Southern Conundrum

What’s the Best Hostess Gift?

Helen Ellis explores Southern presents that go beyond the classic and expected

An illustration of a Christmas ornament–a bearded man in a dress– on top of a mess of other gifts. Two women hug in the background

Illustration: LARS LEETARU

If you’re the person who gave me a bearded lady ornament for our Under the Big Top–themed Christmas party, please let me know. I treasure it. It’s one of the best hostess gifts I’ve ever received. Others include: coasters that look like Scrabble tiles; a voodoo doll toothpick holder; a cookie jar with a chalkboard label, inside of which I now keep loose cables and on which I quoted the movie Carrie by writing “Plug It Up!”; and an expertly rolled joint that I never smoked but wagged in front of our guests like Groucho Marx’s cigar.

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Know your hostess. Or even better, know what’s good for her.

My friend in Florida says, “I like a gift that can be used.” She suggests a breakfast basket with ground coffee and muffins for the day after the party. Or, for New Year’s Eve, party crackers. Not chocolate-covered Ritz Bits—those paper tubes you pop open to reveal the tissue crowns, prizes, and candy inside.

Disposable guest towels printed with reindeer or wreaths are always a winner. I lay out ones that read, “Wash your hands and say your prayers, because Jesus and germs are everywhere.” And you can never have too many novelty cocktail napkins. Design Design makes my favorites, which feature 1950s housewives saying things like, “It’s not drinking alone if the cat is home” or “This salad tastes like I’d rather be fat.”

And Lord knows we Southerners love a monogram. Monogrammed note cards, monogrammed place mats, monogrammed napkin rings. My friend in Florida says the hot gift of the moment is a monogrammed Yeti cup.

Here in New York City, my friend Kay, a devoted Garden & Gun subscriber, likes to give a gift you hope you’ll never need but are happy to have in your glove compartment: a Blingsting Escape Hammer & Glass Window Breaker that’s used to cut a seat belt and break a car window.

I call Kay the Best Hostess Gift Giver Ever because in her Upper East Side apartment, she has a hostess gift closet. She blames Instagram. Any time she’s scrolling and sees a gift worth giving on sale for at least 20 percent off, she buys four of them. Mini charcuterie boards, cheese knife sets, cookbooks, cake stands, refrigerator magnets, and those novelty napkins—hers correlate to a host’s hobbies (golf, mah-jongg, puzzles, book club).

Now, don’t get me wrong—flowers, wine, cookies, and candles are classics. Keep ’em coming. Just give them with the intention for your hostess to enjoy them after the party, so she doesn’t feel compelled to vase, pour, plate, or light a fire that makes her powder room smell like a sugarplum fairy was in there for an hour. And give them with the knowledge that they might be regifted. Kay says, “There is a certain candle that is meant to go around the world.”

Same goes for hard liquor, fancy soaps, and that Six Degrees of Separation pot of jam. When you get it, be sure to check the expiration date.

But know that a good hostess doesn’t expect a gift in the first place. My friend in Florida says, “Most thoughtful hostess gift ever? A timely RSVP.” I agree. Me, I do it all for an endless pour, or compliments, or a fabulous plus-one, or a thank-you note.