Random Appetites: the Hostess Gift


What’s the first thing most of us do when we receive an invitation–even a casual one–to a friend or colleague’s home for dinner or a party?

“Can I bring anything?”

Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong in asking; I do it, too. The important thing is to listen to (not just hear) the answer. If a hostess declines your offer to contribute, by all means do not show up with a tray of something for the party. But this only counts for offers to take part in the preparations. A hostess gift–which is separate from the festivities in question–may still be appropriate.

Notice I said appropriate, not mandatory. After all, etiquette does not exist so that we can tell others how and when to act but so that we can educate ourselves on how we should behave.

That said, when is a hostess gift a good idea? Anytime you are invited to a dinner in someone’s home, certainly consider bringing a little something for you host(s) to enjoy later. Casual parties are less appropriate, but if you feel led and know “just the thing”, by all means (open houses fall into this category unless it’s a housewarming, in which case a gift is a definite should).

And then the question becomes, what to bring? Wine and flowers seem to be the most common hostess gifts given, but consider other options, as well. Wine, for instance, would not be appropriate for non-drinkers as they’re not likely to be able to enjoy it (which defeats the whole point!). Flowers often require work for the hostess–finding a vase, cutting and arranging the stems–that may actually add to her workload; again, defeating the purpose of the gift. Having them delivered earlier in the day or the day before is a nice alternative, though, if you really want to give a floral offering. Chocolates are an excellent alternative, if your host has a sweet tooth, but make sure to avoid those with nuts if your knowledge of the host’s allergies is spotty.

But if you know your hosts well, consider their tastes and maybe find something small that they enjoy from a favorite store. Keep in mind that spending a great deal is not necessary, something small and inexpensive is fine. If you enjoy baking, a loaf of bread, coffee cake or muffins are excellent options or some festive cookies or nuts. Wrap them well and try to avoid using a dish that needs to be returned, there are lots of disposable or inexpensive plates, tins and bowls out there that you can package your gift in.

What sort of gifts are not appropriate? Anything overly extravagent, jewelry, risque items in all but the most intimate of circumstances and, of course, any food item that is half-eaten (you would think that is a no-brainer, but my research shows that this is, unfortunately, not unheard of).

A final word to the host that may be presented with any sort of gift. Say a gracious and sincere thank you, a brief word about how much you (and/or your family) will enjoy it later, and then put the gift someplace out of the way. If it is wrapped, open it if there’s time but do not feel obligated to stop your party preparations or make a show of opening it in front of your other guests later (you don’t want to make anyone who didn’t bring a gift uncomfortable). Thank you notes are not required for hostess gifts.

Random Appetites: the Holiday Open House


It seems like everyone turns into a host or hostess when the holiday’s come around which can really make a body’s schedule hectic when it has a large social circle to deal with! That’s what makes Open Houses so wonderful whether you are the host or the guest! Here are some tips for both sides of the party-going coin:

For the Hostess:

* Create a warm, inviting environment with open doors, well-lit rooms and music playing in the background
* Make sure there’s room for your guests to move around which may include moving excess furniture into a bedroom for the duration of the party
* Food should stick to the one bite rule (two at the most) and be easy to replenish; individual items are easier for guests to manage while mingling than dip-ables, not to mention less messy
* Be careful serving alcohol to folks who are coming and going rather quickly, stick to a low-alcohol punch rather than straight cocktails if you choose to serve it at all

For the Guest:

* Pay attention to the posted times for the Open House and try not to overstay your welcome
* A hostess gift is a nice gesture, but not required in this sort of more informal gathering
* Do not monopolize your hostess when others are arriving after you, there’s only one of her to go around her several guests
* If you are among the last to leave, offer to help clean-up but do not insist if she’d rather do it herself (after such a public few hours, cleaning up alone can be a great decompression time, I’ve found)

Having a theme to your Open House–something like a Tree Trimming party, cookie decorating or maybe Carolling–or taking part in a neighborhood progressive dinner or block party can take some of the pressure off of the guests (and the host!) to make small talk on the fly but try to keep whatever activities you might plan very transitive. After all, a guest can arrive, hang an ornament or two, have some punch and a cookie and then say his good-byes with no issue but if you’re running holiday movies in the living room which people have stopped to watch, the comings and goings of others are going to be awkward and distracting.

One final thought on Open Houses. It’s customary to return the favor of any accepted invitations with an invitation in kind. This is generally done by having a dinner party or barbecue or something of that nature and inviting (either all at once or in different groups based on the number of obligations you are repaying and the mix of people) your former hosts in repayment for their hospitality. While a party may cover these obligations, an Open House is much too casual and come-what-may to really be reciprocal (and, as such, requires no such repayment on the guest’s part), but that’s just my Random Opinion!