Thank you, kindly

WHOEVER SAID IT IS BETTER to give than receive was not hunting for the perfect hostess gift! I love receiving party invitations, and I can spot those square envelopes the second I open my mailbox, even if they’re buried under flyers, magazines, and bills. But a few hours after receiving an invitation, a sort of panic can set in. What should I give as a hostess gift?

Certainly, it is customary to bring something the first time you visit someone’s home. I hate to arrive at the front door appropriately dressed but empty-handed. Somehow, it makes me feel like a child dressed in Mary Janes listening to my mother telling me that I wasn’t raised by a pack of wolves.

However, in this age of less formal entertaining, where invitations can be announced by the beep of incoming e-mail, I have tried to leave the traditional hostess gift standbys behind. Yes, a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, or a bouquet of fresh flowers are still classics, but I have discovered that I enjoy substituting traditional standbys with something different. First, I think about the personality of my host or the type of occasion I am attending. Then, ignoring my dusty etiquette book, I clear my head and invite creativity to inspire me.

My favorite gifts to give are care packages for the host or hostess to enjoy long after the table has been cleared and the guests have gone home. They might include a book I know the recipient will like, a candle or something small for the house, and even some tasty morsel that doesn’t have to be shared with guests.

Fun hostess gifts are endless. Great cooks appreciate the latest kitchen gadget and gardeners always seem to crave new gloves, shears, or even transplants from other gardens. Recently, I stole one terrific idea from someone at work and brought a small breakfast basket to a dinner party. The morning after a fairly late night, the hostess was able to enjoy muffins from a popular local bakery, a cup of tea in a pretty mug purchased at a flea market, and a tiny pot of jam.

I started a weekend at a friend’s country house with a bag of goodies from a city gourmet grocery that was enjoyed by all. During the visit, I noticed that my friend used charming vintage linens and mismatched cloth napkins at the table. I paired my follow-up thank-you note with a more personal gift of a vintage tablecloth for her collection.

For one recent gathering, I knew the hosting couple would receive enough alcohol to fill several Prohibition-era bathtubs. So instead of giving them a bottle of bubbly, I presented my hosts with the latest edition of a local restaurant guide. Since the couple loves to eat out and often entertains outside their home, this gift was quite a hit.

If I don’t know the hosts well, I do rely on a safety gift, such as a box of chocolates, combined with a small present for their children or pets. Fluffy, Fido, and Junior are often the keys to your hosts’ heart. If I know another invitee who has been to the home where the party is to be held or who is more familiar with the host or hostess, I always try to remember to ask for suggestions on what to bring.

Seasonal gifts–fresh local produce in summer or holiday ornaments and sweets in winter–are perennial favorites for hostess gifts. But out-of-season items ranging from sweet peas and hyacinths in December to pumpkin pie-flavored ice cream in May can be terrific points of conversation as well as thoughtful remembrances.

I have learned through trial and error that the act of giving a host a gift does not have to be complicated or expensive. Stepping out of the box of what is standard or expected can be fun, yet simple. It just takes some consideration and a bit of planning. Hostess gifts remain a gracious gesture between acquaintances that can deepen and reinforce existing relationships or begin new ones.

Now if I could only remember to send the thank-you note within a week of the event, I’d really make my mother proud!

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