10/25/2011 12:01 EDT | Updated 12/25/2011 05:12 EST

Give Good Hostess Gifts: Expert Advice From Finishing School's Karen Cleveland


Halloween festivities are about to get underway and that can only mean one thing -- come November 1 we'll be thrust into holiday mode. The stores will be decorated in festive colours. Malls will start hanging fancy centrepieces and ornaments. And our social calendar will get busier than ever.

Which brings us to one of the perennial problems of the holiday season: giving good host/hostess gifts. To help us weave our way through the season safely -- and without gifting something goofy -- we turned to etiquette expert Karen Cleveland of Finishing School.

For her, "The best host gifts reflect the occasion and the relationship between the gift giver and gift recipient. While safe bets like chocolates and wine are appreciated, options abound when it comes to showing your gratitude for someone's hospitality, regardless of how they fit into your life." Here are her top tips.

Cocktail Party Hosted By Your Boss

"A slick offering that's not overly personal, but errs on the side of stateliness shows your boss you're both thoughtful and respectful of their ilk. Consider an elegant coffee table or photography book that's specific to the industry you work in."

Welcome Dinner Hosted By New Neighbours

If you're just meeting your neighbours for the first time, veer away from the standby of alcohol. Why? They might not drink. "Instead, buy a bottle of premium olive oil and an interesting vinegar that are of similar value to a plush bottle of wine."

Meeting The In-Laws Dinner

"Fresh cut flowers are lovely, but require a vase and some time and effort to arrange them," says Cleveland. "Instead, opt for a potted bulb that will outlast cut flowers by weeks and weeks. Paperwhites and Amaryllis are gorgeous in the winter and Hyacinths are perfect for spring."

Weekend Visit With Your Friend And Their Brood

Overnight stays warrant a more generous gift because your host/hostess will be spending more of their time making you feel welcome. "Fresh muffins or scones (baked by you or a nice local bakery) for the next day's breakfast will ease your host's morning," says Cleveland. "Bringing a little gift for the kids is a nice touch, particularly if it's something you can do with them like a cool puzzle or non-messy mini science kit. Be sure to follow up your stay with a thank you note and a gift certificate to help offset what you ate or drank during your stay."

Casual Brunch Hosted By Your Best Friend

"Given the closeness of your relationship, have fun finding something that's special -- after all, who knows them better than you? Pick up a box of quirky stationary that's decidedly "them" or add a little twist to something you know they love. For example, for a baking aficionado, pair a great recipe book with some homemade spiked sugars (add a few vanilla pods or sprigs of lavender to mason jars of plain white sugar)."

A marketer and writer living in Toronto, Karen Cleveland is a stickler for great manners. Her advice tackles all things etiquette, from the traditional to the taboo. She has contributed to FASHION Magazine (online), She Does the City, Urban Male Magazine, Bobbi Magazine, King West Magazine and 2 Magazine. A respected consultant in etiquette, Karen has been featured by The Globe and Mail, Canadian Press, eTalk, CTV News and more.