The Big Wedding Gift Disconnect

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.

These are envelope boxes, for those of you who don't know! (photo: beau-coup.com)
These are envelope boxes, for those of you who don’t know! (photo: beau-coup.com)

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.

Our wedding day -- outdoors briefly while the hurricane weather paused!
Our wedding day — outdoors briefly while the hurricane weather paused!

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!

You might also like:
Six Weddings in One Summer
Albanian Wedding
The night we got engaged…

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17 thoughts on “The Big Wedding Gift Disconnect

  1. I was one of your attendee’s at your wedding. We found it was a Beautiful Wedding. We really enjoyed ourselves. I think the gift giving is up to the person . The Bride in the article had no class — to complain!

    1. It absolutely is up to the person, I agree with you. I’m happy to hear you had a good time. I’ll never forget your incredibly generous wedding gift, too, so thank you once again for that! Will & Jenn’s wedding was a really beautiful and fun event, too.

  2. Love the post! As a soon to be bride, it’s good to hear that the understanding of weddings can be different and I should probably sit down with some of my relatives and have an honest conversation.

    Though a giant, extravagant wedding would but lots of fun, our smaller and more simple wedding is more our style and comfort level.

  3. I can’t believe your grandmother said that, then again, my Opa used to say crazy stuff. I used to date an Italian and had a bit of a learning curve on wedding gifts as well. I now try to “cover my plate”, but not necessarily provide cash in hand above that, but I’ve stopped giving gifts because I have also been on the other side watching sister-in-laws open them! Haha. I remember precisely words like “this ugly lamp” coming out of one of their mouths. But, sometimes I do manage to sneak in a personal note. Sometimes I find pictures from years before that never made it into the bride and grooms hands and actually develop some and slip them in the envelope. That seems to go over well and comments like “that was a nice touch” come back. So, a hint for those times you are forced to give cash!

    1. Ugh, it’s really unpleasant to hear people criticizing gifts they don’t like. I mean, it IS the reality of receiving gifts — there will be things that you wouldn’t necessarily choose for yourself, but then it’s meant to reflect the giver’s interests, too. I do like the idea of photos. It adds a nice personal touch that I’ll keep in mind for next time!

  4. Wedding snap! We booked the castle, and provided a posh BBQ, champers and (too much as it turned out) wine for the table. Reception was the village hall that we decorated ourselves the day before and had to clean up the day after.:)

  5. I really enjoyed your post because it gave me an insight into the way another culture celebrates weddings. Cultural differences fascinate me and I bet an anthropologist could carry out a really interesting study on wedding etiquette in different cultures.

  6. I’ve never given money as a wedding gift, and I don’t ever intend to. We didn’t invite guests to our wedding to get money or gifts, we invited friends and family to join us in our public declaration of love and marriage. It never would have occured to me that guests should “cover their plate”. What an awful term! And yes, that woman does have the etiquette of a twig.

    1. I love the cookbooks you gave us and use them both on a regular basis, especially Bittman’s. And, of course, I think of you and your family every time I pull them off the shelf, which is what makes a wedding gift special. You’ve got a permanent place in our home 🙂

  7. I am very glad you posted this! It seems that so many miss the point of a wedding. Guests seem to think they are going to be entertained (including expensive food, decoration, and music/dancing) while many couples seem to think that the main purpose of the wedding is to throw a huge party and rake in the gifts. The purpose of a wedding is to join two people in a lifelong commitment! And any well-wishers who want to join in that happy celebration (“celebration”, not “party”) are welcome.
    Sadly, most people do not see that. It is so bad, that I am apprehensive about my own future wedding. I plan on having a very simple, small wedding and I know that some of my friends will complain amongst themselves that the wedding was “too small and boring”. Also, I do not like the idea that by inviting people, those people might feel that I am asking for a gift, albeit indirectly. I am considering including something on the invitation along the lines of: “We, the happy couple, ask for no gifts, please. We ask only that if you wish to be a part of our small, simple, yet joyous celebration of the joining our two lives, then please feel free to attend. Thank you.”

    The wording still needs help, but you get the idea. 🙂

    1. I think that’s a very good idea. Actually, my fiancé and I encouraged guests on our invitations to make a donation to the charity of their choice, instead of bringing a gift for us, since we’d already been living together and had all the basic items we needed. Many of them took us up on that, which I was happy for. I think a lot of them appreciated it, too, since it was a all-round beneficial situation for everyone!

  8. I like to give gifts for weddings: if the couple has a registry, with items I can afford, I’ll use that, other times I’ve given framed pictures I’ve taken, or framed pictures of friends (including myself and person getting married). Recently I was invited to a wedding, couldn’t go, threw out the envelope (not the invite), and can’t figure out where to send a gift or if they have a registry. And I want to get them something to celebrate their marriage, even if I can’t attend!

  9. Ah! I heard this on the radio this morning – and was chatting about it as a friend – rude rude rude!

    We sometimes give money, sometimes I make home-made gifts, sometimes I do both. That bride would definitely be appalled by me. I’ve given a friend the DVD set of Mad About You and a couple of bottles of wine for wedding gifts before. Eep!

    I wrote down the gifts given to us for our wedding for thank-you-note-writing purposes. And although the cash gifts were awesome at the wedding (for helping with honeymoon and plates), my most cherished gift from my wedding is an afgan my dear friend crochet’d me.

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