I’ve always taken a dim view of wedding gift registries, on the principle that greed is bad and greed masquerading as courtesy is worse. But I relented, just for a moment, when I read about the public’s reaction after learning that Jon Meis, the Seattle Pacific University student who disarmed a killer during a school shooting, would be getting married this month. Grateful strangers not only bought up every item for which Meis and his fiancee had registered, but also donated $50,000 to pay for their honeymoon and other expenses. The upwelling of generosity was heartwarming.
Yet gift registries in general are anything but. What began in the 1920s as a way to let wedding guests discreetly find out a couple’s preferred china or silver patterns has metastasized into institutionalized avarice, crass and mechanical. It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but you’d never know it from seeing affianced couples prowling through Crate & Barrel or Macy’s, avidly zapping bar codes with handheld scanners while visions of high-end espresso machines and flat-screen TVs dance in their heads.
This odious business of registering for gifts long ago branched far beyond weddings.
“When Jordan Weinstein turned 32, he did not send out invitations, host a party, or even have a few friends over for cake,” began a recent story in The New York Times. “What he did do, however, was register for gifts at REI, the sporting goods store, and then distribute the link to his mother, fiancee, and brother to pass around.” It didn’t occur to him that there was anything sordid or gauche in doing so. “There’s this social requirement that you give a gift,” he said, “but a truly good birthday gift is hard.” And what is a “truly good” gift? As far as Weinstein is concerned, it’s one that matches “exactly what you want: the color, make, model.”
Clearly you don’t have to be a bride to think like a Bridezilla.
Everyone’s heard the arguments in defense of wedding registries. They make gift-giving easier for guests. They reduce the time newlyweds must spend returning unwanted or unneeded presents. They solve the mystery of what to get for couples already living together who have the traditional items guests might be inclined to give them. They’re convenient for out-of-town friends and relatives who may not be attending the wedding but nonetheless wish to have a gift shipped.
Some find that rationalization persuasive. I say it’s spinach.
Convenience is nice, but it doesn’t override civility and good manners. Gifts are never an entitlement. Those who give them shouldn’t be discouraged from using their own taste, judgment, and imagination. Yet registries strip the thoughtfulness from gift-giving. They are hardly more than glorified shopping lists, with other people paying the tab. What a shabby way to treat other people’s generous impulses. It’s not your thought that counts; it’s your money. Use it to buy us this stuff.
It can be hard to see this for the blatant greed it amounts to when the wedding-industrial complex blows so much smoke to argue that it isn’t. TheKnot.com, a major wedding-planning website, assures readers that they can safely ignore “wedding registry myths” that give some people qualms. For example, “Myth 7: Never register for items that are too pricey. You’ll look tacky.” (“Nothing should be off limits,” comes the response — remember that people may “chip in together so they can buy a more expensive present.”) Or “Myth 11: It’s wrong to add honeymoon activities and flat-screens to your list.” (Response: “Absolutely not. Really, it’s not . . . Don’t feel guilty or weird. Friends and family want to buy you things you’ll really use.”)
Perhaps young children, writing letters to Santa, can be indulged in compiling lists of presents they crave. Adults shouldn’t be. Part of maturing is learning that there are worse fates than being presented with a gift that isn’t “exactly what you want: the color, make, model.” Like never knowing the pleasure of receiving a gift that the giver put some thought into. Or delighting in a present that you would never have thought to ask for — but still turned out to be just perfect.Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.