Everyone who has ever tried to give a gift to my Russian parents inevitably always comes running to me and asking me which gifts are appropriate for Russian people. If you’ve been invited to a Russian Christmas or New Year’s celebration (or if there’s an important birthday coming up), here is a guide to the best (and worst!) gifts to give to Russian people.
Disclaimer: Of course, this is a very general list which does not apply to everyone (by far!) and assumes that you do not know the person very well!
Disclaimer 2: I realize this list may sound extremely gendered, but unfortunately it is the case that gender roles are still very strong in Russia, and in most cases these gifts are great “safe bets” for many Russian people if you don’t want to show up to a party empty-handed.
First of all, find out when to give your “real gifts”
Russian people celebrate as many as four winter holidays! Naturally, they do not give each other big presents at each of these holidays. For most of them, small token or joke gifts are exchanged (so be sure to bring something even if it isn’t the “main” holiday). The “big” holiday for real gift-giving depends on the family, but for most people celebrating at home it will be New Year’s Eve.
If you are ever invited to a Russian party, but especially if it is a holiday celebration, make sure to bring along a gifts for the host(s). 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 hosts will say no, but occasionally they may ask you to bring a salad or something of the sort. Russian holiday celebrations are usually huge feasts and it’s not easy on the hostess to make everything herself!
Gifts for men
Typical acceptable gifts to give to Russian men are (again) nice bottles of hard alcohol, usually vodka, cognac and (sometimes) whiskey. You can also give cufflinks, ties, and even watches – but be aware that Russian people have eagles’ eyes for spotting fake, cheap and poor-quality items, and many will not wear them. For something more inexpensive, tech-y accessories like styluses for smartphones and tablets (if they have one, obviously), phone cases, headphones, and even computer accessories are also great.
Do not give: “Murses” or man-bags! These are very uncommon and not currently in fashion in Russia and considered to be effeminate. Also, do not give chocolates or flowers (for the same reason). Wine is also a pretty rare gift for men in Russia.
Gifts for women:
Feel free to give women chocolate or flowers but know that they (generally) receive these a lot so it will not be considered a particularly “special” present. Surprisingly, perfume is a common gift for Russian women – many do not stick to just one kind and like to try and own a few different things. It is also acceptable to give (nice!) fashion accessories such as scarves and shawls.
Do not give: Jewelry. It is considered to be quite a personal item that is to be picked out by each woman (or perhaps her suitor or family) individually. Most Russian women are very selective about their jewelry. The same goes for watches and purses. Also, stay away from cooking accessories – most Russian women will already have exactly what they want!
Gifts for kids and the other guests:
Don’t forget to bring a gift for everyone else at the party! It doesn't have to be big or expensive, but it is common courtesy to bring along a little something for everyone. It’s especially important to get some small toys or something of that sort for any kids that will be attending. And yes, unfortunately you have to wrap everything and put it under the Christmas tree – that’s a pretty strict rule!