Traditional and Modern Engagement Gifts

An invitation to a party should not be considered a solicitation for a gift by any participant—the host, guests of honor, or other guests. People have been invited to share in a celebration. The gifts they bring are happiness and good wishes for the engaged couple. If they feel moved to express those feelings with tangible gifts, they are welcome to do so but by no means should they be expected.

Traditional Engagement Gifts

Traditionally, engagement gifts came from close family members and the closest of friends, while other well-wishers waited to send presents for the actual wedding occasion.

A couple’s first engagement party was traditionally a family affair and an opportunity for the parents to bestow a treasured family heirloom on their soon-to-be-married child or the child’s intended partner. The children already knew the history of the heirloom or learned it at the party (“This is the brooch your great-great-grandfather gave your great-great-grandmother Emily on their wedding day.”) and even if the items had little monetary value the emphasis was on sentiment and, possibly, tradition (“Your great-grandmother Emily, wore the brooch on her wedding day, as did your grandmother Emily, and your mother Emily.”). There could even be an implied or direct request regarding the item (“You should wear the brooch on your wedding day and pass it along to your oldest daughter, who of course you will name Emily.”). Whether or not that request was honored was entirely up to the couple.

Modern Engagement Gifts

Perhaps fewer families have family heirlooms. Perhaps fewer families are confident that a marriage will last and would rather wait to pass along the heirlooms at a more prudent time. Perhaps modern parents know that modern engaged couples will do or not do as they please, regardless of the sentimental value of wearing great-great-grandmother Emily’s ugly brooch for the wedding ceremony.

In any case, nowadays the phrase “engagement gift” has a completely different set of connotations. The gift giver needn’t be a relative. The gift most likely is not an heirloom, though it could have sentimental value. And it is not necessarily given at the first engagement party. An engagement gift can be given by anyone, anytime, and be nearly anything.

The one thing it is not: required.

When selecting an engagement gift, keep in mind the couple’s likes, dislikes, and present status in life. A couple with a tiny apartment would have to decline a large gift like a piano or long sofa. A couple that met in their early 30s may have already accumulated all the kitchen appliances they could ever want. In fact, it is sometimes easier to figure out what not to give a couple than what to give them.

In a few months, the engaged couple might create a wedding registry, which will be very helpful for people wishing to send wedding gifts, but there is no such thing as an engagement registry. (The closest thing to this is perhaps a well-intentioned relative of the couple, who could be asked what the couple might need or want.)

Rather than fret over it too much, abide by a simple rule of gift giving: If you don’t know what they like, you can at least guess what they might need—and if possible provide a return receipt.

An engaged couple will soon be in need of wedding advice (books such as Bridal Bargains, Simple Stunning Weddings, or The Knot Ultimate Wedding Planner, or a magazine subscription to Modern Bride, Brides, or Martha Stewart Weddings). Depending on the wedding’s budget, the couple might be overjoyed at an offer to help finance the celebration (pay for the reception’s band or DJ, pay a local salon for pampering the bride or perhaps the bride and her maid of honor, or host a next-day brunch for out-of-town guests, etc.). They also may appreciate help keeping their sense of humor—wedding planning can be very stressful—so consider giving tickets to a fun event or a movie gift card with a suggested list of rentals (The Wedding Planner, Wedding Crashers, etc.).

And no matter what it is sent, the engaged couple should be delighted and surprised. After all, very few people send engagement presents.

Engagement Gift Timing

The best time to give an engagement gift is during a private moment with the couple, if possible. When a few guests bring gifts to an engagement party, the guests who did not bring a gift may feel awkward. To prevent any hurt feelings, one of the people greeting guests should be in charge of whisking any gifts away to a safe place, out of sight, and in case there is no card attached (or least the card fall off), this same person should make a note of who brought which package. This will help the engaged couple immensely as they prepare to write thank-you notes.

Avoiding Engagement Gifts

Some engaged couples do not want gifts. They either already have everything they currently need (as couples wait longer to marry, this tends to be the case), prefer to select things which fit their own style, already own a dozen teakettles and don’t know what to do with another, or simply don’t have any room in their living space.

The best way to avoid engagement gifts is to announce the engagement at the party—as a surprise to the guests—rather than display the information on the invitation. Some party guests may feel moved to send the couple a present of congratulations after the party, but many people will forget or decide to wait and just send a wedding present.

In modern times, many couples have tried to avoid the accumulation of presents by offering other gifting options. This can be sticky. How can the couple tell people what they’d like to do without seeming like they are soliciting gifts? The most discreet way seems to be adding a note to the couple’s wedding registry. (“Please, Harriet and George have already been blessed with so many nice things, they would prefer guests make a donation to a favorite charity rather than receive anything tangible. Your kind wishes are the best gifts of all.”) The registry itself can contain the few items the couple might still like to have, but to emphasize the truth in their note, that registry should be kept extremely short.

Gifts from the Engaged Couple

A sweet and thoughtful gesture is for the engaged couple to make a present to the people hosting any engagement parties. The gifts can be given in advance—a beautiful centerpiece, a case of wine, or something that helps prepare the host for the party—or a few days afterwards accompanying a post-party thank-you letter. The gifts should not be brought to the actual engagement party. The host will be so occupied with the party, the gift might not even be noticed. Also, a public exchange of gifts in front of people who might not receive or give gifts is bound to make others feel awkward.