Hostess gifts are one of the (many) areas of etiquette that lacks hard and fast rules.
Indeed, like all gifts, they are not obligatory and should not be expected. The frequency of guests bringing gifts is declining as the rate of guests contributing to the party by bringing drinks increases. This is perfectly acceptable for dinner parties but there are many other occasions when we want to thank those hosting us in the homes for hospitality.
Do gauge your gift to your imposition. Anywhere from a $5 tin of sea salt (salt cellar optional) to a $30 bottle of wine is acceptable for a dinner party or even opening the guest bedroom for the night while you pass through town. For a longer visit, say a full weekend, or showing you around town, a more lavish or thoughtful gift is appropriate to thank your hosts for their effort.
Don’t create more work. Flowers can be a lovely hostess gift, but not when they need to be dealt with as the party starts. Bring an arrangement in a vase or have the flowers delivered separately from your arrival. The day after the party is acceptable, as is the morning of, if the hosts will be home to accept the delivery.
Do think beyond the bottle. For the home cook, a ‘splurge’ ingredient is a lovely gift. Local honey, excellent baking chocolate, or a favorite spice all cost less than a bottle of wine but show the extra thought. Friends you know well may like receiving a book you’ve enjoyed reading or a small item relating to a shared hobby. If you don’t know the host well, stick to the basics- wine, a nice soap or lotion, chocolates or flowers (in a vase).
Don’t worry if you can’t pack a gift. For a longer visit, the hostess gift may be given at either the beginning of the stay or the end. When bringing treats from home, such as our favorite See’s Candies, we like to give the gift first but sometimes bringing a gift isn’t feasible. In that case, we like to pick up a gift certificate to the hosts’ favorite restaurant or item we saw them admiring as they showed us local shops. These gifts we give just before our departure (or leave as a surprise!).
Do consider presentation. Unlike birthday gifts, which are usually wrapped up tight, a hostess gift doesn’t need the full surprise treatment. Do, however, remove price tags and unsightly stickers. Use a nice box or bag, if applicable, or wrap a nice ribbon around your gift. Or add a small accessory, such as a wine tag to dress up a bottle of wine. When giving a gift in a dish, don’t expect the dish back. If returning a gifted dish, bake something to give back in return.
Don’t expect to use your gift. While a host may choose to open and share a bottle of wine or box of chocolates, you have given the gift to your hostess and it is her choice when to use it. The exception is when guests were asked to contribute to the party. Then, feel free to crack open the microbrew you brought to share with the crowd. At the end of the night, however, leave the extras unless the hosts offers them back to you.
Do remember that it is the thought that counts. There are no ‘wrong’ hostess gifts as long as they are given with the host in mind (and without embarrassing anyone when opening!). On the rare occasion when there really isn’t time to gather a gift, it is okay to show up empty-handed. Just bring a big smile and a heartfelt thank you. What are your favorite gifts to give hosts- and to receive?