Host and hostess gifts: Gift-giving customs around the world

In Chicago, it's customary to not arrive at someone's home for a meal empty handed.

Usually, if my family goes to another family's home for dinner, we bring dessert and a bottle of wine.

The custom has been drilled into me since I was a child, and now it’s just second nature. To be honest, it feels a bit odd to even think about arriving at someone's home without anything at all. Even if the host or hostess politely insists that we don't need to bring anything, I still do.

But, something happened a few weeks ago that made me be more conscious of the custom of bringing a gift to your host and/or hostess.

Recently, our friends invited us to come to their home for dinner. My husband and I knew that our friends, who moved to the US from India, follow different dietary customs and may not drink alcohol. So, we asked if it was okay to bring dessert and a bottle of wine to their home.

After receiving their approval, we stopped at our local bakery and wine store before making our way out to their home for our first visit there.

Together, we enjoyed a lovely Indian dinner in their home. The hours slipped by as ate samosa and dosa, drank a thick, sweet mango juice, and chatted and laughed the night away. Eventually, it was time for us to share our reluctant goodbyes.

And, then the most surprising thing happened.

Our hostess for the evening gave me a gift.

As she handed me the gift, she told me that, in India, it's customary for the hostess to give a gift to the visiting female as a way to welcome her and her family to their home for the first time.

It was a delightful custom that I enjoyed learning of that evening. And, it got me thinking about gift-giving customs around the world and the importance of knowing them before arriving at someone's home for a visit or meal. So, of course, I had to find out more.

Here is a look at host and hostess gift-giving customs in 17 countries around the world:

1. Brazil: In Brazil, it is always best to bring a bottle of wine, scotch or champagne to someone’s home when you are invited for a meal. Flowers are often sent before or after the meal.

According to Giftypedia, you should avoid giving any gifts in a quantity of 13 since it is considered to be bad luck. The color of the gift item also is important. You should avoid giving anything that is purple or black (including flowers) since the colors serve as a reminder of a time of mourning. Gifts are usually not given in the Brazilian national colors of green and yellow.

2. China: In China, it's customary to bring gifts to your host or hostess when you visit their home. If a family has children, it's also customary to bring toys, candy or books for them as well.

According to Iaowaiblog.com, the most commonly given gift is fruit. But, as noted by ChinaHighlights.com, pieces of fruit should be given in "twos," but never in "fours." The number four is said to be considered bad luck, because when it's pronounced in Chinese, it has the same pinyin (sounds) as the word for "death." And, pears should not be given to couples.

Other popular host/hostess gifts in China include flowers, a picture frame, scarves or perfume. Tea is a common gift to offer to friends since it signifies "a depth and weight of friendship between two people."

Clocks should never be given as a gift since, like "four," the word for clock has the same phonetic sounds as death.

3. France: According to Eolia of La Cite des Vents, in France, it's not a "must do" to bring a gift to someone when you eat a meal in their home. However, the custom of bringing a host or hostess gift is seen as being polite and well mannered. Eolia suggests that if you bring a small gift to your hosts, it should be a bottle of wine or fruit juice, a bouquet of flowers or a kitchen item.

If you know your hosts well, Eolia says that it is appropriate to ask in advance if you can bring something to help prepare the meal. In these cases, Eolia usually will bring a dish, bread or beverages for her hosts.

The teachers at French As You Like It suggest opting to bring chocolates to your hosts, noting that you should only bring wine if you know your hosts rather well. Often, in France, the hosts serve wine that they have carefully paired with the food. A gift of wine could go unopened or it could interfere with your host's wine menu.

4. Germany: According to Adriana of Changing Plate, host/hostess gifts are always given in the Bavarian region of the country where she lives with her family.

Popular gifts include flowers, candles and wine. She also notes that you usually don’t bring food to a meal, but it’s sometimes done amongst good friends and neighbors – along with a small gift.

5. India: In India, it’s customary to bring the host/hostess a small gift of chocolate, perfume or flowers. Care should be taken when wrapping your gift. Gifts should be wrapped in bright colors like green, red and yellow, which are considered to be lucky ones. White and black-colored gift wrap should be avoided.

It’s also important to be aware of the religious beliefs of your host. According to Giftypedia, Hindus should not be given gifts made of leather. Additionally, Muslims should not be given a bottle of wine or liquor since many do not drink alcohol.

As I mentioned, you should not be surprised to receive a gift from the host/hostess if it is their first time welcoming you into their home. And, likewise, you may want to do the same thing the first time your guest visits your home.

If you do receive a gift, you should not open it in front of your hosts. Likewise, you should not expect them to open your gift in front of you since it's customary open gifts in private.

6. Israel: According to Liane Marie of Book Ba Shuk, it's common for guests to bring wine or dessert to their hosts in Israel.

Guests also may want to give their hosts a small kitchen item like a vase or salad bowl.

7. Italy: Ute of Expat Since Birth suggests that you bring nicely wrapped, cut flowers and a bottle of wine to your Italian hosts when you go to their home for a meal.

If you do bring flowers to your host, your bouquet should only include an odd number of flowers. And, you should not give them chrysanthemums or carnations, which are often associated with mourning and funerals.

Galina of Trilingual Children also agrees that it's good to bring a bottle of wine to your Italian hosts' home.

8. Japan: In Japan, gift giving is an art, with the presentation (or wrapping) of the gift becoming even more significant than the gift itself.

According to Cloud 9 Living, in Japan, gifts are often wrapped with elaborate paper and beautiful ties, or with traditional reusable cloths called Furoshiki, which come in fabrics like cotton and silk.

Often, gifts are sent to the host and/or hostess after a meal as a way to say “thank you.” As noted by Cloud 9 Living, a thank you gift is then sent back to the guest who sent the original gift, which can lead to a long, enduring gift exchange among the two parties.

9. Morocco: Amanda of MarocMama suggests that you bring milk and yogurt when you go to someone's home for a meal in Morocco.

Cookies and cakes also are sometimes given to a host or hostess as a token of your appreciation for the invitation to dine at their home.

10. The Netherlands: Ute of Expat Since Birth suggests bringing flowers, chocolates or wine to your hosts in The Netherlands,. She also says it's nice to bring little toys if your hosts have any for children.

As with most European countries, you should buy an odd number of cut flowers, and you should not give your hosts chrysanthemums or carnations.

Annemarie of Dutch Alien Lands in the US also recommends bringing flowers, a bottle of wine, or a box of chocolates for your hosts - sometimes two of these options or even all three.

11. Romania: In Romania, it’s customary to bring a moderately priced, nicely wrapped bottles of wine, boxes of chocolate or flowers to someone’s home when you arrive for a visit or meal.

If you do bring flowers, you should make sure to only bring an odd number of flowers, but not 13.

According to eHow, you should be prepared for your host or hostess to politely decline your gift the first time you offer it to them. If that happens, you should insist that they take the gift and then they will happily accept it.

Typically, Romanian hosts won’t open your gift in front of you.

12. Russia: Galina of Trilingual Children suggests bringing chocolate, a bottle of wine, vodka or cognac, and flowers when you go someone's home for a meal in Russia.

As with many European countries, Galina says you should only bring an odd number of flowers to your host or hostess.

Anna Watt of Russian Step by Step stresses the importance of brining a gift to your Russian host, noting that there is a common Russian saying that most adhere to when going to another person's home - "Не с пустыми руками" or  "not with empty hands."

Anna says that it's very customary, but not obligatory, to bring flowers for your hostess whenever arriving at her home for a party, especially one for a birthday or anniversary. She also suggests bringing something "for tea" or "к чаю," which is usually some sort of sweets like candy, cake or , ice-cream. In doing so, you'll have something to enjoy when your host or hostess invites you to sit down for tea.

13. South Africa: When going to someone's home for a meal in South Africa, you should bring a small, nicely wrapped gift for the host or hostess.

According to a USA Today post, you should bring a bottle of South African wine, flowers or a box of chocolates.

In South Africa, it's expected that your host or hostess will open the gift in front of you.

14. Switzerland: If you're dining at someone's home in Switzerland, Ute of Expat Since Birth suggests bringing a gift of sweets, wine or flowers.

As with other European countries, you should only given an odd number of cut flowers, and avoid giving chrysanthemums and carnations.

15. United Kingdom: Claire of The Expat Mama usually brings a bottle of wine or champagne when going to someone's home for dinner.

When dining at a family member's home, Claire also asks if she can provide one of the courses, like an appetizer or dessert, for all to enjoy.

16. United States: Here in Chicago, it's customary to bring a bottle of wine and/or dessert to someone's home. It's also common to ask if you can bring an appetizer or side dish to accompany the meal.

Becky of Kid World Citizen says she almost always brings food or at the very least a bottle of wine for the hosts.

Both Becky and I agree that it is always a nice surprise when a guest brings us flowers, but it is not as commonly given as a bottle of wine or dessert.

17. Zimbabwe: According to Cloud 9 Living, small gifts are always given when going to someone's home for a meal in Zimbabwe. And, the biggest rule of gift giving in Zimbabwe is to never refuse a gift.

The most commonly given host/hostess gift is food, and it's considered to be acceptable for any occasion.

Do you usually bring a gift when you go to someone's home for a meal or party? What do you typically give to your host and/or hostess? Do you ever send a gift in advance or the day after an engagement? What are some of your favorite host/hostess gifts to give and to receive? Please share your thoughts, experiences and favorites in the comments below.

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