What are the best things to bring when visiting friends and family over Christmas? And what should you absolutely avoid? Here are the five best and five worst visiting gifts.
- Candles: Nothing is more Christmassy than a beautiful candle. Beeswax ones are best, as they give out a lovely delicate scent and have a warmer glow. Stay well clear of the scented ones though: only at the top end of the price range are quality oils and scents added to candles, meaning that most of the cinnamon and nutmeg ones advertised will leave your host’s room smelling like a plug-in air freshener.
- Charity Christmas card: along with your gift you will want to make sure your card is as ethical as it is pretty. Sreepur Cards gives 100% of the money made from the sales of these jute-based cards goes back to the makers in Bangladesh. Given that as little as 9% of the price of some charity cards actually makes its way to the charity, these are a great option for making you and your host feel better about the Christmas excess.
- Pools of Light: We would say this, but we think our Pools are the perfect gift for visiting: everybody loves a new Christmas decoration. Not only are the Pools themselves beautiful to look at, but we have spent a lot of time designing their boxes so that they look like a celebration in their own right. They’re sturdily-packed on the inside, so you can keep a stack by the door or in the car, ready to hand out whenever you need to.
- Alcohol: A bottle is probably the most traditional thing to hand over at the door, but habits and beliefs are changing and it is not the catch-all gift it once was. It is still pretty appropriate at a party, and shows that you recognise it isn't cheap to keep a houseful of people lubricated. It is also welcome if you know your hosts well and match the drink to their tastes.
But for people you know less well it's perhaps better these days to choose something that doesn't come in a bottle rather than assume everyone loves a boozy session. For health, religious or other reasons, alcohol may start a friendship off on the wrong foot.
- Chocolate: Chocolate appears in the best and the worst list because when you get it right it's sublime, but get it wrong and it's a travesty.
And it's not as easy as just getting the fanciest you can afford. For many people Christmas means big tins of deliciously sweet seasonal fare like Roses, Quality Street or even Black Magic (yes, still available). For others it means small nibbles of high quality, high cocoa content boutique chocolates.
The golden gift rule applies: take the time to get to know the recipient's tastes or face their chocolate-thwarted wrath.
- Poinsettia: That seventies favourite, the Poinsettia, has seen a resurgence in gifting trends in recent years. Originally from Mexico and brought to the attention of the Western world by the American Joel Roberts Poinsett, Poinsettia are the marmite of Christmas: some people love their naturally bright colour, other people will them to die before the gaudy red ruins their tastefully restrained festive palette. Unfortunately they are perversely long-lived, so if you give one as a gift you are forcing your friend to keep feeding and watering them well into January, when all they want to do is cry into their credit card bill.
A beautiful watercolour of a Poinsettia, by Jennifer Branch. She does great painting tutorials at http://jenniferbranch.com/Blog/Entries/Christmas-Card-Poinsettia-Blog.html
- Food: a whole cheese; a cake; jars of chutney; jam from the garden; candied fruit – are you mad? Your host's house has probably never been more full of food than at Christmas time, don't add to it! Much of the gift food marketed as seasonal is stuff you wouldn't dream of ever actually eating and it just adds to the waste come 6 January, so avoid comestibles altogether.
- Mince Pies: The food rule applies here, and then some. Never bring baked goods to someone’s home at Christmas. It means you think that: a) they can’t cook, and b) they won’t buy a nice version you would like to eat. The one golden exception to this is where the host has a particular food allergy or intolerance, and you have found a version of a Christmas favourite they can eat. If you brought our Head of Design Susan a box of these award-winning gluten-free mince pies, for example, you could expect nothing but warm embraces and excessive good cheer.
- An actual present: It doesn't matter how cheap it was or how perfect it is, a visiting gift should never stray anywhere near the territory of Actual Presents, because the host will then be mortally embarrassed that they got a present but didn't give one.
That means no scarves or socks or CDs or books or anything personal and permanent. Party gift-giving is a delicate act of careful diplomacy. Don’t rock the festive boat with over-spending. An exception is that you should bring something for the kids of the house if you're staying for a couple of days.
This gorgeous handwoven alpaca scarf made by Julia Complin in Scotland would make an amazing gift, but only under the tree. Buy it here: http://etsy.me/2vYfb0N