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What a lovely gift, said no one ever when receiving a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Even if you’re making an ambassador’s party joke, you’ll also have to take a real present. So what do you do if you’re off to a friend’s Christmas party or staying overnight? And how should you behave?
If you throw money at a problem, you can often solve it. I love a Linley dice box. But £350 for their cheapest version is a bit much to spend on a casual present — unless you’re an oligarch. Even for those of wealth, selecting a suitable offering can be tricky.
Recycling a gift rarely works. The last time I tried that, I inadvertently took a bottle of wine to the friends who gave it to me. Hilarious, sort of.
And I don’t care what anyone says, a bottle of champagne from Lidl or Aldi, even if they are the new Waitrose, is just not on. If you must take a bottle of fizz, buy the one with the orange label, preferably in a box. While that’s the brand you should serve at your drinks party, is it a good gift? Not really. It’s generic. You can’t quite remember who gave you what. So make your gift stand out.
Everyone has seen the ads for the latest buy one get one free offer. It’s called a Bogof for good reason. Nothing good ever came from a gift box set. A hideous piece of landfill that will elicit a nose curl usually from the owner of a farty old Labrador.
A great gift may be inexpensive, but must never be cheap. Cheap candles are a no. I don’t want my house to smell like the perfume department at House of Fraser. If it smells, it’s a stinker. There’s only one exception to this, if the recipient in question has been to your home and commented on what a lovely scent emanates from your living room sticks or candle.
There aren’t many shops or brands that deserve to be seen outside the wrapping. Fortnum & Mason is one exception. (If you’re going there, I recommend “langues de chat”. That’s cats’ tongues, if you wondered. These ones are chocolate, not actually made from cat). In the words of Edina from AbFab, it’s names, names, names. Ralph, H, Pradarada. You know the ones. And use the store’s bag for the gift. Bling and kerching.
Always buy something you’d like to receive yourself. A new craze or product is often a winner. This year, toffee vodka is the new elixir. With many interlopers, there’s only one brand to go for: Thunder. And you’ll be remembered for having brought a brilliant gift — after the massive hangover has subsided.
Sometimes, you won’t have time to be particularly inventive. Reverting to a retro classic may be required. Manufacturers have done everything they can to thwart your good intentions. Nestlé, for example, has shrunk the size and constitution of the vessel for Quality Street. A nasty plastic tub. After the contents have been snaffled, it’s only useful for dog biscuits. Find a vintage tin on eBay and fill it to the brim with the sparkly wrapped weight increasers. Shows that you know what people like but are a little bit individual in your taste. And you might have a few leftovers you couldn’t squeeze in to test for quality control purposes.
And what are the rules on wine? Screw caps on wine bottles are a little more prolific, so no longer automatically mean the stuff would be better used as windscreen washer fluid. Buyers beware: just because it cost more than a tenner doesn’t mean it won’t strip out your sinuses.
You’ll notice that nearly all of my recommendations are consumable. Simply because stuff, things and bits and bobs are a real minefield unless you want to drop a wedge of cash. I have a vase, bought for me by a dear friend. And I am sorry if you are reading this, but it’s a horror. It sits in my house and every time I see it I think of you. And can only assume you had an off day. Or lack the taste gene. Or don’t like me much. It’s one of the few things I wish my cleaning lady would break. Despite a number of mishaps with possessions I like, this item seems indestructible.
Having a gift to hand when you turn up at a drinks party or, as a guest to stay, is essential. It sets you up for a good visit. When staying at a hotel, you’ll leave wet towels on the floor, not make your bed and leave a trail of underwear strewn over the bedroom carpet. House rules are different. If I go to a hotel I expect gifts. Chocolates on the pillow and a range of snacks I can plough my way through.
As my guest, that doesn’t make the contents of my fridge or chocolates on the coffee table fair game. It’s finding the balance. Be helpful enough that you’re not idle, but do not interfere by taking it upon yourself to rearrange the host’s kitchen or cupboards. There’s nothing more annoying than small knives in the long knife section of the cutlery drawer. Or a box of Frosties that’s now next to the dog food and, even worse, left unravelled with no thought to keep the air out of the packet. Don’t get me started on using the butter knife to dig out jam.
You need to let your host know what time you plan to arrive but even more importantly when you are leaving. It gives them something to look forward to. Find out where the hosts generally sit in the living room and don’t sit there. It’s like my dog: when he wants attention he’ll plop himself in my seat or, worse, on my bed, leaving a Barnaby-shaped dent on my pillow.
And just because you’re leaving, it doesn’t end there. Please take all your stuff, strip the bed and fold neatly with used towels on top and close any windows you have opened. Flush the lavatory. Twice. And clean out your toothpaste remnants from the sink. And don’t forget to post a thank you note when you get home.
Gifts and etiquette, particularly at this time of year, are tricky to navigate. It’s not the money you spend, but the thought and consideration of your actions that count. In a world where long-term diary planning seems to have gone by the wayside, a thank you note will mark you down as a good guest. If you get your behaviour right and your gifting spot on? You’ll be invited back. Unless you don’t want to be — in which case, leave your wet towels on the unstripped bed alongside a box of Ferrero Rocher.