If you are invited to a Russian Christmas, a celebration for New Year’s, or if there’s a big birthday coming up, understanding gift-giving traditions and expectations is imperative. Disclaimer: Gender roles still hold strong in Russia, and in most cases, gifts can seem conservative compared to Western countries. However, there are some safe bets for many Russian people if you don’t want to show up to a party empty-handed.
When to Give Your Gifts
Russia celebrates as many as four winter holidays, so they do not give each other big presents on each of these occasions. For most of the special days, a small token or joke gift is exchanged. Be sure to bring something, even if it isn’t the main holiday in which real gifts are shared, which is decided upon by each family. For most people celebrating at home, the principal festivities will be on New Year’s Eve.
In general, cheaper gifts are not expected to be wrapped in paper, but pricey presents should be wrapped and have a card included.
Host or Hostess Gifts
If you are ever invited to a Russian party, especially if it is a holiday celebration, make sure to bring along a gift for the host. Appropriate gifts include flowers and chocolates (mainly for women), wine, and—if you know their taste—vodka or other hard liquors. When you receive your invitation, don’t forget to ask whether you can bring something for the party. Usually, the host will say no, but occasionally they may ask you to make a salad or something similar. Russian holiday celebrations are traditionally huge feasts, and it’s not easy for the hosts to cook everything by themselves.
Gifts for Kids and Other Guests
It may sound unusual, but don’t forget to bring a gift for everyone else at the party other than the hosts. The present doesn't have to be big or expensive, but common courtesy dictates to bring along a little something for all the people at the gathering. It’s especially important to get some small toys or items like candy for any kids who are attending.
One fairly strict rule is that you must get into the spirit of giving by wrapping and putting all the presents under the Christmas tree.
Gifts for Men
Acceptable gifts to give to Russian men include nice bottles of hard alcohol, usually vodka, cognac, and (sometimes) whiskey. You can also give cuff links, ties, and even watches, but be aware that Russians have eagle eyes for spotting fake, cheap, and poor-quality items, and many will not wear them. For something more inexpensive, tech-related accessories like cell phone cases, headphones, and even computer accessories are also great.
It is wise to not give chocolates or flowers which are considered to be effeminate; wine is a pretty rare gift for men in Russia, as well.
Gifts for Women
Feel free to give women chocolate or flowers, but since they (generally) receive these a lot, they will not be considered particularly special presents. When visiting a family home, bring flowers for a wife, mother, or sister who is likely to be home. The general custom is to bring an odd number of flowers, as even numbers are typically taken to funerals.
Surprisingly, perfume is a common gift for Russian females; many do not stick to just one kind and like to own a few different scents. It is also acceptable to give nice fashion accessories such as scarves and shawls.
Avoid gifting jewelry, as most Russian women are very selective. Buying jewelry is considered to be quite a personal item picked out by each woman (or perhaps by her suitor or family)—the same goes for watches and purses. Also, stay away from cooking accessories, as many women will already have exactly what they want.