Royal wedding: What's the point of a gift list?

By Katie Fraser
BBC News


Prince William and Kate Middleton have asked their wedding guests to donate money to charity rather than buy them a present. But while they are following the lead of other modern couples, the wedding list continues to thrive, even if today it is often more about upgrading material goods.

Toaster, crockery, cutlery, towels and bed linen. All of these are staple items on the typical British wedding list.

Selected by the engaged couple, who traditionally would have been moving straight from the parental home, the list is made up of household items that required for their first home together. Wedding guests can then choose something from it to buy the couple as a gift.

Part of the logic behind such lists was to reduce the chances of newlyweds opening their presents to discover nine kettles, mismatching sheets and pillowcases but no pots and pans.

Today the gift list is an established part of the British wedding ritual. However, some modern-day couples now opt for a different route, asking guests to contribute to a honeymoon fund or to donate money to a charity of their choice.

Doubling up

For those who do have a list, the idea of dictating what your guests should offer as a gift can seem impolite. Few people would dream of doing the same for a birthday party.

But as is clear from visiting major department stores that have dedicated wedding list departments, there is demand for such a service. There are also specialist shops and websites that cater for the guests of brides- and grooms-to-be.

Even Prince William's parents had a wedding list at the Chelsea-based General Trading Company. As Princess Diana said at the time: "We've got two houses to fill."

Indeed, one unconfirmed report in the Sunday Times said William and Kate Middleton themselves had a traditional wedding list, as well as their charities list, but for close friends and family only.

It is not just about ensuring that no-one doubles up on presents. Wedding magazine editor Catherine Westwood reckons guests actually prefer to be told what to buy.

"People do want to buy you a present and it's better to say what you want rather than a random selection which is a waste of their money," she says. "Going off-list is definitely not to be encouraged. It's rarely a good thing."

According to the Office for National Statistics, about 2.2 million unmarried couples in the UK live together. Not all of these have any intention of walking down the aisle, but with the prevailing trend these days for cohabitation before marriage, can the wedding list of old be justified? After all, most couple who live together before tying the knot will have amassed all the home essentials already.

Yet the character of a typical wedding list, according to online retailer Marriage Gift List, betrays little that is different from a list of 50 years ago. Toasters, cutlery and cookware all figure highly This seems to be the case among other retailers. Top of Debenhams's list are Le Creuset pots and pans.

One reason for this choice of very conventional items is that couples may have their own, less expensive homeware but see their wedding as an opportunity to improve what they have. Gift-list manager Vanessa Besant, from John Lewis, says that whereas couples once asked for two sets of things like crockery "for best and everyday", they now tend to have one.

"[The wedding list] is an ideal way for people to upgrade. They can co-ordinate all their kitchen now, from china to kitchen utensils. They can match things up in one colour," she says.

Burgeoning selflessness

In contrast to earlier generations, these days people are choosing to get married later in life. They may already have upgraded their belongings and therefore decide not to take the traditional wedding-list route. Instead, some opt - as the royal couple have - for charity donations.

The NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) is one cause that has made the most of this burgeoning selflessness.

image captionHow much china does one couple need?

In 2007 it launched the campaign Celebrate and Give to make it easier for those getting married or holding other celebrations to donate. Last year, it raised £32,000 in this way from wedding donations.

Luke Pickering, one of the charity's fundraisers, thinks people "want to do something good" for others on their big day.

"They feel it's a nice way to donate money to a charity, as you're giving up the opportunity to receive the gifts that you could have had," he says.

Catherine Westwood is not convinced, despite people's best intentions, that this is a good idea. She says: "The amount of money that they would actually spend on charity would be considerably less than what they'd spend on a present. People don't feel as happy spending money on a faceless charity as giving someone they love an actual gift.

"As much as we'd like to be altruistic and give all to charity, people still need things."

Another option for those who feel they have everything they need at home, is a contribution to their honeymoon. In this way, guests can be giving something to the happy couple themselves.

This has becoming increasingly popular with specialist companies offering honeymoon experiences such as white-water-rafting or a meal in a certain restaurant.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Catherine Westwood believes that, alongside asking people for hard cash - which would once have been seen as totally unacceptable but is now much less so - this puts people in an awkward position.

"There's something that appeals to the British sense of decorum and modesty, not appearing to be putting people under obligation to give you something."

Despite these different forms of offerings, the traditional gift list looks set to stay as part of the whole wedding ritual as people celebrate the marriages of loved ones.

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