Soon after I started dating Jason, whose background is Croatian, I realized that we had very different perceptions of what it meant to attend a wedding. He always insisted on giving a cash gift to cover the cost of our dinners, plus a little extra. This shocked me because I’d never even heard of ‘covering one’s own costs’ at a wedding. It didn’t make sense to me; was I not a guest? By contrast, wedding gifts in my Mennonite tradition are a deeply personalized expression of love for the newly married couple. A gift reflects the gift-giver’s own interests and desires for the couple. Items such as handmade quilts, pottery, cookbooks, original art, and furniture are common. Cash is considered impersonal.
After five years and numerous weddings together, I’m starting to figure it out. A Croatian wedding, along with the Italian and Greek weddings I’ve attended, is a beautiful celebration of marriage with the underlying expectation that the couple will receive a nice nest egg to kick-start their married life together. The number of guests doesn’t matter so much because most people cover their plates. The typical goal of Mennonite weddings, on the other hand, is to be as simple as possible, since the parents and/or couple will be shouldering all the expenses.
Don’t be surprised if you go to a Mennonite wedding and there’s no place to put money envelopes. In fact, I completely forgot about the money box at our wedding until the last minute, when I slapped some coloured construction paper onto a cardboard box and stuck it at the end of the receiving line; admittedly, it looked dreadful. On the other hand, I’ve been that only awkward person at a European wedding carrying a wrapped gift that no one knows where to put.
So you can imagine why I was fascinated by this article in The Star about a recent Croatian-Italian wedding in Hamilton, ON. One guest gave a gourmet food basket as a wedding gift. The bride asked for the receipt, then texted the guest:
“I’m not sure if it’s the first wedding you have been to, but for your next wedding… people give envelopes. I lost out on $200 covering you and your date’s plate… and got fluffy whip and sour patch kids in return. Just a heads-up for the future.”
Guest’s response: “It is obvious you have the etiquette of a twig… ‘Normal’ people would welcome anything given. You wanna have a party, you pay for it, DON’T expect me to.”
Bride: “You should have been cut from the list… I knew we were gonna get a bag of peanuts. I was right.”
The bride’s rudeness astounds me, but it also confirms the suspicions I’ve had all along — that there’s a BIG disconnect here. The guest was probably unfamiliar with Croatian-Italian gift-giving customs because they are confusing to us outsiders. The bride assumed that all weddings are like Croatian ones – and they certainly are not. It still doesn’t excuse her behaviour, which shows a perverse sense of entitlement. Not all gifts are equal, but proportional to personal circumstances – but that’s irrelevant. A gift must always be accepted graciously.
I think back to our wedding in 2010. We decorated a modest community centre ourselves. My grandma made the flower arrangements from her garden. We borrowed china from a church. We provided wine for all the tables, but had a cash bar. Two major outlays were for things that mattered most to us: food and music. We hired a gourmet caterer and two live bands, a traditional Croatian trio and an eight-piece dance band. True to custom, we received entirely cash from the Croatian guests and mostly non-cash gifts from the other side. It worked out great because we broke even on the wedding costs and gained some beautiful additions to our sparse household.
I didn’t keep a list of how much cash each unmarried friend gave us at our wedding so that we can match it someday. I don’t give gifts assuming I’ll get them back, fair and square. A gift is a gift, given willing and lovingly, representative of that moment in life. At a wedding where two different cultures are coming together, the onus is on the newlyweds to understand that not everyone understands weddings in the same way. Talking about these differences could clear up a lot of confusion. But, no matter what, gratitude is always the best path to take.
What’s your perception of wedding gifts and what do you typically give? Please share!