When Nathen and I were planning our wedding I remember feeling pulled between the “rational” sense that putting money and effort into throwing a big party was wasteful and the “irrational” desire to create and participate in this mysterious human ritual called a wedding. I was reminded of this by a book called The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
My friend Katie recommended the book in a conversation about art-making: I said that my primary motivation for making quilts had to do with giving them away. Apparently the book proposes the idea that art is first and foremost part of a gift economy, which piqued my interest. I’m only a few chapters in; so far the book is more generally about the role of gifts in various cultures. Here’s a sample:
Woody Allen used to tell a joke at the end of his stand-up routine: he would take a watch from his pocket, check the time, and then say, “It’s an old family heirloom. [Pause] My grandfather sold it to me on his deathbed.” The joke works because market exchange will always seem inappropriate on the threshold. […] A man who would buy and sell at a moment of change is one who cannot or will not give up, and if the passage in inevitable, he will be torn apart. […] Threshold gifts protect us from such death.
There is a story in the Babylonian Talmud of a man whose astrologers told him that his daughter would not survive her marriage. She would, they prophesied, be bitten by a snake and die on her wedding day. As the story goes, on the night before her wedding the girl happened to hang her brooch up by sticking its pin into a hole in the wall where it pierced the eye of a serpent. When she took the brooch down in the morning, the snake came trailing after it. Her father asked if any act of hers could account for her having so luckily avoided her fate. “A poor man came to our door yesterday evening,” she replied. “Everybody was busy at the banquet, and there was none to attend to him. So I took the portion that was given to me and gave it to him.” “You have done a good deed,” her father said, and he went about thereafter lecturing that “charity delivereth from death.” And, the Talmud adds, “not merely from an unnatural death, but from death itself.” The astrologers had predicted that the daughter would not survive the passage from maiden to wife, but she does survive through an act of spontaneous generosity; she has the right spirit on the day of her wedding. … a moment of change is guarded by the giving of gifts.
Economists tend to think of gift-giving as either wasteful – as in Joel Waldfogel’s Scroogonomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays – or as serving a fairly narrow signalling function – as Steve Levitt says in the Christmas episode of the Freakonomics podcast, “The very best gifts not only show someone that you know and care about them, but they actually demonstrate that you know more about them than they know about themselves”. The myths and folk tales Hyde recounts in The Gift hint at deeper group meanings and functions. He talks about gift-giving as primarily circular in many cultures, involving three or more parties and even a prescribed direction (clockwise from island to island). He talks about gifts as a vital force that cannot be hoarded towards future wealth but instead “must be eaten” and/or passed on in order to remain a true gift.
I remember how putting together our wedding registry brought up anxieties about the (ir)rationality and possible greediness of asking for gifts; we’d already had our own households for years, after all, and we were living in a tiny trailer. I did it anyway because of course it was fun, and because it seemed more efficient to make a list than to leave people guessing.
Opening gifts after the wedding was very moving, for a lot of reasons. I was surprised by how much people had given us – things we’d asked for, beautiful handmade things, and cash.
In her fantastic book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert describes Laotian wedding-gift culture this way:
When a Laotian couple is about to get married, they send invitation cards to each guest. The guests take these original invitation cards (with their names and addresses on them), fold the cards into the shape of a small envelope, and stick some money inside. On the wedding day, all these envelopes go into a giant wooden box. This immense donation is the money with which the couple will begin their new life together… Later, when the wedding party is over, the bride and groom sit up all night and count the money. While the groom counts, the bride sits with a notebook, writing down exactly how much money was given by each guest, so that the exact amount (plus a little for interest and inflation) will be returned as a gift to the original giver on his/her wedding day. The wedding money, then, is not really a gift. It’s an exhaustively catalogued and ever-shifting loan, circulating from one family to the next as each new couple starts a life together (140).
I think that Hyde would say that the Laotian practice is gift-giving, just not the kind we’re used to. Plus a little for interest and inflation is a key phrase. Hyde says that the gift necessarily grows in value with each giving, and “moves towards the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns towards him who has been empty-handed the longest.” Of course the book is in part a lament against capitalism, so he isn’t saying it necessarily works that way today, in this culture. Yet sometimes it does.
Despite being 30 at the time of my wedding, and arguably already an adult for some time, I felt initiated into something by those wedding gifts. I continue to feel what Hyde calls “the burden of gratitude,” a pull to pay forward some measure of what we received.