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The line between need, greed

The season of the Big Haul is upon us.

One-third of all marriage ceremonies occur in June, July and August. Because weddings are probably life's No. 1 gift-giving occasion, a lot of hand-wringing goes on this time of year for all those couples registering their gift choices and for guests trying to select an appropriate gift.

(Because of Florida's climate, the wedding season here is slightly different than in other parts of the country. More couples are likely to tie the knot in early spring than late summer, when the humidity can wilt the sturdiest of guests.)

Wedding rituals, including the often-touchy subject of presents, are shedding traditions at the end of the century faster than 2.3-million brides a year can adoringly whisper "I do."

"Throughout history, weddings have mirrored the values of the cultures in which they have taken place: the hopes, dreams, doubts and fears," according to American Marriage Today, a special 1996 report by Bride's magazine.

The hope of a 1990s betrothed couple may be to receive the His and Hers kayaks they listed on the gift registry. The fear of some of their invited wedding guests might be that there won't be any gift with a price tag under $200 on the couple's wish list.

"It's hard to buck this trend of materialism. Just look at the Onassis auction," says Letitia Baldrige, one of America's foremost etiquette experts, and social secretary to the White House during the Kennedy administration. "Brides consider a wedding as loot time."

As the business of weddings has escalated into a $32-billion annual boost to the economy, a growing aggressiveness on the part of some couples has become apparent when it comes to presents. About 90 percent of today's couples do register somewhere _ up from 60 percent in 1984, according to Bride's. Registries have become so commonplace that sometimes invited guests are annoyed if the couple isn't registered.

The vast majority do register for formal entertaining gear, which they likely will keep and use for the rest of their lives. In addition, growing numbers sign up for a truckload of other items for themselves and their house, sometimes at several different retailers.

"Running into a lot of greed?" says Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated Miss Manners column that appears in the Times. "I'm not saying that greed is absolutely new in weddings, but the idea that you needn't disguise it came up in the age of frankness and total communication."

With the rise in the average age of all brides and grooms (now 29.2 and 31.7), increasingly over-scheduled lifestyles and the steep climb in dual-career marriages, many couples have become bolder about making gift preferences known _ even for marriage number two or three.

Frequently today, engaged couples already have established households, whether separately or together. Many couples know exactly what they want and don't hesitate to communicate that.

Brides and grooms are being courted by retailers offering goodies that might include special charge accounts with extra privileges, free gifts and discounts on future china purchases to fill out their patterns.

Actually, some guests never consult a registry at all and have never given the slightest thought to doing so. As Millie Bratten, editor-in-chief of Bride's magazine, says, "You are not obligated to pick something off the list. It's meant to be a useful tool."

And if you don't, they may never know exactly how much you spent.

Today's world of wedding gifts has its roots in something old but has come up with its own 1990s spin on something new:

Multiple gift registrations. No longer need couples restrict themselves to just one store. The bride and groom may hoof it to, say, Neiman Marcus for their Hungarian china, French crystal and Italian silver; to Pottery Barn for their cereal bowls and doormat; and Bed Bath & Beyond for their pillow shams, registering at all three.

Advance notice, like it or not. In the old days, guests would quietly ask a member of the family or a bridesmaid if the couple had registered and where. Today, stores such as Bloomingdale's and Michael Round Fine China & Crystal will, at the couple's request, mail announcement letters to invited guests informing them of where the couple is registered.

Time saving. Some harried guests are thrilled to order a present without leaving home. By calling an 800 number now offered by many department and specialty stores, they can select something on the couple's list and have it delivered.

Registering on the information highway. JCPenney announced earlier this year it is the first major retailer to offer online wedding registries accessible to the couple. Curious computerized couples can click on their lists daily to monitor the numbers piling up.

While twenty- and thirtysomethings on the wedding circuit are getting used to this brave new approach to gift giving, purists are horrified.

"Twenty years ago, it would have been considered extremely unseemly to register in more than two stores, and you got frowned upon for registering in the second," says Baldrige, who is finishing up her latest book, To Teach a Child to Be Kind (Rawson/Scribner). "They're registering for wine in wine stores, books in bookstores _ even for hardware and cars."

All this makes it more difficult to pass along that lovely cheese board in the navy blue box that's been knocking around the attic.

Registering for wedding gifts all began as an innocent custom probably sometime early this century. In the 1930s, a bride-to-be and her mother might put on their white gloves and walk down to the local Main Street china purveyor and record her choice of a formal china pattern, in case guests asked. The parade of popular wedding gifts in the years that followed evokes nostalgia for bygone eras: Percolators, ironing boards, crystal ashtrays, fondue pots, crock pots, woks, silver spoons, bread makers.

One positive trend in gifts in this decade is this practicality factor. Entertaining in the 1990s is not as fussy as it used to be. Not that many guests give cocktail forks or monogrammed felt card-table covers. But everyone has his or her own definition of practical.

Target, the national discount retailer based in Minneapolis, began its registry, "Club Wedd," last year.

"People will still go to department stores to get wonderful china and beautiful linen. But here at Target you can get some of that and then a lawn mower or plumbing accessories," said Carolyn Brookter, a Target spokesperson. (There was even a couple who registered for home pregnancy tests. No word yet on how many they received.)

"Practicality is the biggest trend," says Stacey Levitz, assistant public-affairs manager at Home Depot. "It's going from prissy to practical. Instead of china, I can use a toilet for my bathroom."

In a politically correct mode, some retailers are renaming the registry service to something more inclusive of the groom, such as the Wedding Registry or the Gift Registry. Bloomingdale's actually changed the official name to The Registry about 15 years ago; Tiffany & Co. still calls it the Bridal Registry.

Forward-thinking stores such as Michael Round have also added "Commitment Registries" for same-sex ceremonies. And many stores are starting special registry services for baby gifts, anniversary presents and other significant life events. (Attention newlyweds: For future reference, Toys R Us now offers a baby registry and is testing a gift registry for kids' birthday parties or other events.)

Beyond practical, there is the charitable gift. The practice of raising money for a charity instead of receiving gifts seems to be the start of an emerging trend, especially for second or third marriages.

At one wedding last year in upstate New York, the bride and groom requested that in lieu of gifts, guests donate money to their own favorite charity. Unless, that is, their friends and family were interested in chipping in for the couple's new tractor.