For the record, I did research this and hostess gift, I was surprised to learn, is still the ubiquitously used term! While there is some movement toward host gift or hospitality gift, hostess gift still reigns as the most recognized and accepted term for the offering one brings to someone else's home when they are invited for a party or overnight visit. Gender-neutral terms are becoming the standard in contemporary English, and a more modern phrase is sure to take hold sooner or later, but for now we will acknowledge that hostess gift means a gift for whoever offers you hospitality, whatever their sex or gender expression.
With the language out of the way, let's talk about the social grace of the hostess gift. My grandma always said, Never show up empty handed, and I know she was right, but things are so different now! It's not that we have poorer manners, it's that entertaining has changed so drastically since our mother's or grandmother's eras. My own mother threw large, elegant dinner parties, and often received hostess gifts. I throw big firepit hang-outs for my friends and neighbors, and invariably text someone the following: OMG! I forgot ICE!!! Can you pick up a bag of ice?!?! People are busier than ever, and even as we prioritize our friendships and social connections, it's largely done in a way that is informal, comfortable and homey, simply because that is something we can fit into our lives and schedules. Pot-lucks and pizza nights don't require hostess gifts, so you may be wondering, When DO I bring a hostess gift? And what in the world should I give? As always, we are here to help you navigate the ins and outs of things that have become less clear as society changes! We can tell you when you need to offer a hostess gift, when you certainly don't, and most importantly, what hostess gifts will be a real joy to the receiver rather than a perfunctory offering for show.
If you are invited to any slightly fancy/formal party in someone's home that is not a potluck or BYOB, a gift would be appropriate. That means a dinner party, cocktail party, upscale barbecue or cookout, pool party or housewarming, just to get the list started. If you have hinted for an invitation to see a new addition, whether it is a kitchen renovation, a baby, or an historic car, a gift would soften the hinting. If you are invited to stay overnight or longer especially at a vacation home , a gift is an absolute must. If you are invited to use a home or its amenities in the absence of its owners, a gift is required. When you are invited to meet your future in-laws, a gift would help make a favorable first impression. There will be other occasions where bringing a hostess gift will be the most appropriate course of action, but this list should sketch out the general idea. Essentially, any time you are being entertained or sheltered without contributing anything, a small token of your gratitude is suitable.
Large formal celebrations where you are taking a gift to the person being feted, such as a birthday party or bridal shower, do not require a hostess gift. A party being thrown a restaurant or event venue does not require a hostess gift -- those may likely fall under "formal celebration" and you'll be sending a gift to the honorees. Potlucks or similar, where you are meaningfully contributing to the party, whether it is an addition to the menu or the loan of chairs or setting up the sound system, do not require offering a gift to the owners of the house; your contribution is enough. Truly casual get-togethers with your family or close friends don't require a gift. It would be silly of me to take a gift to my bestie when we see each other every week and have keys to each other's houses!
Well, avoid taking anything that could cause offense or an allergic reaction. Wine glasses printed with bawdy quotes from The Golden Girls are best reserved for close friends! Unless you know a person well enough to know that they are not allergic to freesia or almonds, don't bring a bouquet of freesia or almond cookies. When in doubt, go with neutral items that would be universally appreciated.
Remember to present your gift discreetly, after you have properly greeted your host. You want to do it discreetly so as to minimize the discomfort of other guests who may not have remembered a gift, and you want to make sure your host knows that you are happy to see them, personally, not just show off your manners. Also, hostess gifts are one area of gifting where it truly is the thought that counts. Try to be thoughtful, certainly, but don't go round the house next time you're invited looking for the trinket dish you gifted or ask how the chocolates were. If the item wasn't a hit, you still absolutely get "credit" for being a considerate guest. Offering a hostess gift is simple, and you may greatly enjoy selecting something just right for the host or the occasion, so try to have fun with this sweet custom.