies or pastries would be appreciated (see a few more tips below re: food allergies).

General gift-giving etiquette:

You may have noticed that Canadians like to be practical during the holidays. They generally do not like to focus on material things – the thought you put into the gift is more important than the monetary value. This is especially important to keep in mind this year, with inflation affecting most of us.

In most cultures, it is in poor taste to ask for a particular gift, especially when it is expensive and you’re asking someone who is not close to you. Gift lists are acceptable coming from kids when they’re asking Santa or their parents.

A few more tips:

  1. When in doubt, consider sending Christmas cards. Include a hand-written note and greetings for the season. This is personal and heartfelt.
  2. Gifts of food are appreciated. However, if you are unsure if your dish would meet their tastes or if you worry that they may have allergies, give a gift card instead. For example, most teachers will be receiving food gifts like cookies, candy, and other usual Christmas treats. They may appreciate a gift card more.
  3. Should you wish to give small tokens of appreciation to your co-workers, make sure that you give everyone the same thing. Make it known that you don’t expect anything in return.
  4. If you are invited to a Canadian home for dinner, it is customary to bring a box of chocolates, a bottle of wine, or flowers for the host.
  5. Always show your appreciation for any gift received. Say thank you and greet them, “Happy holidays!”
  6. Instead of spending on gifts, consider donating to a charitable cause. You don’t need to give a big amount. Even a small contribution will be appreciated.

 
Article updated November 21, 2023.
 
Sources: Five rules for holiday gift-giving, HRD Canada; Unwritten rules of gift-giving at the office or school, Joan Bartel, Canadian Immigrant Magazine/Margaret Jetelina, Thinking Port; Canada gift giving customs, Giftypedia; and Canadian gift giving etiquette, Bits of Australia. Accessed December 20, 2018/November 15, 2021.

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