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Small tokens for the hostess

More than once, I admit, we have had to make a quick stop on the way to a party to pick up a bottle of wine for the hosts. Sometimes, I'll bring along tissue or a wine bag from home and wrap up the bottle in the car. Other times, we hand over the bottle unadorned.

I always feel much better if I plan my hostess gift ahead of time. Even if I stick with the tried-and-true bottle of wine idea, I love to dress it in a beautiful wine bag -- embellished velvet is great for the holidays -- and maybe add an additional touch, such as a whimsical bottle stopper.

One time when we had a party, one of our guests handed me a bottle of wine that had a little hula skirt wrapped around it. It was so incredibly cute, just perfect for the occasion.

But if a bottle of wine feels like the easy way out when it comes to hostess gifts, there are plenty of great ideas out there. I know this because I did some research this week, a little reading and a lot of asking.

One co-worker tells me that when she is invited to someone's house, she likes to bring the hostess kitchen towels from Williams-Sonoma. She rolls them up and ties them with pretty ribbon. Once at Easter, she chose pink and green towels. Indeed, winter- or holiday-themed kitchen towels -- or even guest towels -- would be a nice gift this time of the year.

Someone else I know likes to present the hosts with nicely packaged cocktail napkins; the designs are so great. Some are quite beautiful; others have hilarious sayings (One of them: "Don't talk about yourself. We'll do that after you leave!"). You need to know your hosts, of course, but whatever style you choose, it is a safe bet that one day they will use those napkins.

Knowing your hosts well is a big bonus when it comes to choosing a gift for them. Small needlepoint pillows make a lovely gift and these, too, often have messages ranging from sentimental to witty. There even are perfect ones for dog- or cat-lovers ("I'm not fat, I'm fluffy!").

Not that guests are required to bring a gift (although it does add to the festivities). Nor do you have to bring it to the party. You can send flowers the morning of the event or the day after, for example.

I like the idea of keeping ears and eyes open at a party for hints, such as hearing the hostess mention that she really needs to buy a new pair of ice tongs. Noting color schemes helps, too.

Some other ideas:

* Serving tray, fancy cake knife, pretty bottle stopper or funky ice cream scoop

* For a girls-night-out gathering: a small stack of gossip magazines or romance novels tied in a ribbon

* Gourmet popcorn, chocolates or preserves

* Beautiful scented soaps or candles

* CD -- holiday music or something you think your hosts will enjoy

* A picture frame, possibly with a photo of a shared outing.

* A special treat for the hosts' pet

* A jar of whole nutmeg and a nutmeg grater. Unshelled nuts and a nutcracker. Ingredients for a fancy cocktail.

* A "bouquet" of colorful suckers tied up with ribbon

Just remember that the gift does not have to be terribly clever or fussy. Keep it fun, and treat them to something they may not buy for themselves.

A friend who came to visit us from out of town one weekend once brought us coffee beans from her favorite java joint. I usually don't splurge much on coffee, and it was absolutely rich and delicious.

Nicely packaged, too. Just perfect.


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