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Quirky alternatives to the gift registry

Gift registry rebels bestow offers of surfing lessons, legal aid, and stunt kites

When Anuj Nayar shops for wedding gifts, his thoughts turn not to flatware or ice-cream makers, but to the gift of time. Paid lawyer time, to be exact.

"It's to get all the logistics for wills, name changes, etcetera, sorted out," said Nayar, 34, a public relations manager and former Bostonian now based in San Francisco. The way he sees it, avoiding a couple's wedding registry altogether is the gift that keeps on giving.

"Trust me, it's a pain to try and make the thank-you letter that starts with 'Thank you for the cup, saucer, two wine glasses, and fish knife' sound sincere," he says. " 'Thank you for helping us get off to a great start in our married life by helping us traverse the legal minefield that we stepped into the moment we got off the plane at the end of our honeymoon' is so much better."

The complaints against wedding registries are well-sung: they're impersonal, they're unnecessary in an age of premarital cohabitation, they indulge a couple's darkest consumerist impulses. They're also big business. According to wedding website TheKnot.com , guests spend $19 billion on registry gifts each year.

So, why the resistance to those endless lists of crystal stemware and silver plate? "I think people respond poorly when it seems greedy," said Rebecca Mead, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of the new book, "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," which details the insidiousness of the American wedding industry. "It's partly to do with people who have come to see the registry as a way to get something back from the investment in the wedding -- they want to make sure they maximize their investment."

Whatever the reasons, many gift buyers steer clear of wedding registries, preferring instead to fete the happy couple with offerings that range from the pragmatic to the peculiar. Call it creative. Call it subversive. Just don't call it typical.

Jeremy Fischer, 30, a program assistant at Lesley University, was stumped trying to come up with the right gift for a couple he'd worked with at an outdoor education program in New Hampshire. They were "playful, outdoorsy people" whom Fischer thought deserved a similarly good-humored gift. One day, his sights alighted on a stunt kite.

"I was like, ' OK that's the gift, ' " Fischer said. Six stunt kites later, Fischer has hit upon a winning theme. "It's kind of my stock wedding gift," he said.

Sometimes the right wedding gift is as simple as matching up purchases to personas. Suzanne Skjold, 32, an independent research analyst in South Boston, bought a hammock for her friend Paco, whom she'd met when they both lived in Key West, Fla.

"I wanted to give him and his wife something that would remind them of those times and would be unique," Skjold said.

Other guests go the homemade route, which allows them to indulge their (sometimes quirky) creativity.

"A family friend who's into homebrew gave us a case of his beer, all packed with funny labels he made featuring Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead] bride and groom figures with our faces collaged in," said Chrissa Banner, 35, a freelance writer in Cambridge who married her husband Daniel this May.

Another family friend gave the couple a bound collection of his favorite dinner recipes, which he titled "Gourmet in Advance." "They're all intended to be prepared ahead of time for dinner parties," Banner said, "so one can enjoy one's own party."

Payal Patel Cudia, 28, and her husband, Mario, were on the receiving end of an especially practical handmade gift. The couple had recently bought a house in Woburn, a city neither knew anything about. So their buddies decided to remedy the situation.

"A few of my friends gave us a file folder that was separated by categories: Indian, Chinese, Pizza, Thai, Italian, Entertainment, etcetera," said Cudia , an account executive for Schwartz Communications in Waltham. "In each category was a gift certificate. We were able to get acquainted with all the Woburn restaurants and entertainment places, which helped us meet the area business owners and other people."

Some wedding guests look to avoid the physical gift slush pile entirely. Matthew Fishbein, 29, a freelance advertising copywriter in Cambridge, recently surprised friends with surfing lessons in Hawaii, their honeymoon destination.

Still, the hard truth is that not everyone is possessed of ingenuity or impeccable taste. There are those who stray a bit too far from the registry and, frankly, shouldn't.

Chessie Shaw, 36, a Cambridge school counselor who once opposed wedding registries, changed her tune when she watched her sister get married.

"My sister got some really weird things -- ceramic roosters and Christmas tree lights, to be specific," Shaw said. "I'm pretty sure they would have much rather received a new coffee maker."

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