Two weeks have passed since you tore through all your Christmas presents. You might have had time to wear your new sweater, shoot pictures with your new camera or listen to fresh downloads on your new iPod.
It's about time you sent some thank-you notes.
But where to begin?
Who gets one? How long can you wait to send it? What should it say? And for heaven's sake, can you send it on a pre-fab note, or is sophisticated stationery required?
No wonder people get intimidated by the time-honored, etiquette-steeped ritual.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Any number of Web sites, manners columns and books can demystify the process.
In "On a Personal Note" (Hallmark, $15), Kansas Citian Angela Ensminger and co-author Keely Chace outline the six steps to writing a good thank-you note:
1. Greeting: "Dear Grandma Tilly" (or whoever gave you the gift). Don't forget to address the giver by name, and be absolutely sure you spell it correctly.
2. Clearly state thank you in the first line of your note. Be specific: "Thank you so much for the travel pillow."
3. Elaborate by discussing use: "Ted and I will be traveling a lot this summer, so I'll be doing my best to catch some sleep in the car."
4. Compliment and look ahead: "And it's such a lovely shade of green. We're looking forward to seeing you at the reunion in July."
5. Restating the gratitude: "Thanks again for your gift."
6. Regards: Wrap it up using whatever you're most comfortable with. "Love," "Fondly," "Sincerely," "Gratefully," and then your name.
¢ Americans give about 6 billion cards a year, 3 percent of them thank-you cards.
¢ Fifty-eight percent of moms say their children write thank-you notes.
Source: Hallmark Cards
Easy enough, right? But first you must determine your recipient list. Many people assume that if they open a gift in front of the giver and say "thank you" in person, a thank-you note is not necessary. Wrong, says Ensminger.
"When somebody does something for you ... they have to go out of their way and spend their time and energy on you," she says. "A great thank-you note - by which I don't mean long or complicated or cumbersome, but just really well-done and personal - is kind of payment in kind for what they've done for you."
Time and care
And people appreciate being thanked.
"Consumers keep cards and notes that people have written on in hand forever," says Rachel Bolton, a spokeswoman for Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards. "That is kind of a testament to what that means. I've got a stack of them here I couldn't bear to throw away because they mean a lot."
As long as you're taking the time to send a thank-you note, you should try and send it as promptly as possible. That said, of course, the better-late-than-never rule applies.
"I think the sooner the better, but I've also heard that it's never too late to say thank you," says Cinda Garrison, owner of Prairie Patches, 821 Mass., which sells stationery, notes and invitations of all sorts. "I think a month is appropriate. In our busy world, I think to expect someone to immediately write a thank you just won't happen."
If time gets away from you, just be frank - even funny - in your note: "Even though it's spring now, I'm still really enjoying the beautiful vase you got us for Christmas."
Another important note about saving time: Don't send an e-mail just because it's quicker. Although electronic gratitude is better than none at all, it's less than ideal.
When to send a card
The holidays aren't the only time to put your grateful pen to paper. All of the following situations call for thank-you notes, according to About.com: ¢ For sympathy letters, flowers or mass cards ¢ To the hostess after a party held in your honor ¢ For bridal or baby shower gifts ¢ Wedding gifts ¢ For gifts that were received by mail ¢ After being entertained by your boss ¢ Gifts received during a hospital stay ¢ After being hosted as a houseguest for one or more nights (unless it's a close relative or friend who is doing the hosting)
"A handwritten thank you is much better than an e-mail because it says I stopped, I got out a card, I got out a pen, I put this pen to paper, and I wrote a one-of-a-kind thank you to you," Ensminger says. "I didn't cut it, paste it. It's a one-of-a-kind expression. I think that really indicates time and care."
All about emotion
Don't get hung up on the paper you use to write your thank-you note (although you probably should avoid coffee-soaked napkins). Traditional notes stamped with "Thank You" in gold foil do the trick; so do correspondence cards and stationery more customized to reflect your personality.
"In our book, we says it's what's on the inside that counts," Ensminger says. "What the outside does is really help convey personality."
She equates getting in the habit of writing thank-you notes to participating in athletics. You won't just wake up one day and run a marathon. So try writing one note this week, one next week. You'll get better at it.
And always remember how good it felt the last time someone took time out to thank you.
"It's not about the rules and regulations and rigid etiquette," Bolton says. "It's about sharing an emotion with someone who means something to you."