The Lost Art of the Host(ess) Gift
by BRIAN BURKE
It used to be that you didn’t dare show up at a dinner party or other gathering at someone’s home without a gift in hand. Seriously. My mother would rather be late than giftless and a friend of hers kept a pantry shelf full of gifts for dinner parties “just in case” she didn’t know what to bring for a first-time invitation to someone’s home she didn’t know well.
While that may seem a bit impersonal, it just shows that the custom was more important. Now, when invited for dinner or to a party somewhere, we’re told, “Oh, don’t bring anything!” or we’re asked to bring our own libations or a bag of chips. Our world has become more casual, to a detriment. We’ve sloughed off the art of decorum, of manners, etiquette, and social equilibrium. Manners and protocol doesn’t set apart people as being better or worse than another; rather, it levels the playing field. When everyone knows what the expected social rules are, nobody feels awkward or unsure about what’s to be done. So, laugh, if you will, at social conventions. But, I’ll tell you that the world is full of more questions and more rude behavior for the lack of them. If being a social contrarian is your thing, by all means, save us all the annoyance by staying home and eating a bowl of cereal over the sink.
When you’re invited into someone’s home, it’s a gift of their time, space, and service. You bring a gift of appreciation. You need not break out the most expensive catalogues you have nor spend more than you can comfortably afford as a “show” of appreciation. If your budget does not allow you the luxury of higher-end gifts, that’s never a problem and was never the goal of host gifts, anyway. It’s about intentional appreciation. And now that as many men as women throw dinner parties and other get-togethers, the gifts aren’t limited to hostesses. That’s why I’ll refer to both male and females here as hosts.
Be thoughtful. The best gift is useful and unexpected. If you’re invited for dinner, a bottle of the host’s favorite wine is a thoughtful gesture and perhaps an arrangement of his or her partner’s favorite flowers. If you’re not sure, don’t be lazy. Ask a friend in common. Someone will be able to give you an inkling of what’s preferred in their house.
If you have enough lead time, your gift can be something useful and unexpected and it will also keep them talking for a while. If you know your host entertains often or corresponds often by post, a gift of understated stationery can be a nice touch. Personalized or not, you may save your host a trip for thank you notes. And a gift of stationery need not be as high-end as Tiffany and Co. but the option is there.
A simple trip to Trader Joe’s for example, can yield a foodie a multitude of host gift possibilities. An arrangement of international cheeses, caviar, unique sauces, or exotic packaged meats can be an unexpected addition to the host’s pantry, much appreciated once you’ve gone.
A book from the host’s favorite genre, or an artsy coffee table book is thoughtful, especially if you’re an overnight guest or a weekend guest, depending on the interests of your host. An assortment of decorative soaps or lotions, or even a tasty pot of jam are affordable, considerate offerings of appreciation. Another current trend, if your host is a fan, is a board game they might not have yet.
Men like gadgets and information, so you can tailor your gifts to a man’s interests. A set of shot glasses, a shaker, or something for the bar is a safe bet along with anything monogrammed, for more special occasions. Books on wines, and liquors are also a good idea. If you can, tickets to a game or performing arts event like the theatre or symphony are also winners.
My mother used to say that the best host gift was something familiar with the host’s interests and passions but maybe something he or she might not go out and purchase for him or herself. The point is to be intentional and thoughtful. And, even if you haven’t a dime to spend on your tight budget, you can always get a nice card and write, simply, “You always throw such great parties, but the next party, the cleaning up is on me. So just relax and enjoy.” With a note like that, who could be offended? Everyone loves a party, but no one likes to clean up after one.
One thing that is not negotiable, however, is the thank you note. Drop one, in writing, mind you, in the mail the next day.
© 2012 Haven Magazine. All rights reserved.