Hostess Gift Etiquette and Ideas

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Etiquette experts say never to arrive empty-handed at someone’s home. Here’s how to choose a thoughtful gift that your host will cherish and the kinds of presents you should always avoid.

Woman in sweater holds hands to receive a hostess gift

Coming up with hostess gift ideas can intimidate even the most socially savvy. So many people don’t understand the importance of bringing a hostess gift and decide to skip it. And, although their hosts may have the good manners not to mention it, they’ll definitely remember the guests who arrived with a thoughtful present for them. Shouldn’t that be you?

What is a Hostess Gift?

Although men certainly throw parties and entertain guests, “hostess gift” is still the standard term. It’s a small gift to express gratitude for being invited. Unfortunately, like sending a timely RSVP, giving a hostess gift is something people aren’t bothering with these days. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t: you have better manners than that.

There is, after all, a lot of work involved in throwing a party, from planning and paying for everything to entertaining guests and cleaning up once they leave. A hostess gift honors those efforts, and etiquette says one should always say, “Thank you.”

Isn’t My Presence Enough?

Yes and no. Most people who entertain at home do it because they enjoy having others over, want to honor an occasion — or both. So, including you in their party is a form of a gift to you: they serve you an abundance of food and drinks, help you meet and mingle with others, and make sure you’re entertained. Only a narcissist or celebrity would think they’re entitled to that kind of treatment without expressing gratitude for being included.

Hostess Gift Etiquette Dos and Don’ts

In most parts of the world, it’s customary to bring a small gift every time you visit. In India and some parts of the Middle East, it’s standard to bring gifts for their children, too. Ignoring this unspoken rule is an excellent way to ensure you never get invited again. In the United States, the custom of the hostess gift varies by region and social group, but you’ll never go wrong bringing a thoughtful present.

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Do Bring a Gift to a Home You’ve Never Visited

Always bring a gift to a home you’ve never visited before, whether you’re going to your Aunt Edna’s new condo in Boca for the first time or your new neighbor invited you over for coffee. A small gift like a set of Amish jams says, “Thanks for having me.”

Do Give a Gift that Matches the Occasion

The more formal the party, the more formal the present. A catered cocktail party calls for a more elegant hostess gift than a backyard cookout. (Petit fours, anyone?) The length of the visit should influence your choice, too. If you’ll be a houseguest for several nights, proper etiquette involves not only a small hostess gift but also taking your host out for a meal.

Do Give a Gift They Can Use Later

Aprons, coaster sets, napkin rings, and charcuterie serving trays are all wonderful gifts that acknowledge your host’s flair for throwing a party. But don’t expect them to use such gifts immediately: a good hostess will set your gift aside to open and enjoy later. (And never bring flowers for the reasons mentioned further down.)

Do Give a Thoughtful Gift if You Know Them Well

If you know your hostess loves tea, give a lovely teapot or assortment of teas. Book and music lovers always appreciate the latest release by their favorite authors or musicians. A framed photo of you and your hostess can also be a thoughtful gift, assuming you will not offend his/her partner or spouse.

Don’t Forget About Allergies

If you don’t know whether your host or someone in their family has allergies, don’t give a gift containing high-risk items. That means skipping food gifts that contain nuts, wheat, or soy. Most stores that put together gift baskets can tell you whether their products contain known allergens. If in doubt, give something else like a dried fruit platter.

Don’t Bring Flowers

If you’re uncertain whether your host has allergies, don’t bring flowers. A hostess gift that makes them sneeze is no gift at all! Otherwise, flowers can be a charming hostess gift if they’re already in a vase. Otherwise, your host has to find a vase, trim the stems, and arrange the flowers when they’re already busy with hosting duties. A better choice: bring a potted plant.

Don’t Expect a Wine Gift to Be Served That Night

A good bottle of wine can be a thoughtful hostess gift, but don’t expect your host to serve it. After all, it’s not a gift if you expect them to share. If you’re worried they won’t know the gift is from you, put it in a nice wine gift bag with a personalized tag.

Don’t Give a Gift that Requires Knowing Their Size

No matter how well you know your host or hostess, it’s never a good idea to bring a hostess gift that requires getting the correct size. That means no slippers, sweaters, or other clothing. And definitely don’t give her a dress. (Yes, someone once gave me a dress as a hostess gift. No, it didn’t fit. The incident was awkward for everyone involved, and we are no longer close.)

Don’t Bring a Gift that Might Offend Other Guests

Most hosts prefer to wait and open hostess gifts after everyone’s gone. Sometimes, if you’re the first to arrive (or you pressure them into it), they’ll open yours at the party. Be careful to choose hostess gifts that won’t offend their other guests, or you’ll be putting your host in an awkward spot just for the sake of a laugh. But, if you absolutely can’t resist giving them that funny candle, make sure it’s wrapped and tell them to wait until later to open it. They’ll laugh just as hard. Promise.

Check out my other gift guides:

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  1. I agree that the first time you are invited to someone’s house for a dinner or party, you should bring a hostess gift. But, after that I feel it is unnecessary. I think everyone has too much stuff and frankly don’t know what to do with another candle, soap, kitchen towel, etc. I think gifts that can be consumed (treats, liquor, flowers) are aways better.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I see your point and would agree if when it’s something like joining the family for dinner. For holiday gatherings or other large celebrations, I still think hostess gifts are appropriate — though I agree consumables are the way to go then. 🙂

  2. I have taught both of my children that to not bring a hostess gift is terrible manners, an indication of social graces (or lack thereof) and a loss art. At it’s core, a hostess gift is a tangible appreciation of the host/hostess’ hard work and effort. The children and I read your article at dinner.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Thank you for rearing well-mannered children!

  3. Hostess gifts belong in the dust bin of history. Why waste time and money on something no one wants? The extra pressure on guests and competition is a sure buzzkill. Excessive consumption of junk harms the environment. And no host ever remembers who brought what.

    1. I disagree Kay. Common courtesy and good manners dictate otherwise and most hosts will remember a thoughtful gesture. Thank you Katie for the etiquette lesson.