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.