This story is part of 2019 Holiday Survival Guide, featuring tips on the best ways to manage the holiday season.
You've scored an invitation to a holiday party. So what's the etiquette as a guest? Besides arriving on time (or within an acceptable window of time if you know how they roll), there's another factor that makes itself apparent as soon as you ring the doorbell: the host or hostess gift.
Please don't arrive empty handed. Your hosts have spent a lot of time and effort planning this party and probably a bunch of money. And let's avoid causing more stress than joy with your gift.
An expert weighs in
As a professional dinner party planner, chef, visual artist and social media and marketing consultant based in New York, Stephanie Nass is often on both sides of the dinner party scene.
In 2014, Nass founded Victory Club, a bimonthly dinner club in which each member brings a friend to gather in galleries, museums and other art collections for sit-down meals. Her art-inspired dinners have popped all over the world and have been featured in Food & Wine as well as Town & Country magazines. Nicknamed "Chefanie," Nass also designs vegan, gluten-free, shelf-stable cake sheets, called Chefanie Sheets, and she shares entertaining tips with major brands from Vogue to Tory Burch.
Nass spoke to CNET's sister site Chowhound about her best tips for holiday host and hostess gift-giving -- and a few words of caution on the biggest faux pas.
First off, if you're stressing too much about the gift, go with the basics: wine, candy, flowers or candles.
It's about the gesture, really. "The only thing customary about gifts at [parties] is bringing one," Nass says, but "wine is reliable because [holiday flavors are] so predictable; it's easy to pair a wine with any of the classic dishes." (If you're headed to a cocktail party, champagne is always a safe bet.)
Being a good listener is the key to being a good gift-giver, Nass says.
"Listen to what the host wants or needs. Maybe it's something practical; maybe it's something superfluous," she says. After that, you can make your gift more unique by adding a personal touch or customization. That could be as simple as tying a pretty ribbon with a festive bauble on the neck of the wine bottle, or wrapping the candle in beautiful paper for a dramatic effect.
As a hostess, Nass cherishes a thoughtful card, with or without a gift.
"I treasure the letters people have written me," she says. "Notes endure after the flowers have wilted, the wine is drunk and only a few crumbs from the pie remain."
There's hope if you're short on dough -- something homemade is always the go-to affordable gift.
Nass brings a dessert, usually one of her Chefanie Sheets cakes, and sometimes she customizes it for the occasion to make it more personal. Try Chowhound's easy brittle.
Try to avoid these dinner guest mistakes
True, no one should look a gift horse (in this case, you) in the mouth, but do your best to avoid causing angst with your contribution by following these tips.
Don't upstage the host and their hard work.
Basically, don't bring dinner or any part of it, unless the host explicitly asks you for it, Nass says. (However, you also know your friends and family well enough to know when you can make an exception to that rule -- in which case, see some great last-minute party snacks you can make to bring along. If you're not sure how they'll feel, err on the side of caution.)
Don't bring something that you want, not the host.
Obvious, perhaps, but this is worth mentioning. If you just have to buy those delightfully tacky bedazzled pot holders, save them for someone you know will want them, or keep them for yourself.
Don't bring untrimmed flowers.
The host will be busy enough with other things, so if you bring flowers, bring them arranged in a vase.
Read more: Our favorite flower delivery services for the holidays
Don't bring an extra guest without asking.
The host has given thought and attention to the table setting, and another guest throws a wrench into the event.
Holiday host and hostess gift ideas
Still need help? Here are some more specific host and hostess gift ideas:
Pumpkin spice pecan streusel muffins
The morning-after meal might be the last thing on your host's mind, so this would be much appreciated. Bring shelf-stable muffins or bagels (with a small container of cream cheese) to avoid even more crowding in the refrigerator, homemade cinnamon rolls (also acceptable if they're from a great local bakery) or a hearty pumpkin bread.
For a homemade holiday-inspired breakfast idea, try Chowhound's pumpkin spice pecan streusel muffins recipe (pictured above), and bonus points if you bring them in a festive bakery box. Then the host doesn't have to stress about returning a muffin pan or plate.
Ask what kind of wine your host would like and if it's white, bring it chilled already -- for that purpose, you can get a beautiful Uashmama wine bag cooler ($26-$34) that makes for a great bonus gift. Try a riesling or gewürztraminer for whites, and a pinot noir or a light, refreshing beaujolais for reds.
Then there's always fine whiskey or bourbon, or a digestif for after dinner. You could bring a nice tea or coffee too, which your hosts can save for later if they want.
Beautiful flowers are a safe bet anytime. But bring them cut and in a vase you're gifting as well (see don'ts above) so the hosts won't have to stop what they're doing and hunt for a vase and prep the flowers too, in addition to everything else. You could use a mason jar if you (and they) like that homespun, shabby-chic vibe. You could even give them the gift of a flower subscription through Bloomsy Box.
Also consider an indoor potted plant that your hosts can enjoy for longer than a few days -- this set of four ceramic animal planters ($27) come with faux succulents included, but you could replant them with the real thing or pop in some easy-to-care-for air plants.
If you bring a bouquet, don't expect your flowers to be the table's centerpiece. That detail was likely already planned.
Give something for the hosts to enjoy at their leisure later, when it's calm and they don't have to share. It could be a home-preserved jar of pickled vegetables, apple butter, jam or chutney, or any high-end store-bought version of those things (like the $10 red wine-infused caramelized onion jam above). Or you could gift a decorative tin of boutique tea with a cute infuser, or the classic box of fancy chocolates -- even gourmet olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
If you're not sure about their food preferences, though, there are plenty of other little thoughtful gifts you can bring: a fancy hand soap, a pretty new trivet or even a cookbook they might like. Anything handmade or higher-end lends a thoughtful touch, whether or not it's edible.
Parents will really appreciate this one. Bring a craft activity, game, coloring book and crayons or some toy that could occupy the children, which will be a welcome respite for the adults when the little ones get restless and bored. This $25 cabin-themed Lego set is one fun idea that won't break the bank.
Or amuse the adults and bring a party game. A grown-up card game or board game for after the meal can provide just the break people need before they're ready to tackle dessert. For food lovers, try this Foodie Fight trivia game ($21), which is fun for adults and kid-friendly too.
You can always ask the hosts specifically what you can bring that would help the most, and if you're lucky, they might actually tell you -- a good cheese with crackers, maybe, or a simple side dish or dessert. Maybe it's something boring but super important like extra trash bags, paper towels or ice!
And if it's a potluck, don't forget to bring your own serving utensils, as the hosts will likely be using all of theirs. The four-piece matte metallic gold serving utensil set above is party-perfect and $40. Be an even better guest and leave them behind for your hosts to keep (unless you think they'll stress at having to find storage space for something else).