This wedding season, I have already been to three different dos associated with marriages. And I made an observation in all three that has bothered me for years now. It is the general, settled tendency of gifting flower bouquets as presentation.
In India specifically, dressed up men and women enter large decorated halls or lawns with a bouquet in hand. They then queue up to meet and greet the bride and groom. When they reach the stage, they hand the bouquet over to the couple, awkwardly get themselves snapped, and walk towards the food section. All nice and easy. The problem? It feels entirely random and illogical to me.
Gifting a decorated bunch of flowers that none of the members of the family of the bride or the groom are ever going to look at and appreciate feels like a useless gesture even if the giver is credited for the thought of gifting rather than choosing to just go handsfree. It may have been considered auspicious – to gift flowers to someone you love and respect – but it lags behind, right at the bottom of the list of things that you can gift two people about to start a life together.
So, here are my arguments against the idea and why I think we need to stop doing it. If you are interested, I also have some alternative marriage gifting ideas at the end. But before that, here’s some history.
History of Gifting Flowers
As with every origin stories, tracing the history of flowers as a gift is difficult.
The usage of flowers as a show of love and/or respect dates back to the Victorian era. While the Greeks associated them with the gods, aristocratic Victorians used it as a legible form of expression (known as floriography) when verbal communication was restricted (early eighteenth century). According to Romie Scott, through Atlas Obscura, in the 19th century, people even had flower dictionaries to decode what a specific set of flowers from a person meant. For example, gifting a basil bouquet would mean expressing hate.
But history of flowers as something that you can give to someone alive or dead dates back to at least 70,000 years ago. Owen Edwards, writing for the Smithsonian Magazine, quotes an anthropologist and says that flowers were seen in burial grounds of the Neanderthals (i.e. in the last Ice Age). Therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong to state that flowers were associated more with death than joy or harmony or, in this context, matrimony. There’s no explanation why that was the case then same as how no one can explain currently why people choose to gift a bouquet of white lilies (associated with funerals) or pink roses or daffodils instead of an envelope filled with cash. Or a home decor item. Or a painting.
Is it because it is the easy way out? Rajeev’s engagement? Is it tonight? We’ll get a posy on the way. Maybe. But then how difficult it is to buy a pack of assorted chocolates?
What Effect Do Flowers Have On Us?
The only sensible reason for gifting a bouquet, according to Penn State University’s Master Gardener Carolyn Black, is the therapeutic effect that flowers have on us.(The Joy of Giving Flowers – Carolyn Black, PennState Extension, 11 July 2012 – archived link) They have been proven to make us feel good both with their sight and smell, as was found through a series of studies made through 2005 by Professor of Psychology Jeannette Haviland-Jones and her husband Terry McGuire, Professor of Genetics, of the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University. In one of those studies, Haviland-Jones gave participants one of three things as a thank-you gift for participating. They were a floral bouquet, a decorative candle, and a fruit basket. She found that the participants who received the bouquet responded with the ‘Duchenne smile’, known as the true smile (or ‘smizing’) because it involves the mouth, the cheeks, and the eyes. The other two options gave rise to duller responses; whereas those who received the floral bouquet claimed to be feeling happier than their counterparts even three days after the program. The analysis elicits something deeper about our relationship with flowers.Researchers Jeannette Haviland-Jones and husband Terry McGuire explain why flowers may be potent mood elevators. (Flower Power – Rutgers Magazine, Leslie Garisto Pfaff, 2010)
McGuire, through his analysis in microbiology, concluded that humans and flowers are into coevolution. It means that both humans and flowers evolve in response to changes in each other. We help flowers multiply through gardening and they give back pleasure, one of the key things necessary for human survival. They also help reduce stress. There is also some evidence showing that we humans just feel good about flowers because some of them are precursor of fruit (as argued by conservationist Edward O Wilson), their odour and colour, and their symmetrical shapes and patterns.Researchers Jeannette Haviland-Jones and husband Terry McGuire explain why flowers may be potent mood elevators. (Flower Power – Rutgers Magazine, Leslie Garisto Pfaff, 2010) It is also worth noting that the flower code of the Victorian era may have also contributed to our friendly relationship with the flowers as well as the superstitious symbolism that some of us still follow including country-specific notations. Did I mention lilies are linked to funeralsWhite lilies represent purity and can be construed as return to innocence in death. (How Flower-Obsessed Victorians Encoded Messages in Bouquets – Romie Scott, Atlas Obscura, 15 August 2016) and yellow flowers given to women signal a desire for a divorce?
This series of studies on mood, further advanced through iterations and analyses by the duo, gives substantial evidence to explain that flowers may act as powerful mood elevators. As a corollary of the study that I would like to add here, it also showed that a basket of fruits (perfect as a gift for pregnant people) and a decorative candle have lesser appeal than flowers. So, at least flower givers are placed higher on the list of thoughtful gifters and a bouquet, after all, is not as useless I stress it to be. But there’s another problem.
Why Is Floral Bouquet a Bad Gift Idea?
No one has the time to look at a bouquet of flowers during the slightly chaotic proceedings of a typical Indian wedding. There is so much at stake for everyone attending these events that bouquets are not on anyone’s area of focus. And, as we just found out, you have to look at the flowers (or at least acknowledge their presence) to receive stress-busting, feelgood, gratification.
Unfortunately, I have never observed floral bouquets being carried and taken along with other gifts after the ceremony. They usually are stashed at the backside of the dais until the housekeeping staff come in to clean up the mess for the next wedding. There are exceptions, I know, but when there is less space in the boot of the family cars, bouquets are the first item to be thrown to the bin. Then comes wall clocks and photo frames with ‘FAMILY’ written on them.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to the idea of gifting a red rose to a person you love to show your affection or as an apology. Even though it does sound habitual to me, it is a fine gesture and one that I’m told fares well if you are on a date (but make sure you follow it up with an avocado toast though). In case of it as a wedding gift, I’m only testing it as something that would give utility to the receiver. Which it doesn’t.
But what to do when you do receive them? The wise and the only thing to do when you receive a flower bouquet is to take it home, remove the flowers from the sponge base, put them in a vase, and use them as home decor for a few days. However, most of us are terrible with fresh flowers and that is another reason why bouquet gifting is a bad idea.
But if you are wild, there’s another thing you can do that I was told is a welcome idea amongst women. If you ever find yourself at the receiving end of a bouquet of red roses, this is what you can do. Take it home, pull out the flowers, remove the petals, put them in a bucket with lukewarm running water, and take a bath. Don’t ask me who’ll clean the bathroom afterwards but at least those flowers died for your and your skin’s happiness.
The slight difficulty in discarding also prevents people from fully taking in and enjoying the therapeutic power of a bouquet. It takes up space, and after a few days, you have to discard it. Otherwise, the odour emanating from them can end up having a negative effect on you.
Why Is It Still Popular?
As mentioned above, it is perhaps the most convenient gifting idea for any occasion. Stop the car at a florist en route to a function, grab a readymade bouquet, and you are sorted. It is also why busy people almost always choose to gift a bouquet rather than make an effort to buy something more personal.
It shows that you care to not arrive handsfree but still thoughtful enough to have brought something along. No one complains unless someone starts writing a critical article about their habit which they have only learned from their elders and culture.
Another reason is the idea that people like to gift what they would like to receive themselves. They don’t much think about the person who will receive it and their interests. I would love to receive a bouquet of chrysanthemums so why won’t Manoj and Rakhee? This is all the more true for weddings because in most cases you only know either the bride or the groom. And even if you know one of them, how much do you know about their desires? (I often gift books to people without realizing that they are not interested in reading.)
It is also the safest gift to give. No harm done. You are neither silently accused of coming emptyhanded nor are judged for your taste in gifts. There’s nothing that can go wrong unless you decide to gift a chocolate bouquet, in which case I am going to report you to the police. There is nothing more ghastly than a chocolate bouquet even if it contains Ferrero Rocher globes. It’s absolutely unaesthetic. A preserved flower bouquet makes more sense to me then but it still has problems associated with fresh flowers.(31 Gifts For Every Type of Host – The Strategist, The New York Magazine, 15 November 2019)
I agree that it is better to gift a bouquet rather than going emptyhanded, especially if the invitation card mentions ‘no gifts please’. It’s slightly awkward to go in without anything even though you are supposed to be the most important people in any function as you are invited to congratulate the hosts. In case of a wedding, you as a guest are invited to congratulate and greet them. There’s actually nothing to feel awkward about but you still feel so.
Although more and more people are embracing the idea of giftless functions and unenthusiastically exploring wedding gift registries (led by millennials)(Why wedding gift registries are gaining popularity among millennials – Geetika Mantri, The News Minute, 27 September 2019) it is still a topic that puts invitees into anxiety. I was at a wedding reception at Powai in Mumbai recently where the hosts had specifically asked us not to bring any presentation. Since we went in groups of families, we automatically destroyed the awkwardness. At the function, I still found a lot many people carrying bouquets. At the end, I still found them stashed behind the stage.
Moreover, even if the person you are gifting the flowers is good with handling and utilizing them, the happiness stays only for a few days. Unlike a more solid physical gift, flowers are not permanent. I would even go ahead and say that they are less memorable than a pack of chocolates.
But to reiterate the most important point, a floral bouquet as a gift does not give prolonged joy to a person. It’s effect is short-lived, however powerful. The possibility of alternatives makes it less thoughtful and more of a waste of money if you consider the high cost of flowers these days. For instance, compare it with a wall clock, one of the most common wedding gift items in India. A couple will use a clock at some point in their life even if it does not match their home’s palette or decor. This usually is followed by a quick discussion about who gifted it. This was gifted by Vikas for our fifth wedding anniversary. I think it was thoughtful of him because we had just moved to a new house. Or they’ll choose to regift it. With flower bouquets, neither is possible.
The point I’m trying to make is that it is high time we stop following the tradition of gifting floral bouquets and instead focus on more useful alternatives like those listed below. I like to think of it like this: it only satisfies the roadside florist that you decided to get the bouquet from. It neither projects you as a kind giver nor does it help the receiver bust their stress because of the dynamics found in such a crowded setting. It is time to accept that all the bouquets presented at a wedding reception end up in the nearest garbage bin. If nothing else, it is poor action on them by their evolution partners, us.
If you are still so mopey about bouquets, here’s an exception: they go well for housewarming dos. Hosts will enjoy a pack of flowers which will elevate the mood of the new house at least for a few days. But when you think about its alternatives, it still comes last on the list of modern wedding gift ideas.
Alternative Wedding Gift Ideas
As someone who has refrained from gifting bouquets for all my adult life, here are a few suggestions. These are not suitable for Secret Santa, another event that gives people anxiety, or so they say.
Cash in an Envelope
Another of the oldest gifting ideas, giving hard cash has maintained its status as the most useful gift for middle- and upper-middle class functions. Wedding costs money, and giving cash just shows that you have chipped in a little to help the couple start a new life.
Invest on elegant envelopes to add to the glamour. Enclose a note to make it more memorable and personal.
A case of Ferrero Rocher chocolates (also because they sell at discounted prices at DMart) has been my trademark gift of choice for soirees, engagement dos, and other small functions. I pack it nicely using a wrapping paper and pass it on without the traditional wish tag. I instead slide a note under the wrapping which often includes an NSFW message for the couple. If the host is health-conscious, there are nutritious chocolates and candies available too.
Whatever type of chocolate you chose, make sure you wrap it. No one likes to receive a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk with its bare brand covering.
Wedding Registry Items
If it’s a close friend, you can suggest them the idea of gift registries which are slowly becoming popular among Indians as well. You tie up with an online service provider like Wedding Wishlist, Zibonga, or Wishtry and create a list of items that you would like across a specific range. Send the list to your potential guests. They either buy and mark it on the list or buy it through the provider. This ensures you get only those stuff that you really want. No wall clocks, photo frames, or kitchen utensils.
The logistics involved in these providers are a bit complex. I would therefore recommend creating an Amazon wishlist and sharing it with friends. Thankfully, Wedding Wishlist already has Amazon India as a partner.
But then another hurdle here is the question of how you will share the link as well as the idea of ‘asking’ for gifts.(Why wedding gift registries are gaining popularity among millennials – Geetika Mantri, The News Minute, 27 September 2019) What about those baby boomers who don’t use smartphones? It’s tricky but a cool idea if it’s a small event with friends and family only.
This is not a personal favourite because it is like forcing someone to pay for a social cause. But having the option to do so for a cause that the married couple care about is a good idea. You can be sure that it will make them feel good.
Movie Gift Cards
Both BookMyShow (both electronic and physical cards; up to INR 10,000) and INOX (only electronic; up to INR 2,000) have gift cards that you can purchase. These cards usually have a validity of 12 months which is enough for a couple to move out of their post-wedding bliss period and start watching midnight shows together followed by dessert at Naturals, the only place to enjoy ice creams today. PVR gift cards (both electronic and physical cards; up to INR 1,000) are also recommended.
I have also seen people gifting Zomato Gold subscriptions but I wouldn’t recommend it due to my personal issues with the brand.
For your upper class friends, an all-paid stay at premium places in and around their city will be a great idea. This follows the ‘gift an experience’ fad. The Machan in Lonavala or Anchaviyo and Silent Hills resorts in Palghar are personal favourites and good recommendations.
If you are high on gifting experiences, a city darshan or an intercity trip are also good ideas. But again, the logistics involved will make it tricky. And, the timelines should also match.
Stuff Related to Matrimony
I recently read and liked Dr. Mahinder Watsa’s nonfiction sex-ed book It’s Normal. Since then I have gifted it to a close friend who is about to get married and promised it to another married friend. It is a good resource for Indian couples starting a new life as it debunks a lot of misconceptions about sex. Since no one likes to talk about it in open, a book that they can read in their privacy will help.
If your friends are not into reading, suggestions like sex toys (although illegal in India, are available) and other routine products, naughty board games, and wardrobe collections are always useful.
Gift a Part of the Wedding
If you are close to the couple, you can suggest contributing for the wedding. This is opposed to the idea of gifting cash.
If your friend has been sharing wedding planning details with you, why not suggest helping them out with one of the items? Hey Mahesh, I’ll take care of the music at your wedding reception. I know a Gujarati lady who’s a very good disco jockey. It’s on me as your wedding gift. It will never go unthanked.
I know that none of these ideas are novel but all I know is that they are all better than the age-old habit of gifting a flower bouquet. TN.
|↑1||(The Joy of Giving Flowers – Carolyn Black, PennState Extension, 11 July 2012 – archived link)|
|↑2, ↑3||Researchers Jeannette Haviland-Jones and husband Terry McGuire explain why flowers may be potent mood elevators. (Flower Power – Rutgers Magazine, Leslie Garisto Pfaff, 2010)|
|↑4||White lilies represent purity and can be construed as return to innocence in death. (How Flower-Obsessed Victorians Encoded Messages in Bouquets – Romie Scott, Atlas Obscura, 15 August 2016)|
|↑5||(31 Gifts For Every Type of Host – The Strategist, The New York Magazine, 15 November 2019)|
|↑6, ↑7||(Why wedding gift registries are gaining popularity among millennials – Geetika Mantri, The News Minute, 27 September 2019)|
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