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Home : The Comlete Anniversary Gift Guide

The Complete Anniversary Gift Guide

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Introduction Is One Anniversary List "Better" Than the Other?
Traditional & Modern Anniversary Gift Lists Symbolism of the 1st - 5th Anniversaries
Origin of the Traditional Anniversary Gift List Symbolism of the 10th Anniversary and Beyond
Origin of the Modern Anniversary Gift List Make Each Anniversary Personal

Is your next wedding anniversary creeping up and you're stumped for an anniversary gift? Don't worry! The question of what anniversaries symbolize (and what gifts best commemorate them) has been around for centuries. Fortunately, history has left us not one list of anniversary gift ideas but two!

The Traditional and Modern Anniversary Gift Lists

The two guides, referred to as the traditional and the modern, typically cover the first fifteen years of marriage and then all the major anniversary gift years thereafter. While both lists agree on the symbols for most of the later anniversaries, there are some significant differences between the two versions, particularly for the early years.

The traditional anniversary gift list tends to focus a little more on symbolism while the modern anniversary gift list is of a more practical bent but is also heavily weighted in favor of jewelry.

Both lists are shown in full below:

Couple celebrating an anniversary.
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Anniversary Gift Years:

Year Traditional Modern   Year Traditional Modern
1st Paper Clocks   14th Ivory Gold Jewelry
2nd Cotton China   15th Crystal Watches
3rd Leather Crystal, Glass   20th China Platinum
4th Fruit, Flowers Electronics   25th Silver Silver
5th Wood Silverware   30th Pearl Diamond
6th Candy, Sweets Wood   35th Coral Jade
7th Wool, Copper Desk Sets   40th Ruby Ruby
8th Bronze, Pottery Linens, Lace   45th Sapphire Sapphire
9th Pottery, Willow Leather   50th Gold Gold
10th Tin, Aluminum Diamond Jewelry   55th Emerald Emerald
11th Steel Fashionable Jewelry   60th Diamond Diamond
12th Linen, Silk Pearls   75th Diamond Diamond
13th Lace Textiles, Furs        

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Origin of the Traditional Anniversary Gift List

The origin of the traditional anniversary gift list is to some extent unclear. The first recorded instance of symbolic gifts being given for particular anniversaries dates back to the Middle Ages in Germany. There, among the noble class, it was customary for husbands to give their wives silver garland on their 25th anniversary followed by a golden wreath on their 50th. While some accounts hold that it was family friends and not the spouses who did the giving, the symbols themselves are undisputed.
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The "big two" anniversaries have been with us for countless generations, but it was not until the late 19th century that written references to additional anniversary symbols began to appear. Of these, wood (for year five) is the oldest, though it is likely that many other traditional symbols are at least as old.

It is also known that the traditional list was formalized in North America in 1922 by legendary etiquette expert, Emily Post. In her guide, Etiquette in Society, Post included what she considered to be the eight major anniversaries (the 1st, 5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th, 50th, and 75th). Citing the old German tradition, each successive entry on Post's list included a gift of increasing rarity and value to represent the growth and maturity of a couple's marriage. Subsequent editions expanded on the list and included "non-major" anniversary years, eventually stopping with the 25-entry list that is still in use today.

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Origin of the Modern Anniversary Gift List

While the origin of the traditional version is partly shrouded in history, much more is known about the modern anniversary gift list. The modern list was developed in 1937 by the American National Retail Jewelry Association (now Jewelers of America). Given its corporate origins and that the stated mission of the organization is to advance the interests of jewelers, it is no surprise that the modern list contains six symbolic gifts commonly associated with jewelry that do not appear on the traditional version.

Couple celebrating their anniversary. Today, numerous revised and expanded versions of the modern list exist, many of them also authored by companies. Attempts have also been made to establish anniversary symbols for the years between the 15th and 25th celebrations, while a few more ambitious authors have created anniversary gifts for each year to the 100th! One such list, for example, claims that granite is the symbol for 90th wedding anniversaries; several others claim a 10k diamond is the appropriate symbol for the 100th.

The popularity of the symbols and gifts for such high-numbered anniversaries remains to be seen since few, if any, couples have actually lived long enough to celebrate them. Some non-human entities like corporations and civic organizations have, in fact, employed some of these symbols during their own anniversaries, but most have been left to the province of weddings. Others, like us, believe the first couple to actually reach their 100th anniversary should get the last word on what the right gift and symbol will be!

But in addition to being a ploy to sell more jewelry, the 1937 version of the modern list was also a legitimate attempt to create a tradition that was more appropriate for the couples of the 20th century. Many of the modern anniversary symbols for the early years of marriage, in fact, involve items like appliances, dishware, and silverware, representing some of the practical needs of newlyweds.

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Is One Anniversary List "Better" Than the Other?

In spite of the proliferation of alternative anniversary gift lists, there is no single list that is considered "correct". The traditional list and the original 1937 modern version, however, remain far and the away the most popular. More couples, in fact, even claim to prefer the sometimes charmingly outdated traditional version, whose recommendations alternately include items like candy, wool, and tin.

Early 20th century newlyweds Other relics from the past two centuries also remain. The sale of ivory, the traditional 14th anniversary gift, was subject to a worldwide ban in 1989. While there are some exceptions to the ban, many couples prefer to avoid the stigma of ivory altogether. The same is true with coral, the traditional 35th anniversary symbol. The coral trade is now illegal in many parts of the world and as much as 50% of the world's coral reefs are in imminent danger as a result of global warming. These factors have led to a significant decline in the popularity of both of ivory and coral gifts.

While evolving social trends and growing environmental awareness have led many couples to look to the modern list's suggestions out of respect for the environment, some feel that even elements from the modern list are becoming obsolete. Items such as fur, the modern 13th anniversary gift, are being abandoned in favor of more personal or environmentally-friendly choices. It seems likely that as both lists continue to age, some future revisions will be made to reflect the mindset and realities of couples in the 21st century and beyond.

In a broader social context, there has been little squabbling over which list is more "appropriate" or "correct", a fact that has allowed both to cohabitate quite peacefully since the modern version's creation. To this day etiquette experts and party planners routinely switch between the two and encourage couples to do the same. Even proponents of the
traditional list tend to describe it as simply a set of ideas. Emily Post herself noted that, "In fact the paper, wooden and tin wedding presents are seldom anything but jokes." In the 1965 edition of Etiquette for Moderns, etiquette guru Elinor Ames even suggests that couples can simply "carry out the theme in the wrapping or decorating of the package."

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A Deeper Meaning: The 1st - 5th Anniversaries

Regardless of how literally you take the suggestions from either list, both are loaded with meaning. Paper, the traditional 1st anniversary gift, may seem like a new husband's sneaky attempt to avoid an expensive trip to the mall and Even Emily Post herself thought of paper as a joke. However, paper is a symbol of the strength of intertwined fibers and at one time was significantly more difficult to obtain and was often quite expensive. While the modern's list answer of giving a clock may be a reference to a brand of anniversary clock developed in Cleveland, Ohio, it is still representative of the timelessness of love and represents the early stages of marriage.

Cotton, the traditional 2nd anniversary gift, may initially seem as exciting as paper, but it was likewise once a symbol of prosperity and comfort; much like china (the symbol from the modern list) is still regarded today.

Despite how one may feel about animal products, the traditional 3rd anniversary gift of leather is a particularly apt symbol of strength. The modern list, however, goes in the exact opposite direction with its endorsement of more fragile (but likely more popular) glass or crystal gifts.

The traditional 4th anniversary symbol is flowers, which symbolize a fully blossoming marriage and is a gift that any romantic will appreciate. The modern's recommendation of electronic appliances isn't exactly romantic, but this might be a good time to invest in that flat screen television you've been contemplating for the past couple years.

Flowers are the traditional 4th anniversary gift.
The traditional 5th anniversary gift is wood, and like many of the early anniversary symbols it represents strength, though it is also symbolic of longevity and of the warmth and security of an established home. Next to silver and gold it is also the oldest anniversary symbol and may refer to a Welsh tradition of giving wooden spoons on anniversaries that dates back to the 1600s. This also likely inspired the selection of silverware, the modern list's more practical answer, which is symbolic of a family meal and the cohesiveness of a stable home.

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A Deeper Meaning: The 10th Anniversary and Beyond

Skipping ahead a few years brings us to tin and aluminum, both traditional 10th anniversary gifts. Again, neither seems very exciting in this day and age but both are, in fact, very clever metaphors for the malleable flexibility of a successful marriage. Elinor Ames certainly took this one seriously, noting that,
It is not mandatory that the gift be of the "appropriate" material or composition for the specific year. The exception is in the case of the tenth (tin or aluminum) and twenty-fifth...
But if you would still prefer a gift with a little more "wow" power, the modern list recommends giving diamond jewelry.

Things get a little more exciting for the 15th anniversary, represented by crystal as the traditional wedding anniversary gift and watches on the jeweler-preferred modern side. Some have also tied rubies to the 15th anniversary, making it a sort of precursor to the red-dominated theme of the 40th.

Arriving at the quarter-century mark, the 25th anniversary is one of the best known wedding anniversary milestones. Silver is universally considered the ideal 25th anniversary gift and is symbollic of eloquence and harmony.

Pearl, the traditional 30th anniversary symbol, represents love, success, and happiness -- all ideal traits of a marriage spanning three decades. Pearl has also been described as having a "nurturing" quality, making it particularly apt for couples with children. On the modern list, meanwhile, diamonds make their second of four appearances here.

The 40th anniversary is considered the next major milestone to follow the 25th and is also the most colorful. Here, every version of every list is in complete agreement that rubies are the ideal 40th anniversary gift. Rubies are representative of maturity, desire, and love -- three themes that perfectly summarize forty years of marriage.
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And then, of course, there's the 50th anniversary. Often regarded as the Holy Grail of wedding milestones, the 50th remains one of the most widely celebrated anniversaries with a popularity that has endured from pre-Medieval Europe. Then, as now, gold was symbolic of great wealth and has featured prominently in 50th anniversary gifts throughout known history.

Many people, meanwhile, wonder why both lists consider the 60th and 75th to be diamond anniversaries. The 60th anniversary, after all, was not even included on the original list set down by Emily Post. The reason is that the 60th anniversary was in fact added later as a tribute to Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee -- an 1897 celebration that marked the 60th anniversary of her coronation and established her as Britain's longest reigning monarch. In spite of its "late" addition to the list, the 60th is now considered one of the major wedding anniversaries, on par with notables like the 25th, 40th, and 50th. In addition to diamonds, 60th anniversary gifts can include elements of silver, crystal, and pearls.

The traditional list is silent on the subject of the 70th anniversary, and commentators have long expressed surprise at its exclusion from the list. Lists that include the 70th are in circulation, however, with at least one version claiming that titanium is the appropriate gift. Another list more popular in the United Kingdom claims that platinum is the appropriate symbol.

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The Meanings in Our Hearts

Lists may change and as the years roll on it becomes clear that few anniversary traditions are set in stone. What we love about the symbols from both lists, however, are their stories and meanings. Despite their variations, both lists provide excellent food for thought and can serve as guides (especially in a pinch) when we think about how we want to express our love and appreciation. There is always, quite simply, something romantic about a gift that comes with a special symbolic meaning attached, one that every couple can reflect upon and explore. Whether a couple chooses to follow the traditions or not is ultimately up to them, but what these symbols teach us is that when we celebrate a wedding anniversary, we are celebrating the meanings that are in our hearts.

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