What to bring to a Christmas party: A guide to food and gift etiquette for holiday partygoers

An overhead photograph of a wooden box filled with gift tags, cinnamon stick, orange slices, and greenery.
Paperless Post BlogHolidays > What to bring to a Christmas party: A guide to food and gift etiquette for holiday partygoers

‘Tis the season of Christmas party invitations, and (if you’re lucky) your holiday invites will come by post—Paperless Post. One thing party guests love about getting online event invitations is the private messaging feature that lets you, for example, send the host a quick note to ask what, if anything, they’d like you to bring to the party. Another thing is the viewable guest list so you can see who else is coming—and ask them what they’re bringing.

Otherwise, read on, and let this helpful guide tell you everything you need to know about what to bring to a Christmas party.


Should you bring a host gift to a Christmas party?

In general, when you’re invited to someone’s home for a holiday shindig, it’s good etiquette to bring a gift for the host. How big a gift? It depends on the type of gathering, the time of day, and the proclivities of the party-thrower. 

No matter what, a host gift should be thoughtfully chosen for the recipient. It shouldn’t feel forced or be obvious that you pulled it from the cache of unwanted gifts you keep in the back of the hall closet. 

Here are the most important considerations for choosing a host gift to bring to a Christmas party:

– Gifts of food or drink are always popular, but don’t expect the host to serve it at the party.

– If you bring flowers, bring a vase for them, too, so the host doesn’t have to search for one. 

– Wrap the gift if you can, or present it in a gift bag or affixed with a ribbon or bow. Include a gift tag so the recipient will know who it’s from.

– Match the value of the gift to the type of event—spend a little more on a host gift for a fancy dinner party than for a casual open-house gathering. 

– In general, don’t spend more than $25 on a host gift.

– If you don’t know the host well, play it safe with flowers, a house plant, a bottle of wine, or a box of boutique chocolates.

– If you know the host well, choose a gift you know they will like—a small artwork, a six-pack of their favorite craft beer, or a special Christmas tree ornament.

– Give the gift to the host as you enter the party so they can put it away.

– Never bring a dish to share to a dinner party unless the invitation explicitly requests it. Otherwise, you may inadvertently mess up the menu.

In some cases, it’s not necessary—or even appropriate—to bring a host gift to a holiday party. If the gathering takes place at a restaurant or other venue, or if it’s a very formal dinner party and you don’t know the host well, the best course of action is to send a host gift and a thank you card the next day. Not sure what to say? Here’s how to write a heartfelt thank you.


What to bring to a Christmas gift exchange party

A typical holiday gift exchange—whether it’s with family, at the office, or among friends—involves store-bought presents. The gift exchange invitation tells you the dollar amount you should spend on the gift and whether you should stick to a theme, such as Christmas ornaments, or winter outerwear accessories, or booze.

The type of gift to bring to a gift exchange depends entirely on the expected crowd and the guidance offered in the invitation. Let these tips help guide you toward the ideal present for a gift swap.

Buy to your audience. What might fly at one gathering could get you kicked out of the will at another. 

Stick to the agreed-upon price. Spend too much or too little, and feelings might get hurt. 

Choose a gender-neutral gift. If it’s a mixed-gender party, choose something anybody might enjoy—not a beard-grooming kit or a fabulous silk scarf in a soft, floral motif.

Wrap it up nice ‘n’ pretty. Since there’s usually some type of game involved in the swapping of the gifts, it’s fun to make yours stand out so that everybody wants it.


What to bring to a white elephant Christmas party

A white elephant gift exchange party is a classic take on the traditional gift swap. It’s more about entertainment than walking away with something beautiful or useful—in fact when it comes to a white elephant gift, the more useless, impractical, or extravagantly ugly it is, the better. 

Some white elephant invitations ask that you bring a used gift—something from around the house that you’re happy to part with. Others specify that the present should be store-bought for a particular dollar amount. Either way, the best gift to bring to any gift exchange party, including a white elephant, depends on the theme of the party and the crowd. If you don’t know where the bar is, play it safe. 


What food to bring to a Christmas party

The holidays are made for gatherings centered around food, but unless the cocktail party invite specifically requests that you bring a dish to share—or you’ve arranged it with the host ahead of time—it’s best not to show up with food (unless it’s a gift for the host, of course.)

But if it’s a party of the potluck variety, what food to bring depends on the type of party it is and how adventurous—or not—you are in the kitchen.


Holiday cookie swap

 If you’re the type of person who gets invited to holiday cookie swaps, you probably don’t want to play it safe with old standards like snickerdoodles and peanut butter blossoms. You want to wow ‘em with something extra-special. Thankfully, internet-age cookie swappers have access to an enormous catalog of recipes for everything from vintage Christmas cookies and gluten-free Christmas cookies to delightful Christmas cookies from all over the world


Appetizers for a cocktail party potluck

Chances are, the host of a holiday cocktail-hour potluck has finger foods in mind—not your famous cheesy hashbrown casserole. The best cocktail party fare won’t fall apart when guests pick it up or take a bite. It won’t dribble juices down the arm or leave greenery behind in the teeth. If you have a tried-and-true appetizer recipe that meets these criteria, go with it! Otherwise, browse these fast and festive appetizer recipes to find one that fits the bill.


Holiday dinner potluck

A holiday potluck dinner invitation will likely specify what type of dish you should bring, such as hors d’oeuvres, main dish, side dish, or dessert. It’s good etiquette to heed the wishes of the host—so even if your gingerbread cupcakes with pumpkin frosting are to die for, whip up a super-easy potatoes au gratin instead, if that’s what the invite says. (But probably nobody would complain if you also brought along a batch of those cupcakes.)


What to bring to a potluck if you don’t cook

There’s absolutely no shame in bringing store-bought food to a holiday potluck—but follow these general best practices to avoid being tagged as the one who stopped at the store on the way to the party.

Plan ahead. Decide what you’re going to take before you shop for groceries—otherwise, you might get home with an incoherent selection of snacks.

Shoot for quality. If you’re bringing a store-bought dessert, choose something made in the bakery rather than pre-packaged. 

Prep at home. The last thing the party host needs is to set you up with a cutting board and knives so you can make your fruit salad.

Consider ordering a specialty dish. If the Mexican market down the street makes the best elote on earth, or the BBQ food truck by the highway always has extra-tender ribs, order up a mess of it—and follow the next tip:

Pay attention to presentation. Chips & dips, cheese & crackers, and fruits & nuts are always popular party snacks, but to keep the holiday table festive, remove the items from their packaging, and neatly arrange your smorgasbord on an attractive tray.


What’s the most important thing to bring to any Christmas event? A party mindset!

If you’ve got pre-party jitters—whether it’s because you have social anxiety or because you’re introverted, shy, or meeting your future in-laws for the first time—you’re not alone. Around 15 million Americans have social anxiety, and countless others feel anxious every now and then about attending a holiday gathering. 

Here are a few tips to help you calm those nerves, put on your mental party hat (or your ugly Christmas sweater,) and have a wonderful time. 

Prepare a few talking points. If your mind goes blank when it’s time to start a conversation—or keep one going—planning ahead might help. Come up with a short list of questions to ask or topics to introduce that might lead to an interesting conversation you’re glad you had. Our quick and easy guide to corporate small talk might help. 

Visualize yourself having fun. Whenever you feel a twinge of anxiety at the thought of going to the party, close your eyes and see yourself confidently enjoying the festivities. 

Offer to help. If you’re feeling awkward at the party or ready for a change of scenery, look for an opportunity to help out the host—offer to refresh the hors d’oeuvres, fill the ice bucket, or wash a few glasses. 

Give yourself a pep talk. Talking to yourself in the third person can help you distance yourself from negative emotions like anxiety and self-doubt. If you’re feeling anxious at the party, talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend. Reassure your anxious self that you belong at the party—above all, remember that the host invited you to the party because they wanted to see (or meet!) you, and they want you to have a smashing time. Then, take a few deep breaths, and go get ‘em!


Do all of those Christmas invites coming through make you want to host your own festive soiree? Paperless Post has all of the holiday party invites you need to put on a Diwali dinner, a Kwanza cocktail hour, or any other party-worthy winter occasion. Enjoy instant RSVP tracking, manage your guest list with the Paperless Post app, and send reminders and follow-ups through broadcast or individual messages. Leave the invitations to Paperless Post so you can focus on planning an unforgettable party.


Browse Christmas party invitations

Hero image via Bri Heiligenthal.