Anniversary Gifts: From Medieval Wreaths to Modern Getaways
It is not entirely clear when the custom of anniversary gifting began. However, early records show that marriage ceremonies and contracts were in existence four millennia ago – as far back as in ancient Mesopotamia. At the time, marriage was a contract aimed at the preservation of power and maintaining alliances. The contracts also helped people acquire land and bring forth a new generation.
Marriage in Ancient Times
Marriage was a civil affair in ancient Rome. However, these agreements fell under the rule of Imperial Law. Upon the collapse of the Roman Empire, the church took over. Thus, these agreements became a matter of holy unions.
But back then, it was uncommon for marriage to take place on the basis of love. People believed that love was a weak emotion. Thus, basing an agreement on it would lead to the demise of the marriage contract. Marriage was, therefore, undergone to serve other purposes - such as the bearing of children and unification of power.
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Take the example of ancient Greece - they valued love; however inheritance was more important. Thus, when a woman’s father died without heirs to his name, it was up to her to ensure that the inheritance remained protected. She would marry her closest male relative to ensure this, regardless of her current marital situation.
Fragment from the front of a sarcophagus showing a Roman marriage ceremony. (CC BY SA 4.0) Inheritance was valued over love in marriage decisions.
It was not until the Enlightenment period that people began to perceive marriage in a different light. It was during this time that people started to appreciate love as a contributor to these unions. Marriage ceased to be about status and wealth, but rather, it extended into human emotions. This notion continued into the Industrial Revolution. With the rising of a middle class, it became clear that the concept of marriage was about to change.
The Earliest Known Anniversary Gifts
There are no clear records describing exactly when gifting began to be associated with wedding anniversaries. However, in Medieval Germany husbands would gift their wives with silver wreaths on their 25th anniversaries. On their 50th anniversaries, they would gift them with gold wreaths.
These traditions continued over time, such that by the start of the 20th century, it was standard for couples to offer each other gifts. When it comes to anniversary gifts, you will find that people try to stay in line with these traditions. Though they may veer a little from the norm, there will be a traditional touch to the item of choice. Paper, wood, tin, crystal, china, silver, gold, and diamond are some of the standard gifts.
By the start of the 20th century, it was standard for couples to offer each other gifts. (Public Domain)
Why these Materials?
One might wonder why someone would choose a certain kind of material over another to signify a milestone. Take paper as an example. Why would people have it symbolize one year of marriage? Well, the thinking behind the materials is somewhat mystical in that nobody knows for sure why people chose them.
However, the idea is that more durable gifts such as diamond were a way to signify a solid bond that could not break with ease. These gifts were a testament to the hardiness of the marriage. If the couple was able to weather many storms in their marriage and come out triumphant, then the occasion befitted a durable item.
A couple in the 14th century document called the ‘Manesse Codex.’ (Public Domain)
Paper: For the first year of marriage, this is the go-to material. It is fragile as it has not undergone many trials, as is the case with most unions at this point. To many people, it is a clean slate on which to write the future. This compares to gold - the ultimate symbol of lifelong love that represents wisdom and strength. It is ideal for 50 years of marriage.
Paper is fickle. It tears easily, and that is characteristic of many marriages in the early stages. The couple is yet to bond stably, and the relationship is still young. When you look at it in this manner, the reasoning behind the gifts starts to make all the more sense.
If you would like to know more about the materials and the ideas behind the pairings of traditional anniversary gifts with the age of a marriage, take a look at Funk & Wagnalls ‘ Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend’. In these writings, you can see the evolution of gift-giving over the centuries.
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The Middle Ages
The first mention of anniversary gifts started in the middle ages in the Germanic regions of central Europe. At that time, the wife would get a silver wreath from her husband once they had been married for 25 years. Silver was a symbol of harmony, which represented the couple staying together even when times were rough.
When the couple had been married for five decades, the wife would receive a gold wreath. At the time, these precious metals were quite pricey and it is highly likely that only the rich were able to keep up with the traditions.
Golden wreath of ivy, Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne. (Carole Raddato/CC BY SA 2.0)
These set precedents continued through the years. That is why you will come across people talking about silver and golden wedding anniversaries, as these names heavily borrow from the gifts in play. In the Middle Ages, there were no other milestones denoted by gift-giving, and it was not until later that people began to mark other such occasions.
The Victorian Era
Around the 1800s, people began to celebrate more occasions as there was a need for the same. Thus, wood became the material of choice for fifth wedding anniversaries and diamond became the go-to for 75 years of marriage. Thus, the diamond anniversary came into being in 1875.
But later, the Queen of the British Empire, Queen Victoria, marked her 60th year on the throne as her Diamond Jubilee in 1897. After that, people began to celebrate 60-year wedding anniversaries with diamonds.
Queen Victoria at St. Paul's Cathedral on Diamond Jubilee Day. (Public Domain)
Gretchen Scoble and Ann Field shed much light on the evolution of anniversary gifts in the Victorian Era in their book ‘The Meaning of Wedding Anniversaries’. They look into the Victorians’ love of cataloguing, and from this, they decipher that they would be the first people to try and classify ancient customs. In so doing, they were able to come up with prescribed lists for various anniversaries.
The Victorian Era was also the period of “the love match” - where people started believing in love as the main reason to get and stay married. Conservatives were skeptical of this approach, but over time, it became clear that love and commitment was the way to go for a couple to be happy in their marriage.
Thus, giving gifts was seen as a way to encourage a couple to seek happiness from each other. It was also a means to congratulate them for how far they had come. Stephanie Coontz, who wrote ‘Marriage, a History,’ states that though the love match was much of a destabilizer in the traditional ways of life, it gave rise to a new era of gift-giving.
As time went by, it became common for people to hear about silver and gold wedding anniversaries. This popularity was quite a change from the past, when the English would consider these milestones as German or Dutch traditions. As more German books got into the market with translations in tow, English-speaking readers were able to see that silver and golden wedding anniversaries were a great idea. And one enjoyed by all social classes.
There were many books about gift-giving on anniversaries, and 'Peasant Life in Germany' was one of the popular ones. This travel book went into detail about how a wife would have a silver wreath and her husband would wear something of the same material, perhaps a buckle, on their silver wedding anniversary.
However, you will find that in most cases, the emphasis was not on the husband, but the wife. An excellent example of this would be Richard Wagner, a German composer. He stated that his wife received a silver wreath on their wedding anniversary. She proceeded to send some silver leaves his way to mark the memorable occasion. The couple would wear the gifts during the festivities and would, therefore, enjoy the pure affections they had as a young man and woman. There was a positive impact on marriages when people abided by these traditions.
Though the love match was fast gaining popularity, traditional roles in the family were still firm. Thus, people believed that for a couple to get to the silver or golden anniversaries, it was out of the woman’s hard work. When they presented gifts to the woman, it was out of recognition of this effort. Over time, the presents became a way to signify the good fortune that had graced the couple’s marriage. They also pointed to the harmony that existed between the two.
Anniversary Gifts in the Twentieth Century
Around this time, people had grown accustomed to the art of gift-giving on weddings and anniversaries, and it was therefore not a new world to them. Emily Post embarked on a journey which saw her write a book entitled ‘Blue Book of Social Usage’. At the time, people marked few anniversaries, namely the silver and the golden.
But with her book in the market, people began to view other milestones as being fit for celebration and thus, in addition to those two, six more anniversaries were added. They were the first, fifth, 10th, 15th, 20th and 75th. The latter was not all that new as it has been there in the Victorian Era.
In her book, she stated that there was a need for symbolism for the first 15 years, followed by increments of five years. Others later used the list she put down in the making of the comprehensive guides that we have to date. If you were to look up anniversary gift ideas, your screen would be awash with tons of suggestions thanks to Emily Post’s groundwork.
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Traditional anniversary gifts for the first five years of marriage. (Author provided)
The American National Retailer Jeweler Association came into the picture in 1937 when they released a comprehensive anniversary gift list. In doing so, they stated the appropriate gifts for each year, leading to the 20th, and for every five after that. Funny enough, they skipped the 65th anniversary but went on to the 75th. The gifts increased in value over the years, signifying an increase in the stability of the relationship.
Their gifts were not only ornamental but also functional, with examples being clocks and desk sets. What’s more, there was more variety in the selection. For example, you could opt for jewelry or flowers for these special events.
Though we may never know how and when anniversary gifting began, it is clear that this tradition is one that has positively impacted marriages across the globe. And many people view it as a valuable precedent to pass down to subsequent generations.
Top Image: An ancient gift. Credit: kharchenkoirina / Adobe Stock
By John Bradley
Coontz, S. (2006). Marriage, A History. In S. Coontz, Marriage, A History. Penguin Publishing Group.
Leach, M., & Fried, J. (1949). Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. In M. Leach, & J. Fried, Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Funk & Wagnalls.
Post, E. (1947). Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. In E. Post, Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage. New York, Funk & Wagnalls Company.
Scoble, G., Field, A., & Francesca, Z. (2003). The Meaning of Wedding Anniversaries. In G. Scoble, A. Field, & Z. Francesca, The Meaning of Wedding Anniversaries. Chronicle Books.