Etiquette is a set of protocols for dealing with potentially upsetting situations and sparing others unnecessary embarrassment and hurt. The underlying principles of kindness, fairness, and respect guide us when we ponder what constitutes "good manners." Many books have been written about etiquette in the modern age, and perhaps no etiquette author is more famous Emily Post; her legacy lives on in The Emily Post Institute, which today sells updated etiquette manuals and licensing courses for etiquette trainers.
In a recent Q&A in the Washington Post's "Wedding Week 2009," Anna Post stated that "a gift is required any time you are invited to a wedding ceremony." This assertion, made with no explanation, made me very uncomfortable--was she not aware of the ethical and personal issues raised by such a mandate? Apparently I was not the only one disturbed by Ms. Post's opinion, as another reader responded, "I hate it when I read 'gifts are required'....a gift that is required is no gift at all."
I agree with that reader, and I believe our society is ready for a new cultural approach to wedding gifts.
Much has been written about the "correct" etiquette for wedding gifts and registries, but the truth is there is no authoritative historical antecedent for mandatory wedding gifts. You will not find this doctrine in any religious or wisdom text; in many cultures, the concept of "wedding presents" does not exist at all. In the Victorian era (from which we derive many of our current wedding practices) it was frequently argued that acquisition of wedding gifts was "vulgar" and that the practice fostered materialism instead of a joyous confirmation of love and union. Indeed, historians have noted that the advent of our contemporary gift-giving practices paralleled the growth of department stores, mass-manufactured goods, and the wedding industry itself. As the wedding industry expanded, so did the notion that wedding gifts must be given. Upon close examination, it appears there is little justification for this "requirement" other than a rise in American consumerism and a desire to exploit that trend for profit.
Etiquette books are helpful tools and provide snapshots of the social expectations of a particular era, but the opinions of etiquette writers--whether historic or contemporary--should not be regarded as having force of law. Neither should such opinions distract us from the original principles of etiquette--kindness, fairness, and respect--when we are considering modern etiquette problems.
RECONSIDERING OUR BELIEFS ABOUT WEDDING GIFTS
There are many reasons to reconsider the cultural practice of wedding gifts. For example, though many in our society are blessed with economic stability and abundance, many are not; social pressure to purchase a gift can create monetary hardship and feelings of inferiority in a person of humble means. Others are hesitant to contribute to environmental degradation or "conspicuous consumption" by purchasing manufactured consumer goods. A growing number of people feel that weddings have been cheapened by the commercialism of the "Wedding Industrial Complex" and would like to restore the deeper meaning of the ceremony.
When examined from these modern perspectives, it is clear that it is not always "good etiquette" to require gifts--especially when a couple can gracefully notify their guests that material tributes are not obligatory.
FREE SAMPLE TEXTS
Just as a couple might include in their wedding invitations an explanation of unique religious or cultural practices in order to educate and prepare their guests, so too may couples politely notify their guests that wedding gifts are an unnecessary extravagance not in keeping with their traditions or expectations. The Gift Already Given was created as a way of helping couples easily convey this idea to their families and friends.
We have created three sample texts for your use; we suggest you include an enclosure with your mailed wedding invitations (or a page on your wedding website) to explain to your invitees that gifts are neither required nor expected, and that "the gift already given"--the gift of continued love, togetherness, and support--is all you ask for on your wedding day.
These texts are offered free of charge for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons license; please feel free to revise them to fit your particular beliefs and style. If you would like to include an attribution or a link to this website it is appreciated, but not required.
We hope you will spread the word about The Gift Already Given and be inspired to create and share texts and graphics of your own (we would be honored to add your texts to this website if you'd like to make them available for others to use.)
THE ONE GOLDEN RULE OF THE GIFT ALREADY GIVEN
There is one golden rule of etiquette we ask you to observe if you use these texts: if someone brings you a gift on your wedding day, you must accept it graciously, with thanks and without rebuke. Remember that the gift is meant to express esteem for you and acknowledge this important event, and it should be accepted with that spirit in mind.
Many people still believe that if they receive a wedding invitation they must bring a gift to "pay for the plate." We hope that as awareness of The Gift Already Given grows, so too will the concept that a wedding invitation is an expression of a couple's desire to acknowledge and celebrate their family and friends, and that the proverbial "plate" does not need to be paid for, but is offered in gratitude for the love, loyalty, and understanding already received--The Gift Already Given.
In the spirit of that gift: we wish you a sweet and long life, and a wonderful wedding!
The Gift Already Given by Elizabeth Oakes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.