Gift Registries: Help or Hindrance

Posted: 26 February 2012

Some good friends of mine were married recently but when the wedding invitation arrived there was something conspicuously absent, that little card advising me of where their preferred gifts could be purchased, or instructions on how I might fund their honeymoon. There was no wedding gift registry.

I was speaking to a friend about this lack of registry and he was rather bothered by the fact that the couple had decided not to specify their gifts. My friend was even more surprised when I said that I do not even usually follow the registry when one is included, he actually thought that was rather rude.

I admit I am not a fan of gift registries; I do not like them, I rarely follow them and I would never use them. In my mind an invitation to a wedding is (or at least should be) an invitation to witness and share in the joy-filled marriage of a particular couple with whom I share some degree of friendship. When a registry card is inserted the invitation has a clause attached which is, “We like gifts, we would like you to bring a gift, and here is a list of gifts you can choose from”.

It is not that I think any less of those who opt for the registry and I understand that it makes a lot of practical sense (obviously no one wants to receive five toasters or seven dinner sets) but when a person expresses the expectation of a gift and then proceeds to put conditions on the gift to be given, the very idea of a gift is undermined!

Of its very nature a gift can only be a gift when it is freely chosen and given. One cannot ask for a gift because then it ceases to be a gift, it becomes simply an item purchased under some form of mild duress, such as possible social exclusion. A gift is something that has to be decided upon and given out of love for another, out of a desire to express to the other an affection for them.

Perhaps it helps to consider the gift registry under the guise of friendship and the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle spoke of three kinds of friendship, that of utility, pleasure and goodness. You might have a wonderful bus driver with whom you exchange polite greetings each morning but if the driver tells you he is being transferred to another bus route and you do not feel the need to ‘friend’ him on Facebook, then that is likely a friendship of utility, you pay the fare and he drives you where you need to go. You may have a friend at work who watches your favourite TV show, so each week you catch up for lunch and dissect the previous episode but if the show was taken off the air and your friendship was only one of mutual pleasure then the reason for your lunches would disappear. However a friendship based on goodness and not what benefit or pleasure I can receive is the deepest form of friendship, it lasts because the relationship is not about the characteristics or ability of another person but the person themselves.

If the humble gift registry was to be categorised under one of the above kinds of friendship, then there is only one place it would fit, and that is utility. That does not mean that those who opt for the registry are seeing all their friends through utilitarian eyes but the registry of its very nature is utilitarian. Its purpose is to ensure that (a) I get gifts and (b) they are only the gifts that I want.

One would hope that those whom one invites to their wedding, knows the couple to some degree so as to be able to thoughtfully choose a gift (if they are going to give one). If an invitee is so completely lost for an idea, then they could simply take the novel approach of asking the couple what sort of gift they would appreciate. That is very different to the couple issuing their wish list before the invitee has even responded to the invitation.

What would a parent say to a six year old who wanted to include with each invitation to his birthday party a list of the toys he wanted the other children to give him? My guess is that the parent would talk to the child about the nature of friendship and why a party is a time to celebrate with good friends, not an opportunity to build up one’s toy cupboard.

What is logical for a six year old should also be logical for two young adults. Practicality aside, friendship is too precious a commodity to be infiltrated by something as base and utilitarian as the gift registry.