A reader recently asked me an interesting question. He wants to know if he invites someone to a dinner party at his house and the guest arrives with a bottle of wine, is he obliged to open the bottle and share it with the other guests or can he simply accept it with thanks and put it in his wine rack. At first glance, this seems like a pretty straight forward “yes” or “no” question. However, my experience in New Brunswick allows for several different answers. According to traditional etiquette rules, that bottle would be considered a gift. A gift given by definition has no strings attached. It is up to the host or hostess to share it now or save it for another occasion. This would be appropriate especially when going to someone’s house where one is not a frequent guest.
There are many groups of friends who gather to enjoy a meal together with some frequency, perhaps even weekly. In those situations, exchanging hostess gifts becomes unwieldy. It would also be presumptuous in most cases to expect the host to provide all of the wine and other beverages for his guests on a regular basis. Guests generally bring whatever they are planning to drink, whether it is spirits, wine or diet Pepsi. Beware of the guest who brings cheap (or even worse, homemade) wine and then drinks the host’s good stuff. If it is a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary or major holiday, guests could bring not only what they want to drink. But also a special gift is appropriate to show thanks to the host for all the hard work which goes into preparing for such a party. Some hosts have already selected a wine(s) to go with the meal in which case they expect you to drink their selection(s). Some people, me included, have very specific and/or simple tastes for wine. In many instances I bring what I want to drink and that is perfectly acceptable.
Often times, guests will bring a pot luck dish. In these cases, I find it always beneficial to know what each guest will be bringing to the pot luck. If not, you run the risk of having too many desserts or too many salads, or none at all. As host, I find it makes the most sense to be responsible for the main entrée. That takes the burden off of any of the guests. At the same time, by having them bring side dishes of vegetables and appetizers or salads and desserts, it relieves the host of slaving away in the kitchen all day long.
There are several gifts which are wonderful to give a host from an appreciative guest. A small box of specially selected chocolates, beautiful bath soaps, a beautiful arrangement of flowers, a special bottle of wine, an unusual kitchen gadget or bar accessories are all excellent choices.
Beware, however, that there are a couple of things that your hostess will not want to see coming through the door. Flowers which will require finding a vase interrupt the whole show, no matter how beautiful, because instead of putting coats away, and hosting, you're stuck trying to house the flowers as the person who brought them will want you to show them off and is "anxious" for the reveal. When people show up with little gifts, they can be placed aside and no one will ever question them. The minute someone brings an unwieldy bunch of flowers, they can become the "white elephant in the room" and will quite often upstage other gifts or people who didn't bring any. This is especially true of long stemmed flowers such as roses or lilies. Finding a suitable vase may be impossible and then cutting the stems under water and attractively arranging those takes up valuable kitchen space and time. Either have them arranged at home or by a florist ahead of time or bring them in a vase.
Don’t bring any dishes of food to be served either before or during the meal unless it has been requested by or discussed with the host ahead of time. I remember at one dinner party, a guest arrived with a beautiful casserole. The problem was that the oven was full. As a result, dinner had to be delayed. This seemingly thoughtful gesture actually threw a bit of a monkey wrench into the works.
I recall another time when a guest was excited about being invited to someone’s new home for a party. She arrived with a bottle of champagne wanting to toast the new house. The host accepted the bottle with thanks and happily put it in the fridge for later use. The guest just didn’t realize it wasn’t going to be used until a later date. The lesson here is to let your host know you are bringing a bottle specifically to toast the new house.
And finally, another reader wrote asking what to do when an invitation asks for “best wishes only”. She tells me that she is the only one who shows up ‘empty-handed’. My comment to her is that she is the only one with proper etiquette. People ask for guests to not bring gifts or even cards for a variety of reasons which may be very personal and none of our business. This is especially true when having a party for an elderly person. It is equally true when a real cross section of guests will be invited, many of whom may not be in a financial position to buy a nice gift. It is out of respect to your host and hostess to follow the wishes on the invitation. After all, that’s what good manners and proper etiquette demonstrate – respect for your host, for yourself and for your fellow guests.