As a young bride-to-be, Jodi Smith said it never occurred to her to put a pitcher on her wedding registry.
But one turned up unsolicited amid the other gifts.
"At the time I thought it was lovely enough," recalled Smith of Marblehead, Mass. "The giver had taken the time to look at my wedding crystal and found something that would match it well."
Still, Smith doubted she'd get much use out of it. But now, more than 15 years later, she says, "I love the pitcher. We use it anytime we can. It looks beautiful on our table. We have used it for orange juice during brunch, water and sodas for lunch and even as a decanter for red wine."
And so it often goes with those surprise wedding gifts, the ones you didn't register for and don't quite know what to do with. Give that vase or griddle or gadget a chance, and your reaction might just change from "What am I going to do with this?" to "I can't live without it."
But is it polite to give the bride something she didn't ask for? Yes, according to etiquette experts.
"Invitations are not invoices," said Smith, who runs Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "Registry information is a suggestion."
Anna Post of the Emily Post Institute, which is named for her great-great-grandmother, agreed. "It is always fine to purchase a wedding gift off-registry," said Post. "The choice of a gift is always up to the giver."
On the other hand, said Post, registries make it easy to figure out what people want and need, "especially in an age when people may have a household already or are merging two households together."
And if you're considering going off-registry, you might look at the list anyway to help guide your choice.
"You do want to think about what the couple might actually like," said Post. "I know that sounds obvious, but you'd be amazed at people who buy something they themselves would like," instead of considering the couple's interests and tastes.
Going off-registry may be especially appropriate for those who know the couple extremely well.
"It is one thing for my cousin or a work colleague to purchase from the registry," Smith said. "But I would expect my sister or my college roommate to choose something special."
If possible, though, consider including a receipt so that the item can be exchanged if it's really not to the wedding couple's taste or in case they get duplicates, Smith said.
Sharon Naylor, author of The Ultimate Wedding Registry Workbook, points out that sometimes guests have "no choice but to depart from the wedding registry. If it's close to the bridal shower date, all of the 'good' gifts likely have been purchased already, leaving items that are either too expensive — the $700 cookware set, for instance — or not expensive enough, like the $3 spatulas and a ton of other little kitchen gadgets."
Off-registry gifts often turn out especially well when the givers are more experienced than the newlyweds in running a household.
"Especially when the couple is young, I think it's likely that they don't realize what would be useful," said Linda Carlson of Seattle. "For my niece's upcoming wedding, we sent the place settings of china and the platter on her registry, and added the gravy boat" — which wasn't on the registry — "with a note that said I thought every home needed one for gravy or sauce."
Homemade gifts and family traditions are another good reason to go off-registry. Carlson said that for her niece's shower, "I sent a set of handmade Christmas tree ornaments, just as I had done when one of her cousins was married."
But some off-registry gifts really annoy brides, Naylor says, especially "when guests give decor items. 'It's my house, and she's trying to decorate it?' can be the complaint of the already stressed-out bride."
So what's Naylor's advice to the bride who feels as if the surprise gift in a color or pattern she didn't choose is "stomping on her wishes"?
Chill out and write a gracious thank-you note. You might end up liking the item.
Naylor recalled receiving a beige tablecloth from an aunt just like the one the aunt had given to her own daughters. "She was welcoming me into the family," said Naylor, who lives in Morristown, N.J. "And I could live with the beige."
In fact, after using it at several holiday dinners, including some that were the last attended by her late father, the surprise tablecloth became her favorite. "I love it, still use it and would never want to get rid of it," she said.
Aimee Bennett of Castle Rock, Colo., had a similar experience. When she and her husband married in 2004, they received "one shallow, oblong pewter bowl. It seemed odd, and I would not have been surprised if it was a re-gifting item. We ended up putting it in a cupboard."
But one night she pulled it out for a dinner party to serve bread. It worked well, and now she leaves it out all the time, often as a fruit bowl.
"Of anything in our kitchen," she said, "that bowl probably gets the most compliments."