Kate McGuinness traces the history of wedding and baby showers, and offers new ways to reboot the tradition, which includes swapping gifts for charitable donations to those in need.
I’ve gotten to the age when many of my friends’ daughters are marrying or reproducing. These occasions are celebrated by the community holding “showers.” I began to wonder about this tradition after attending a particularly boring baby shower in which the expectant mother sat on a “throne,” each gift was passed from guest to guest to be admired, and we played a childish game about baby paraphernalia.
Why do we do this? Do showers make sense in the 21st century?
Historians claim bridal showers originated at a time when it was common for fathers to provide their daughters with a dowry. Bridal showers became a way for the community to help a couple when the father disapproved of the match and withheld the dowry or when he couldn’t afford one.
But where does the term “shower” come from? In the Victorian era, the gifts were placed in an inverted parasol which was then opened over the bride’s head. Then and now, the gifts tended to be for the kitchen or the bedroom. In earlier days, the presents were typically handmade—thus saving the bride from having a skillet showered down on her! While parasols are no longer used, the emphasis on traditional gender roles at bridal showers remains: homemaker, cook, and sex partner.
Although there are ancient traditions related to childbirth, they occurred after the baby’s safe arrival and the mother’s survival. The timing may have been a reflection of perils of child bearing. The baby shower as we know it was popularized during the post-World War II baby boom as an all-female event. The gifts served to help with the financial impact of infant care. Additionally, guests who were mothers were asked to offer advice.
Today, baby showers may include both parents and guests of both sexes. Modern technology allows the couple to announce the sex of the fetus by cutting into a blue or pink cake camouflaged by white frosting. The information can be a surprise to the parents as well if they ask the sonographer to write the sex on slip of paper, seal it in an envelope, and deliver it to a baker.
This gender reveal feature represents a minor “rebooting” of the baby shower tradition, but I’d like to suggest a broader re-vamping of showers, both bridal and baby.
In the 21st century, couples have often established careers and set up a home together before they marry. Do they really need another Cuisinart? Gift registries can largely eliminate this problem. But instead of providing the couple with another place setting of china or silver, I propose an alternative for couples who are secure financially: gifts to a charity.
The bride and groom can agree on one charity or each can designate a charity. If they want to go this route, they should inform the wedding party (the most likely shower hosts) of their desire and word their wedding announcement along the lines, “No gifts please. If you wish to honor our marriage, consider making a donation to _________.”
I did this many years ago. The charity I designated (a home for abused children) gave the groom and me a tour. My memory of those children is much more meaningful than any recollection of gifts ill-informed, but well-intentioned, guests gave us.
The practice of designating a charity is becoming more common and is one I strongly encourage. Imagine the fun of a couples’ bridal shower in which Heifer International is the designated charity. Think of the bride opening a card to learn chicks, ducks, rabbits, a cow, or a goat had been given in the couple’s name. (If alcohol is served at the shower, expect some animal sounds!)
A similar approach could work for baby showers. A needy child could be supported for a year in the soon-to-be parents’ names or a general donation made to a children’s charity.
I’m not being a Grinch and nixing the social aspect of bridal and baby showers. Get-togethers can still be arranged around worthy causes.
In fact, I’m going to suggest another type of “shower” gathering all together: a shower that acknowledges a woman’s professional achievements. Receiving an advanced degree or opening a business should be just as much cause for celebration as receiving a wedding band.
The accomplishment could be celebrated with charitable donations to a cause selected by the honoree or by practical gifts inspired by the achievement: a gift certificate for business stationary, a leather bound portfolio, a briefcase, or the guests could chip in for a group present like a laptop or a gift certificate for an interview-appropriate outfit.
More and more women today are delaying or opting out of marriage and mothering. However, their achievements and life passages should be recognized and celebrated by their friends. Shower them with gifts, gatherings, and good wishes as they reach these landmarks.
Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which is available on Amazon.com. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrter.