Privilege Blog

When High WASPs Give Wedding Presents, They Don’t Call Them “Gifts”

It’s June. For the next handful of Saturdays, couples all around the Western Hemisphere will be getting married.* If you’re attending a wedding,  presents are de rigeur. What, I’ve been asked, do High WASPs give?

We follow our leader, Count Appropriate, who tells us Context Is All. A High WASP-approved wedding present is one that makes the couple happy, first and foremost. If you don’t want to make them happy, I am terribly sorry that you have to attend their wedding.

So I do not recommend trying to impress anyone with the most perfect serving platter, banded in navy with gold, perhaps a yacht flag or two, if that’s not their taste. I would love it. Others would not. We are supporting a ritual that can support society and continue the species.

If your friends and relations want a set of this,

then this they should receive. Put your personal taste aside. Onward. And I have no idea why we call them presents, and not gifts. I’m going to have to ask you to trust me on this one.

Rounding Out The Registry

The best thing to give, hands down, is something from the wedding registry. Especially serving dishes. One turns out to need more than expected. There is no shame in this choice, it does not indicate lack of imagination, the couple will not immediately forget your face.

The Wall Street Journal agrees, here.

A Present Of Distinction

But let’s say you are compelled to give something not requested. What then? Try one of these.

Piece of Art, Or A Curio

Right off the bat let me tell you that curios are very tricky. When you get it right, your present will occupy space and the hearts of the couple for their lives. When you get it wrong, let me be honest, you’re going to be part of their lives, but in the story about, “Remember when so-and-so gave us that AWFUL thingamabob?”

Done right, you might give the daughter of your college roommate this campaign desk, which might just open to reveal remains of ink, and might just happen to have her initials on top. This requires a deep understanding of your recipients tastes and culture, whether you learn from knowing them or just from growing up in their world.

The Gift Of Skills

If you are good at something, particularly something expensive or difficult to procure in good quality, offer a certificate for future use. Carpentry, plumbing, graphic design. Car maintenance. Catering. The usual chores of life once settled, seemingly simple, in fact quite anxiety-provoking. High WASPs appreciate the personal, the authentic, and the difficult to obtain. If you’re really good at something, your time qualifies.

Consumables We Always Need

Dishtowels. Oven mitts. Bottles of wine. Fruit of the Month. Don’t laugh. That stuff’s delicious, especially if you live in the Frozen Tundra.

Almighty Mammon

We have, even in our Never Speak Of Money It’s Worse Than S*x culture, come to understand that giving money is sometimes the most loving thing you can do for your friends and family. And weddings are, after all, about love. Give with grace, affection, and humor. Here’s how the Chinese culture does it, in a Red Envelope. Write something nice, in gold script. Ask that the couple remember you as they spend it. You’re entitled.

When I saw my brother, a few weeks after his wedding, I asked him, “So, what would be the BEST thing I could give you?” Tired, and a little shell-shocked from wedding-spend, he said, “Oh, money for the honeymoon.” Done.

What Not To Give

  • Goods from a local boutique that cannot be returned
  • A set of anything personalized, unless you give in such abundance that there’s no need to add pieces right away. For example? Three monogrammed bath sheets, no matching hand towels. Unfair.
  • Something that has very little chance of supporting the couple’s lifestyle.

When I got married, a dearly beloved cousin gave me this glass pitcher and a set of 6 matching glasses. But more than six people came to every party I threw that was elaborate enough to warrant drinks in a pitcher and special glasses. And this is not a set that can be expanded, as the glass is etched with pictures of lovebirds. Lovely, useless, never-seen-the-light-of-day lovebirds.

A simple rule, that most of you know, and I offer only as a reminder. Presents are for the recipient, not the giver, not cultural constructs, not for history. And cheers to all of you getting married, this month and always.

*Privilege supports marriage equality with a full heart and open mind. Why deny so much hope to an entire segment of the human species?

Noritake “Twilight Meadow” via Bed Bath and Beyond
Desk, me. Pitcher and glass, me.
Red envelope via
Gold Sharpie via Discount Office

64 Responses

  1. Always give something that the couple has registered for. Totally agree, it’s not the time to impose my taste, or try to impress with something unusual.

  2. This is always the time (in my mind) to give something the couple really wants and that WILL be on their registry. Great points Lisa!

    Art by Karena

  3. for the wedding at which i shall bridesmaid this weekend, i purchased a whale-shaped jonathan adler butter dish. from the registry. i thought you’d approve.

  4. For many years we gave teak salad bowl sets… with a hand written card bearing a Caesar salad recipe.

    Nowadays with online registry it is so much easier.

    I like your marriage mission statement Lisa!

  5. Great advice. The last few weddings we’ve been at, the young couples advised that they were saving either for their first house or for extensive travel and would appreciate money. The first time I popped a cheque inside a (carefully chosen) card and sealed the envelope, it felt a bit weird, but since then, I appreciate the ease with which I can make someone happy! And, as you say, that’s the whole point.

  6. This one is spot-on, I have always figured they registered for a reason, no? It’s not my place to judge *why* (although I would be fibbing to pretend it was never discussed in some odd situations), they want/need something, they asked for it, buy it.

    Best part of this post? I don’t understand why or when the presents became gifts either. It’s a mystery.

  7. Use that beautiful pitcher for roses. It’s too pretty to be hidden away from lack of use.

  8. Great post! I believe in sticking to the registry with serving dishes or serving pieces in sterling. Those items always seem to get forgotten.

  9. Very useful post. If not on a registry, a simple picture frame can almost always be useful.

  10. I totally agree! I had my first this year – got invited to a shower, but didn’t get invited to the wedding. The horror :-). xoxo

  11. Marvelous post! So helpful…especially if we ever cultivate that kind of friends who have wedding gift registries when they tie the knot.

    Oh, I kid. Sort of.

  12. As the recipient of a curio, I applaud this advice. And here in Ireland, ‘gift’ used to mean a useless piece of tat, given with a cursory nod to societal norms, whereas a ‘present’ was what you wanted to receive. Ever since America has entered our lives with online shopping, we are confused, as sometimes US retailers seem to use ‘gift’ to mean ‘present’. I remember fondly a subscription to a legendary cheese club. That was most certainly a fine present, not a gift.

  13. A note on your recommendation of art (as distinct from curios): pieces, like one’s spouse, must be chosen for love. Even for dear friends whom I have known as long as I can remember, I am hesitant to give a specific piece of art unless they have seen it and approved. However, I love the idea of giving art, especially to those that I think have been short sighted in their registering (yes, you may be 20-something now, but you will indeed be matriarch and patriarch of a large brood and will probably need service for more than 8).

    To wit, I am giving two friends marrying this wedding season a substantial (for me) gift certificate to 20×200 so that they may choose a piece of art they can use from now until they hand it down to children and will love each time they look at it. (No affiliation with the website – just like it for its variety and affordability for young collectors.)

  14. In addition: when I got married, one of my husband’s relatives gave us glasses engraved with our names and wedding date. Two champagne flutes, two wine glasses, two water glasses. We used the flutes at the wedding as our glasses, but may never have another occasion for the set to come all the way out of the back of the closet.

  15. I’m all for the registry and believe in giving something that is wanted. Unless you know the recipients very well that can be a difficult bit of free lancing.

    When I was dating my husband it puzzled and bothered me that he would refuse to give the bride and groom something they registered for if he didn’t like it, and would find something to his taste, claiming he was “educating their taste”. It is apparently a family trait as when we were married most of his family, rejecting our own selections, subjected us to a pantheon of horrors which are now stored away and only brought out for visiting dignitaries, oh I mean family.

    Luckily that experience opened my husbands eyes and he saw the error of his ways.

    1. Mardel, do we have the same in-laws? My husband’s mother has given us some doozies, even as we have tried to either stop the gift-giving madness altogether or re-direct them to things we want.

      We got the cheap Chinese pressed-wood tables painted with hummingbirds:

      and then we got a framed photo of them (which currently resides in a drawer in the dining room chest) for Christmas:

  16. I feel stupid now…I just gave a really cool Crate & Barrel bar set for a present!!! oh, the shame.

    1. Don’t feel stupid! They will probably enjoy it and even if they don’t, C&B has a generous return/exchange policy.

  17. Registries are the perfect source of inspiration, since they come preapproved by the happy couple. Having married later in life to a man with as many possessions as I, it made sense to ask people to give us wine/food, poetry, or music (CDs), which they did. Whenever we play the music, we think of the givers, we toasted each as we drank the wine, and fond thoughts of our friends have gone with us on many a picnic. As for the poetry – it reminds us to retain love and beauty in our life together. Altogether, I must say I congratulate myself on this strategy, and I recommend it to others.

  18. We were the first in our circle of friends to marry. As we were very young and inexperienced, both setting up house for the first time, almost all our presents were decidedly practical and very thoughtful, and that pleased me enormously. (And the m***y helped us poor starving grad students a great deal.) So we tried to think of useful things that we could give our friends that would never have crossed their minds that they might need. We gave them…fire safes. I’m not sure now whether to laugh or cringe. But there’s no question that a fire safe was very useful, especially in a city of old buildings where burglaries were frequent.

    I was just thinking about our kitchen clock, which has accompanied us through ten or so moves and now hangs in the kitchen in our current house. It was just such a gift–something useful that we’d not thought of ourselves, from a cousin of my mother’s in Alexandria. I’ve been thinking that around the time of our anniversary I’ll write her a note telling her how much and how long her gift has been appreciated over the last twenty years and send a picture. And I’ll do the same for the other things that have endured and been much used and loved–there are many of these.

  19. AND if you are going to re-gift, go through that gift box really, really carefully first to make sure that the original card has been removed. Both my sister and I received re-gifted wedding presents with the original cards still in the box. It’s been decades, but we both still remember who did that.

  20. Awwww, lovebirds. Mix them in with non-matching glasses, they don’t have to be matchy. Use the pitcher on its own for lemonade, sangria- anything.

    Really like your thoughts, which echo my own; I’d give money only if the recipient is my immediate family member. I suppose giving money makes sense for a couple who have lived together, or for second, etc. marriages, when people already have the household goods and then some.

  21. This post was very appropriate for me today! I was just beginning to think about a wedding I am in this Fall, and subsequent Bridal Showers and Couples Showers, and all other festivities! When I got married in 2009, we recieved some gifts that were not on our registry. Some were just perfect, as they were given by a very close friend who knows me well and my step-mother. Also, some came as “add ons” to gifts that were on the registry. For example, my husband’s aunt, seeing all the baking equipment on the registry, purchased some and then added a darling cookbook and a set of alphabet/number cookie cutters.

    However, we recieved a few “non registry” gifts that fell into another category all together. One was clearly a “re-gift” while another family friend (God bless her heart because she worked SO hard on this) gave us a hand crocheted tablecloth and a knitted blanket. I feel guilty, but, I was also irritated. She doesn’t know me at all and clearly doesn’t know my taste. She would have made us much happier with a set of towels from the registry.

    Now, I’m wondering what is the proper etiquette when one is in a wedding, and invited to several parties? Especially when said bridesmaid did not receive a wedding gift from the current bride?
    I’m sure I’m just going to bring gifts to all the parties, and the wedding, but it feels like I’m being taken a bit.

  22. 1) Thank you for mentioning your support for marriage equality. I’ll never need it myself, but many of my good friends will.

    2) Thank you for mentioning serving pieces first. I just selected something from a Gump’s registry yesterday, and I selected a glass tray I’d like to own myself.

  23. P.S. I’m with Duchesse. I’d drink my iced tea from that pitcher and one of those glasses. Why not?

  24. In my family, it was Christmas/birthday presents and wedding gifts (as in gift registry, perhaps?). I love the use the registry advice, as well as the serving pieces. There are so many beautiful options today that would work in any home.

  25. In Australia it is almost always “presents’. Christmas, birthday, wedding are all the same.

    I have given lots and lots of plain glass or white serving dishes over time. Also, if I don’t know people’s taste very well I often buy plain crystal candle holders (Villeroy and Boche do lovely ones) or a plain blanket that can be used in a spare room, over a couch etc. Most people have registries now but, living in the country, I can’t always access them unless they have an online option.

  26. I wish some of our thoughtful and generous guests had read this post. The worst offender was a beautiful art print on canvas… that is not our taste at all. Dear family member. Oh dear.

    I am now far less reticent about buying gifts off the registry. I always want something personal but now, I understand.

  27. Oh, I so agree with you about just following the registry! A few years ago I had to talk le monsieur out of “going rogue” on a wedding gift for some friends. For a birthday gift, yes, get original, but most couples would rather have that 12th place setting.

  28. The paper had an article today with suggestions for what to give when you get to the registry late and everything is taken. This has happened to me twice. Both times they were registered at Target.

    The paper had one suggestion of cooking lessons. I didn’t think that was so good. You don’t know if the couple likes to cook, to redeem they have to set aside what, for a working couple, may be a considerable amount to free time. It seems like the gift might go to waste.

    Sometimes I give stuff, other times money (depends on the bridge) – between cooking lessons and money I’d pick money.

  29. Great advice, Miss Privilege. I’m a big fan of buying presents from the registry, and for close family I like to give a gift card/certificate to one of the stores where the couple is registered. Only in a few cases have I dared to give (gift as a verb, never!) something more personal–a tea caddy once. Having said that, one of the Mister’s and my favorite presents was an antique map of the state I was leaving behind. The giver chose an elegant and neutral frame; the map appealed to the Mister, and the sentimentality of my home state appealed to me. It also spurred a small collection of similar maps of places that have been important to us.

  30. We had a tiny wedding (9 people, including us?) and requested no gifts, as I do not like it when people feel compelled to give me something.

    A couple of months later, though, some friends of Mr. C’s family did surprise us with some monogrammed silver items. But I hadn’t changed my last name.

    Just another small reason my personalized gifts can be iffy.

  31. We ( hb+me ), got married in 1974, and it was totally unheard of expressing wishes for wedding presents at that time, here in Finland.
    Everything we received, represented the giver´s own fondness to the present.
    Luckily, time has been merciful, I only remember one or two of what we received ;)-

  32. “glass pitcher and a set of 6 matching glasses” – This has been worrying me. You must use them. I inherited a whole lot of china, glassware, and silverware, and instead of bemoaning the fact that my life at the time did not include much reason to use such things, I decided to let the things be the reason – thus, tea parties, dinner parties, explorations of various sorts of drinks, etc. Most gratifying. You just need to invite a small number of people over for sangria or lemonade or ice tea – maybe not an evening affair, but a quick get-together before going on to some event? Let them know that it is the inauguration of your pitcher and glasses to useful service.

  33. I have to confess: Sometimes I look at a wedding registry and can’t bear to buy anything on the list. Sometimes we give a Kitchenaid Artisan Stand mixer–which comes with a gift receipt from Williams Sonoma and can be returned. Sometimes we give antique silver candlesticks for romantic candlelit dinners. I SEE and have KNOWN that we should stick to the registry, but can’t bare to do that.

    Thirty five years ago, when we married in the south, brides only registered for china, silver and crystal. Times have changed–as they always do.

  34. Pitch-perfect advice, as always.

    I wish I’d read this before we got married. Full disclosure: Three years later, and we still haven’t cashed in on our Scully & Scully registry. I just can’t imagine ever needing a Herend tureen in Chinese Bouquet. I know, I know, I’ll want it when I’m older…right?

  35. Standing & clapping for all of this, political postscript included. I’d try to add something clever or useful here but you’ve more than covered that ground here yourself, as usual.

  36. Lisa, this is one of my favorite posts that you’ve ever done. Why? Because wedding gifts always require a bit of thought and in the end, it’s about thoughtfulness on so many levels. Because there’s no real wrong gift when you put a bit of thought into what would be useful and make the couple happy and I’m so glad you pointed this out. I think one of the best presents that I ever gave (and I know for a fact that it was well-received because it was the center piece of their house for the duration of their marriage) is a cow’s skull. I didn’t bother wrapping it, just put flowers on the horns and a card. Many of the guests laughed at me while we waited in line to deposit our presents, but I knew the bride well and knew she would love it.

    xo Mary Jo

  37. We call them “prizes” in my family. As an event planner I have given wedding planning as my gift and to this day get Christmas cards from the MOB thanking me. It was a very time consuming “prize” but I lovingly gave as much time as I could to my dear friend. We will celebrate our 4th anniversary on 7-7-11. The most wonderful and surprising gift we received from a best friend and bridesmaid was a generous gift certificate at the Grand Hotel where we stayed on Mackinac Island for our honeymoon. We were able to upgrade our wine every night and buy ourselves gifts on the island that we still treasure.

  38. kathy peck leeds – Agreed:).

    Karena – Why thank you!

    lauren – 100%

    Stephanie – I know! I love it when I happen upon a wedding somewhere

    hostess – I almost put salad bowls down as one of those things people will really wish they had and don’t always know!

    Anna – Why thank you. I can imagine there are some people, for example, who’d love one of your pieces as a present.

  39. Mater – I know! It was hard to get used to giving money.

    TPP – The mysteries of our species!

    Anon – Now that’s a thought. I suppose I always felt it was wrong to use the pitcher without the glasses. The silly ideas I have…

    Belle de Ville – And sterling is so expensive these days, it’s so nice to have a bowl, or some serving spoons.

    Mary anne – Thanks. I agree, picture frames can be very useful.

    Preppy 101 – No. No. No. That is the worst thing I have heard in a while. So rude.

  40. Jan – Ha! Just wait. Your kiddos, right?

    Mise – Well that definition of gift perhaps explains why my culture never uses the word. How revelatory. Cheese club. Yum.

    R – Right. Such a vivid example of two different ways to pick a present that is truly personal and memorable. I think your idea is lovely.

    Mardel – Well exactly. At least your husband learned, if only the hard way.

    The gold-digger – Comrades-at-arms….

    Deb – No, no, no. No shame:). If you know the couple and they like to drink, I am sure it will get used. Besides, giving something from Crate and Barrel is almost like giving money. Such a universal currency.

  41. Marsha – That is a wonderful idea. Similar to Fruit of the Month, only for the other senses.

    Staircase Witch – Fire safes. That is the cutest thing I have ever heard. It is practical. And also very much something I can see coming from a physicist. As for the clock, it is wonderful. We got a salt and pepper shaker set in pewter. So useful. And broke right as my marriage was ending. I felt quite superstitious about it.

    Susan – I received a $50 from a Polish friend, at my wedding. I remember being surprised by how happy it made me.

    HHH – Oh my goodness yes. The same family who gave me the pitcher gave my sister some linen placemats that had CLEARLY been exhumed from the attic, in their original box. Yikes.

    Duchesse – Hmm. NOT MATCH? You are right. I’m a dope. And I confess I’ve only given money to my brother so far:).

  42. Princess Freckles – Add ons like that are a great personal touch. Good idea. Crochet is always risky business. Now, etiquette around SEVERAL parties that require presents? Oh lord. And you’re a bridesmaid? I might just get one big wedding present, and explain that it’s for every occasion. Enough already.

    rb – You are very welcome. And I’d like a glass tray from Gump’s myself:). It’d look so good with that pitcher…

    Erin – Interesting. And thank you.

    A Farmer’s Wife – Well, that’s because Australia is such a fantastic place, right?:) I had never thought about a throw blanket, but that’s a great idea. One always needs an extra.

    Becca – You were wise to begin with.

    Une Femme – Ha! Going rogue indeed. And yes, I mean, how can you do a full Thanksgiving without 12 place settings of one sort or another?

  43. RoseAG – Cooking lessons? Highly unlikely to get used, IMO. Tough to predict.

    Town and Country Mom – The antique map giver sounds as though they knew you well, and really hit that wonderful sweet spot for wedding presents.

    Miss Cavendish – Oh my goodness. Yes. Thank you for the reminder.

    Buckeroomama – Red envelopes are a wonderful tradition.

    metscan – ;). I love the glimpses you give us of life in Finland.

    Patsy – Oh. Yes. Exactly! Why weren’t you and I friends 25 years ago?

  44. Lindsay – Thank you. And the readers and commenters here are extraordinarily sage and funny people. I am lucky.

    Marsha – You are so cute. I never want to worry you. I will think of something, some good occasion. I promise.

    Susan – If your defaults are Williams-Sonoma gift receipts and antique silver candlesticks, perhaps, just perhaps, you can be excused:). Those are wonderful presents.

    bigBang – Well thank you. And Herend platters, yes. Tureens? Um. not so much. Chinese Bouquet? Really? I kind of like the Queen Victoria. So over the top. Kind of like modern China, i.e. Shanghai 2011.

    Legallyblondemel – Thank you so much.

  45. SSG – Aw. Much appreciated. xox back to you.

    Mary Jo – I am so touched. I can imagine exactly the person who would love nothing more than that cow skull, and the extent to which you delighted her by the giving.

    Nelle – My best friend’s parents were British immigrants. They called them “prizes” too. I was always thinking, wait, who won what? But It’s a cute name. You got married on 7/7/07? Congratulations! Yay for hotel gift certificates. That was something else I asked my brother if he wanted.

  46. I recall when friends from college got married (during college) and arrived back at school with the most amazing set of silver plated trays I had ever seen, which they proceeded to mount on the wall of their student apartment (complete with mattress on the floor) as art objects. These were not family objects as I recall, but were presented to them by their parents’ friends. These were literally the last things these two people could have used. The best gifts the DH and I received when we were married in grad school: A huge kitchen garbage can stuffed with every kitchen tool imaginable, and a check for $500 from friends of my parents who figured that being students, we could use the money (they were not kidding about that). However, post-wedding gifts are always interesting: About 5 years in, after child numero uno arrived, we received a nice nursery set from some parental friends (come to think of it, it was the same people who gave us the kitchen garbage can…), along with a complete set of gorgeous bath towels with matching hand towels and wash clothes with a note saying, “a little treat for Mom and Dad”.

  47. I go off the registry. Boring but there is a reason it was created. I would much prefer to give something that people really want and use. A goblet or a flute, let’s say. And then when they drink they will think of me!

    That said my mother’s best friend gave me a gorgeous ceramic rolling pin and cake cutter. My mother had given them to her when she had gotten married and she passed them on to me! I think of Susan when I use those items!

  48. In Europe, no one give “Gifts” – they are called presents. Going further giving money is frowned upon amongst the educated classes annd high WASPs.
    I alwayws give an items from the couples registered list.

  49. A good guess on the preference for “gifts” over “presents” is that “gifts” is from
    Old English (Common Germanic) while “presents” is from Middle French and is believed to be an Anglo-Norman addition to the English vocabulary. Much of the (in Mitford’s terms) U versus non-U of the English upper classes relies on this distinction, preferring the Anglo-Saxon version when multiple choices are available. I have read (can’t remember the source and google doesn’t bring it up for me) that there was a period in England when this was consciously promoted in upper class educational circles.

  50. I’m pleased to learn that the “registry” is so accepted.

    I sometimes give a giftcard for the establishment at which the newlyweds have registered. It is my understanding that some stores such as Williams-Sonoma offer a post-wedding discount to the newlyweds for any items on their list that had not been purchased.

  51. I am dying with laughter over this one. As you know, I’ve been kinda MIA ’cause of B’day, but I just had to comment on this post. Totally absolutely correct, as usual. But sometimes it’s had not to give creative interesting “things,” no? xx’s

  52. So far, I’ve given two of my three step-children
    (who hate me) a block of Wusthof knives…yes, they were registered for them, and yes, I hope they got the hint.

  53. My own mother went off the registry and gave me a teapot that is beautiful but anyone who’s met me in the last 15 years would not have chosen for me. The best part? She announced at the shower that she couldn’t find anything tasteful on my registry.

    P.S. There was an amazing Jonathan Adler teapot on said registry…

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