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updated 12/27/2005 6:23:56 PM ET 2005-12-27T23:23:56

It was a cozy dinner party at our place for three couples, a perfect occasion to bring over a nice bottle of wine.

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“Hey, what a coincidence,” we exclaimed when handed the bottle in question. “That’s our favorite Italian red! How did you know?” A few awkward, silent blushes later, we all realized exactly how they’d known: We’d given them that very bottle months earlier, and it had sat forlornly on a shelf, undrunk.

In other words, we’d been regifted. And with our own gift.

With the holidays now upon us, there are so many gifts to buy. And there are so many things hanging around our homes, those strangely shaped vases or extra scarves or bottles of undesired cologne. Some of these things might still even be in their original wrapping, just ripe for the regifting.

And so: to regift or not to regift?

Feel free, says syndicated ethics columnist Randy Cohen.

“If someone gives me a Liberace CD and I don’t like Liberace, what are my options? There are lots of people who DO like Liberace,” he said. “And so, to regift it maximizes human happiness all around.”

No less an authority than Dear Abby agrees. “It’s a time-honored tradition,” the advice columnist said in an interview. “It’s the earliest form of recycling.”

Still, the realm of regifting can be a tricky one. You don’t want to cause embarrassment or pain. Especially to yourself. So, a few guidelines:

Make sure your gifting ‘circles’ are far apart
This one should be obvious, as made clear by that wine-bottle incident. If you got a gift from a cousin, don’t regift to a different cousin. If you got it from a friend, remember the principle of the Kevin Bacon game: We’re all linkable in six degrees or less. (Do not regift Kevin Bacon under any circumstances.)

Ignore this rule, and you face what Donna Fish, a New York psychotherapist, describes as her own “traveling pants” story. Suffice it to say that one reboxed pair of men’s trousers started with a friend, made a few rounds and ended up back with the very same friend — labels and all. “I found it odd,” Fish says, “that a pair of pants, which is more particular with size and everything, would be sent around like that.”

Don’t leave any signs of the original gift
You’d be surprised how often it happens. You carefully repackage a gift, only to forget that somewhere, lurking inside, is irrefutable evidence of its past life as a gift for someone else.

An aunt of mine, Jane Strompf, e-mailed to say that decades ago, she received an ice bucket as a wedding gift. She promptly gave it to a cousin who was getting married. Rule for ice buckets: always check inside. “We sent it to her and were later told that the card wishing US a happy marriage was inside the bucket.”

Never pretend you bought the gift somewhere you didn’t
It’s certainly tempting to use that nice Bergdorf Goodman box you have lying around for just such a purpose, along with the carefully preserved ribbon. But beware: The giftee might try to return or exchange the item.

Twelve years ago, a friend of political consultant Marcia Sudolsky gave her a wedding shower gift of decorative patio tumbler cups. They were beautifully wrapped in tissue paper and a Neiman Marcus box.

You can guess what happened next. At the Neiman Marcus returns counter, a saleswoman took one look and informed her: “This is NOT our merchandise.”

“I was standing there, just totally embarrassed,” Sudolsky says. “I just wanted to blink myself away.” She ran out of the store and, probably out of guilt, used the cups for a decade, even though she never, ever liked them. (Eventually, she gave them to charity.)

Don’t be a cad. Keep it suitable
This is probably the most commonsense rule of all. “Don’t give knitting needles to an athlete,” says Dear Abby (real name Jeanne Phillips.) Make sure the gift is appropriate. After all, “good manners is consideration of other people’s feelings” — even in regifting.

Finally, there are those who practice out-in-the-open regifting, stripped of all pretense. One of them is Jane Slotin, a New Yorker who organizes a post-Christmas party for her friends each year. The rule: you bring a holiday gift you’ve gotten that you can’t use. You wrap it nicely. Until 8 p.m., everyone’s free to trade (without revealing what’s inside.) Then a warning bell rings, and by 8:15 or so, the order comes to unwrap what’s in your hands. It’s yours.

“It’s a great way to meet people and do something fun for the holidays,” says Slotin. “And hey, whatever you get, you can’t go home unhappy. You started with something you didn’t want anyway.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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