Guest etiquette–Best Hostess Gifts

This is such a stressful subject for men and women, I thought I’d address some basics on the subject. Everything I have learned has been through mortifying experiences, good examples and lots and lots of well-intentioned acts gone awry.
What is a hostess gift?
It’s a present a guest gives the host/hostess as a means of showing gratitude and saying thanks.
Do people actually do this? (Rog asked the first five times)
Yes, they do. In fact, it’s a multi-million dollar business (just look on line if you don’t believe me).
Are you surrreee? (same source as above)
Yes. This is considered good form, tasteful, and in certain circumstances, required.
Is it expensive?

Not at all. Many gifts are less than $40, many less than $20. Homemade gifts, such as banana or pumpkin bread or cookies are a few bucks tops.

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Is it really required in these down, economic times?
Let’s broaden this question to: Is a host/hostess gift ever expected? No. I think not. Sometimes, if a hostess goes all out on a party, she may like a card or something in return. But I can guarantee nary a word will be uttered by the hostess. It’s completely bad form.
Overall, I have zero expectations some one will give me something for throwing a party. In San Francisco, the environment is a bit more formal, for lack of a better word, and gifts were a part of the scene. Loved that. In the south, it was considered bad form to bring food (unless specifically asked by the host/hostess), so flowers are more the norm. In NY, I’ve noticed anything goes, as long as it’s expensive and is in good taste (a’la jewelry and hard to get Broadway tickets are not uncommon) and anything from Red Envelope, with their little red boxes, will be adored.
What is a gift appropriate?
A few pointers:
The first time you have been invited to the home. That’s a must. It conveys appreciation for the fact that the host/hostess have gone to the trouble of making dinner for you (and perhaps your family). After that, you can casually offer to your host/friend if you can bring something. If they say yes—bottled water—ask if they have a preference. If yes, then honor their request for the type if possible. Don’t stray! The host/hostess will be counting on your contribution once you commit. If they decline, use your best judgement.
When someone throws YOU a bridal or baby shower. The hostess has provided the food, the invitations, the venue etc. This can be several hundreds of dollars. That said, when I host either for someone, I expect neither. This is due to the economic realities that the bride/groom-expectant parents have likely shelled out tons of money already. That said, if you are cash positive (and people know this), show good form and treat your hostess (see below).
I’ve received many well-intentioned, though odd things over the years.
Candle holders. This was for a baby shower I hosted. Puter, in a Gallic, fourteenth-century-type of a way. Very large, not my taste, but a nice gesture. Though Martha Stewart advocates candles for a hostess gift, I don’t give candle holders myself. Candles are very much a personal design/taste thing, and it’s easy to screw it up.
A pink Chantilly rug. Strange but true. It was cozy, looked expensive, and right out of the seventies. I’d worry about saying this, but we moved and haven’t been in touch with the guest that gave us the rug in three years. I’m pretty sure this blog isn’t being read by the gift-giver.
When is a gift not necessary? 
If it’s a “guy-thing,” such as a BBQ for Rog’s hockey team, I’ll ask the wife/girlfriend/partner if I can ‘bring something,’ which, for hockey players, means food or beer. The first time, I had Rog ask his teammate for a suggestion, and he received “nothing, just show.” I promptly ignored that comment, and made a vat full of delectable brownies. The entire professional size pan was cleaned out in ten minutes. Food is always a hit with the guys.
Note to girls: Rog claims men don’t drink beer and eat sweets at the same sitting. This, my friends, is false. Men are good with both.
Best hostess gifts
The best hostess gifts are the ones that convey thought and consideration for the host or the hostess’ likes and dislikes. A few examples…
If your host talks about fishing, pick up something small from the fly shop. He’ll likely return it, but it’s the thought (and the store credit) that count. When your hostess has a small garden, get a pot of herbs, or a pair of gloves. Don’t worry about the style. I for one, have never met a pair of gloves I didn’t like (they get dirty after all!) If you host has mentioned attending author events, get him the latest bestseller.
If your hostess is a cook, just about anything kitchen will do. Better yet, a cooking magazine subscription is awesome!!

When you don’t know someone well enough, and it’s a first time, relax. When you roam around the hostess’s home, check out what she likes. One sneaky guest of honor saw I like a particular brand of hard to find chamomile tea. When she came for the next event, she brought one wrapped in a bow. I was completely surprised and touched by her thoughtfulness and the effort she put in to get it!

Some specific gifts that I’ve given include….

  • a bracelet from Red Envelope, similar to this one (they don’t carry the actual one I purchased any longer)
  • little, unique ramikens. My mother loves to collect these things…all are different. Each one is fun, and such a girly-thing
  • kitchen hand towels that are seasonal or holiday
Note the trend here…things that are non-essentials; items a busy, overworked woman on a budget isn’t going to indulge herself to buy.
What about those times when you’re invited to a party, barely know the hosts and want to bring a gift instead of providing one after the fact. This could be a work, church or neighborhood event and you have to guess. That’s when you go for the old standards.
Flowers are good, but you must think about the situation of the party.
For instance, bringing uncut flowers to a large party won’t be appreciated by the hostess. The hostess has to stop everything to cut the flowers, put them in a pot and find a place for the gift. It requires her to stop greeting guests, dealing with the food etc, disrupting her flow and potentially making her crabby. That said, uncut flowers ARE great for casual, outdoor bbq’s or even a sit-down dinner with one or two couples.
An alternative for big parties is a gift of a small plant, already in a pot. It doesn’t need to be an expensive pot, in fact, cheap, plastic containers wrapped with some cellophane of the season is perfect. That way, you (the guest) can either sit it down on an open space, or the hostess can do so. It’s a wonderful thank you, and all wrapped up in a single gift.
Chocolate is great. Dark or milk. Hostess or host will love. (I prefer milk, rog is dark)…either way, it’s wonderful (no twix bars)
More often than not, people bring alcohol. We don’t drink wine, and actually, I don’t drink at all. Rog favors ‘fizzy’ drinks, like sparkling water. But heck, people bring what they know and like, and further, they don’t want to drink water. So what started as a BYOW(wine) motto turned in to something akin to the ‘Pay it forward.’
For our holiday party last year, most everyone brought wine or chocolate. This was because I placed on the invitation a note….
No food or gifts please.
If you feel compelled to bring something, the guests enjoy wine or chocolate.
By the end of the evening, we had enough bottles of liquor to open a store. Now, when guests arrive with wine, we either drink what they brought or choose a bottle from our stash we have. Either way, the guests are paying it forward.
When you are mystified, go to a shopping helper. I like sites that identify gifts specifically for Thank you/Hostess gifts. They make it really easy, from aprons to picture frames (and many sub $20).
If you are in doubt….don’t worry about it. If you are late, and the only thing between your destination and you is a Krispy Kremes stand, keep driving. It’s better to make it up after the fact (on round two) with your hostess than to arrive with something so obviously last minute.
Your job as the guest is to show up, have fun, appreciate the atmosphere and leave fulfilled. In the end, the very best gift is good friends, good company, and a return invitationJ