More on Hostess Gifts, Vol. 13, Issue 3

Readers over at Etiquetteer's Facebook page have more questions about hostess gifts: Dear Etiquetteer:

Is the gift to the hostess given to the hostess for her use only, or is it usually to be shared with the entire party? I've heard that gifts of food and/or wine are quietly given to the hostess with the idea being that the food or wine may not suit the evening's menu but enjoyed later after the guests have left. What do you think?

Dear Gifting:

Etiquetteer thinks discerning guests give hostess gifts as actual gifts, to be used at the discretion of the host or hostess. Reasons abound for this:

  • The guest may actually have chosen the gift for the private enjoyment of the host or hostess.
  • The gift might not actually fit in with the refreshments already planned.
  • The host or hostess might want to spare the feelings of other guests who did not bring a gift.

If the hosts included in the invitation "Please bring a bottle of wine," however, Etiquetteer will bet they intend to serve it at the party.

Etiquetteer would suggest one exception. Should a child appear with a gift of food or drink to your party, be sure to share it and exclaim over it, no matter what it is. It's not always easy for children at a party of (perhaps) mostly grownups, and your attention and gratitude to them will make them feel more at ease. Which is really what Perfectly Proper hosts and hostesses do for guests of all ages.

Dear Etiquetteer:

And I would further suggest that if you're bringing flowers, bring a flowering plant, an arrangement, or cut flowers already in some kind of vase. The last thing I as a host want to be doing is searching out an appropriate vase, cutting the stems, arranging the flowers, and so on, when I want to be greeting guests and/or putting the finishing touches on the meal. (Or quietly having a nervous breakdown in the next room.)

Dear Flora: The great Miss Manners herself, Judith Martin, covered this exact issue in her marvelous Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, and recommended keeping a vase full of water in the pantry just in case. But Etiquetteer will confess to loving a Floral Tribute, even if it does create some additional hustle-bustle at a party. The hustle-bustle that gets Etiquetteer is the guests who call (or even worse, text message) at exactly the time the party is supposed to begin with requests for directions or an update on why they aren't there yet.

Hostess Gifts, Vol. 13, Issue 2

Dear Etiquetteer: What is the proper etiquette for what to bring to a dinner party?  Does one always simply ask what to bring or perhaps just a nice bottle of wine? Does one ask what one can bring if it is not mentioned in the invitation?

Dear Invited:

Call Etiquetteer old-fashioned, but Etiquetteer prefers to maintain that a Lovely Note of Thanks after a dinner party is much more essential, and Perfectly Proper, than a hostess gift. That said, flowers are the safest choice for a gift, with wine running a close second. Etiquetteer ranks them in this order because the number of people who are allergic to flowers is less than the number of people who don't drink wine.

As you point out, sometimes hosts will specify what they would like to guests to bring; honor that as closely as possible. If hosts don't include a preference in their invitation, by all means ask if you're so inclined. But be warned: you might get more of an assignment than you bargained for. Etiquetteer vividly remembers asking one hostess "What may I bring?" to be given the reply "Oh, the dessert!" This was more work than Etiquetteer wanted to do, but having asked in the first place, Etiquetteer gritted his teeth and baked a cake. Etiquetteer still thinks of this as a bait-and-switch invitation; having been invited to a dinner party, it actually turned out to be a potluck.

Hosts should also be prepared for this question, and Etiquetteer encourages general instructions rather than specifics, e.g. "Oh, just a bottle of red you like that will go with roast" rather than "a couple bottles of Chateau de la Tour de Bleah 2008." This gives the guests the opportunity to stay within whatever budget they have.

But Etiquetteer really thinks the best response to that query is "Please bring a smile and a couple good stories!" A dinner guests "sings for his supper" best with a contribution not of a bottle, but of one's camaraderie and good humor.

Reader Response, Vol. 6, Issue 16

Dear Etiquetteer:

I enjoyed this most recent column, and really applaud your telling the praying family to keep a lid on it. Suggesting doing it in the car was a particularly welcome idea. When I see people praying in a restaurant (infrequently, thank Zeus) it makes me acutely uncomfortable.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I suspect you'll receive many a letter about this. Let me be one more to speak out about your advice on grace before meals at a restaurant. It is quite possible to say grace and not draw undue attention to one's self when dining out. Our family will sometimes hold hands silently for a moment or two in an abbreviated prayer, so sometimes instead of our unison prayer just one person will speak in gratitude for the blessing of food and the hands that prepared it. A simple grace is less conspicuous than a toast over the meal and is as good for one's soul.

As I was growing up our family continued our practice of prayer no matter what the circumstances. Over vacations we'd attend services as visitors at other parishes, even at churches when the service was in other languages when we traveled abroad. It taught us that special circumstances don't change the call to need to thanks.

Etiquetteer responds: Etiquetteer must respectfully disagree with your assertion that a simple grace is less conspicuous than a toast, because grace is less usual in a restaurant than a toast is.

Dear Etiquetteer:

I am about to have a 50th birthday bash. It is relatively informal and I do not want gifts, but I will be taking donations for [Insert Name of Worthy Charity Here] if people feel compelled to do something. How can I word such an invitation so that there should be no pressure to give a donation?

Dear Birthday Girl:

First, Etiquetteer would like to wish you Many Happy Returns of the Day, and congratulate you on holding your own birthday party. Let Etiquetteer assure you, handling the arrangements yourself is the only sure way that everyone you want to see actually gets invited.

The best way to be sure that your guests feel no pressure to make a donation to [Insert Name of Worthy Charity Here] is not to mention it at all. Etiquetteer doesn’t want to dampen your enthusiasm for supporting this charity, but this particular custom has become so widespread that people are starting to look on party invitations as invoices.

Should anyone ask you what you’d like for your birthday, then you may say that would you’d enjoy most is a donation too [Insert Name of Worthy Charity Here]. Etiquetteer will, reluctantly, allow you to put "No gifts, please" on the invitation.

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify <at> etiquetteer.com.

Reader Response, Vol. 6, Issue 5


READER RESPONSE

Vol. 6, Issue 5, February 4, 2007

 

Dear Etiquetteer:

You and your recent column were on my mind last night when I was at the symphony. The woman behind me rattled her bracelet through the entire evening. At the end I turned around and asked her sweetly if she had enjoyed the concert. After receiving a favorable reply, I asked her if she was aware that her bracelet jingled through the entire concert. She said that she wondered why the people around her were so agitated and she thanked me for letting her know. She was clueless! She asked her friend to remind her not to wear the bracelet to future concerts! One can only hope.

Etiquetteer responds: Etiquetteer commends you on your non-confrontational approach to addressing this problem. Turning around and snarling "Take off those **** bracelets!" would not have helped the situation. Etiquetteer’s mother was right as usual: you catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar.

Dear Etiquetteer:

Here's another take on the gift/no gift thing. My wife and I discussed this quite heavily when we were planning our wedding, and I think we came up with a fairly classy solution. Our basic premise about gifts was that giving should always be spontaneous and never expected. No one should feel bad for not giving a gift, and no one should feel bad for giving one either.

When we got married, we created a website for information for our guests. (This was in 1996, when the web was still new.) The wedding invitation included a map and schedule of events, and an invitation to visit the wedding website for more information. The website had an FAQ section that included the following, under the heading of "Gifts": You have already given us the best possible gifts: your love and kindness, as our family and friends. The nicest wedding gift you could give us is to share the day with us, either in person or in spirit. Thus, you should feel free to ignore the whole wedding gift and registry racket.

"Gift and registry" was a link to a separate page on our site. The gift and registry page started out with a restatement of the above, and was followed by: "However, because some of you have asked us whether and where we are registered, we have enlisted the help of our dear friend C****** S*****, who is helping us tremendously in coordinating the wedding. Feel free to address inquiries about gifts to her, or to [Insert Name of Bride’s Mother here]." We communicated our feelings about gifts to these allies, along with information about where we were registered for anyone who wanted it. Just as in business, reaching a human at the other end instead of a machine (or in this case, a one-liner on a wedding invitation) made for a much more pleasant experience for everyone involved.

Etiquetteer responds: It’s always refreshing to hear from a Happy Couple who are more concerned with their guests’ experience than with strong-arming them into showering them with Expensive Gifts. And certainly this is the traditional role of the Mother of the Bride (and the Mother of the Groom, too).

Dear Etiquetteer:

I have to write a condolence letter to the wife of a recently departed friend. Is she still Mrs. John Doe? Mrs. Jane Doe? Ms. Jane Doe?

Dear Condoling:

"Mrs. John Doe" is most Perfectly Proper unless she used her maiden name during married life. You would never address Ms. Jane Jehosphat as "Mrs. John Doe;" the militant feminists would mince your vitals into bits.

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify <at> etiquetteer.com.

 

No Gifts Please, Vol. 6, Issue 4

Etiquetteer is going to kill two birds with one stone and respond to two letters simultaneously:

Dear Etiquetteer:

Two of my older friends are getting married much to the delight of all who know them. This perfectly-matched pair is planning a shortened style of formal wedding with about 50 people at the church followed by a large reception at the home of the groom. There will be no out-sized wedding party. The groom's two adult sons will assist with the seating to encourage guests to fill up the front pews with neither escorting anybody unless it's a handicapped person. Other than the standard candles on the altar lit by acolytes, the only decor will be two floral arrangements. A single harpist will play as the minister take his place, then the bride and groom with enter together from the side door. At the conclusion of the vows, the church bells will ring out as everybody exits. For the reception, there is a classical quartet, lots of champagne as well as two bars with separate tables for a buffet and for dessert, a traditional but not elaborate cake. Somewhere the groom's favorite jazz trio will replace the other musicians.

Doesn't all this sound lovely? I can think of no other wedding like this one. The one trouble spot for them is the invitation. And that is . . . obviously, they need nothing. They do not want presents sent and are at a loss to stay away from one of those lines "no gifts, please" on their engraved formal invitation. What is your suggestion? And what would be your preference for the wording on the card both to "request the pleasure" and the "no gift" part?

Also, our city has gotten as bad as any other in people not being careful about RSVPs. In situations like this (cost per person) would the little return envelope be too much? If you'd be so kind as to help out with the printing, this would be the best wedding in which I've ever been asked to participate!

Dear Etiquetteer:

My family gave my wife and me a lovely dinner party to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. They sent out lovely invitations to a guest list that we supplied. It was our wish that only their presence was our desire and no presents. We wanted the invitation to indicate this but one of the hosts didn’t think it would be polite. A few guests did bring presents, much to our embarrassment. My question is: is it proper for the invitation to indicate the desire for their presence and no presents? I realize you might be telling the guest not to spend his money but what about the feelings of the honorees?

Dear Member of the Wedding and Dear Fabulous Fiftieth:

You all are backing Etiquetteer into a corner, and Etiquetteer doesn’t like it one bit. Etiquetteer has long maintained that it’s bad manners to tell people how to spend money on one, and how not to spend money on one. Both of your situations are now very typical, especially that of the Married Couple Who Has Everything Already.

When Etiquetteer has to change a position, Etiquetteer needs an historical precedent to do so. And in this case Etiquetteer found one from a most unlikely source: William Jennings Bryan. Thrice-failed presidential candidate, renowned Populist orator, and evangelist, Bryan is now most remembered as the prosecuting attorney in the Scopes monkey trial. He is not remembered for having thrown a large party with his wife Mary to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary at their Nebraska home with "No gifts please" on the invitation, but that is exactly what they did as reported in Michael Kazin’s excellent biography, A Godly Hero. Like many, Etiquetteer believed "No gifts, please" was a recent phenomenon, but the Bryans prove it is not so.

On the other side of the coin is First Lady Nellie Taft, who celebrated her silver wedding anniversary during her husband’s presidency at the White House with a party to which 8,000 of their closest friends had been invited. Etiquetteer’s beloved Ellen Maury Slayden was there and "heard a good many rather sotto voce inquiries, 'How much did you put up?' 'Are you getting your money’s worth?' etc., that made me sorry that presents had been permitted." The Tafts were showered with an abundance of sterling silver, from olive forks to punch bowls. Ordinary American citizens sent in gifts of silver coins, which the President insisted be returned with thanks; he felt that gifts of money were "unbecoming." The tide became so much that the President was embarrassed with the largesse of the world.

But what gets Etiquetteer is the way Mrs. Taft used all this silver in later life, giving it as wedding gifts in her turn or donating pieces to charitable causes. It’s true that when one is given a gift one may do anything one likes with it – and regifting is now an uneasily accepted standard – but Etiquetteer takes exception to Mrs. Taft’s blasé attitude about it all.

So with these two examples in mind, a disgruntled Etiquetteer will have to reverse himself and allow "No gifts, please" on formal invitations. Place this instruction in the lower left corner as other instructions are (e.g. dress, R.s.v.p.). For formal weddings, one requests "the honour of your presence" for the wedding ceremony and "the pleasure of your company" for the reception.And alas, reply cards have also become standard even though they are not Perfectly Proper. Go ahead and use them, but Etiquetteer suspects the Happy Couple will still be calling their guests at the last minute to get them to respond whether they include them or not. Many people are unforgivably rude no matter how easy you make it for them.

As for being embarrassed about getting a gift at a party in your honor, Etiquetteer respectfully suggests that you only have to be grateful and send a Lovely Note. You have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Etiquetteer cordially invites you to join the notify list if you would like to know as soon as new columns are posted. Join by sending e-mail to notify <at> etiquetteer.com.