Emily Post won't exactly spin in her grave if you arrive empty-handed at a holiday party, but a hostess gift is the sign of a considerate guest. The trick is what to bring that sets the right tone and -- for all you popular kids out there -- doesn't drain your checking account.
Dawn Bryan is the author of "The Art and Etiquette of Gift Giving" and a website, www.thequalipedia.com, that aims to help consumers make wise buying choices. Bryan says to consider three things when selecting a hostess gift:
The length of your visit (the gift proportional to an evening or a weekend), how well you know your host or hostess (what's fine for your tennis partner may be too personal for your spouse's boss), and whether you can match something to their interests, whether it's gardening or spoon-collecting.
First, to eliminate some of the pressure, if your host is someone with whom you frequently dine, you don't have to bring a gift every single time -- but Bryan says you should always ask if they need anything.
It's hard to go wrong with standard flowers, wine or food, but not impossible, so here are some tips to avoid those pitfalls.
Flowers: Don't make your busy hostess go scrounging for a vase, so bring a bouquet already in a container. Then don't be miffed if it's placed in the foyer instead of the dining room. Better yet, call ahead and ask if it would help to bring some flowers and, if so, what the color scheme is for the evening. (I know, I know - the idea that some hostesses have unswerving color schemes is a little daunting. But we'll be nice and call it aspirational.)
Booze: Bryan says that unless you were asked to bring wine for dinner (with the hostess having told you the menu), assure your host that this wine or port or Prosecco is for them to enjoy at another time.
Food: As with the wine, don't bring a gift with the expectation that it will be served, no matter how good your cranberry chutney may be. "Here's a treat for later!" is a handy phrase, whether you've brought chocolates, banana bread, or your homemade Kahlua.
So much for the pitfalls. What are some simple and appreciated hostess gifts? Bryan suggests:
A package of cocktail napkins. There are so many designs these days, from simply lovely to agreeably snarky.
Soaps have become artisan creations. Bring a beautiful bar tied with a ribbon.
Candles are always welcome, especially a pack of votives. But make sure they're unscented. Not everyone wants their house to smell like apple cider.
A small houseplant in a nice pot is welcome, but only to someone whom you know is capable of caring for it without cursing you under their breath.
A photo of your hosts during an earlier gathering -- say, on their boat, lake, cabin over the summer -- in a simple frame will be a huge hit, and is especially thoughtful.
If you remember to bring something for the hosts' children or pets, Bryan says, that gift may be more appreciated than whatever you brought for the grownups.
Hostess gifts aren't required, of course. They're just a nice way to show your appreciation for the invitation. Not so the thank-you note within a day or two, expressing how good a time was had by all.
P.S. This last tip isn't from Bryan, but from me. Don't be tempted to regift a hostess gift. In this swirl of parties, it's easy to do. Just sayin'.