When her younger sister turned 1, my older daughter guilted us into hosting a small party at our house to celebrate. For the first time in my life, I wrote the words “no gifts, please” on the invitation. Jesse had so many toys already, and I had been going through a minimalist phase (which I documented in another piece for Kveller); I just didn’t think she could really use or appreciate anything gift-wise. Also, I wasn’t sure how great this birthday party was going to be—my 5-year-old insisted on doing all the party planning—so I didn’t want people to spend money to attend it. Most people obliged, and came empty handed and a few brought small gifts (which Jesse did, in fact, grow to appreciate). The following year, we barely celebrated Jesse’s birthday–she barely received any gifts–and she didn’t seem to care.
This year, she’s turning 3. She goes to preschool and has already started on the party circuit, so we’ve decided to throw a real celebration for her at a kid’s play space.
I’m still a minimalist, and I still don’t want people to feel obligated to buy Jesse gifts that are either a burden to procure or afford (or both), but somehow “no gifts, please” doesn’t feel right on this invitation. I know that Jesse would probably like to receive a few gifts that didn’t come from her parents or grandparents. I wish there was an easier way to say “she really doesn’t need any gifts, but would probably appreciate one or two, but I don’t want you to go out of your way, and honestly I’m inviting you because your child is in her class, and she really likes her classmates (and it’s not because she thinks they will give her presents), and I don’t want to presume that you want to, or are able to afford, to buy her something, plus I try not to have lots of stuff in the house and would feel really bad if you gave us a toy that added clutter and I ended up donating it anyway, so really you don’t have to bring a gift, I mean it, I won’t judge you if you don’t, and if you decide to bring a gift, she might totally love it ,and I don’t want to be the mom that doesn’t let her kids have any gifts or any fun so you choose, OK?”
My mother (who could moonlight for Emily Post) is always shocked to see the line “no gifts.” She told me adding a note about gifts on an invitation presumes that guests will bring gifts, which is apparently an inappropriate assumption. It’s worth noting that my mother ALWAYS sends or brings a gift, often an extremely generous one, to any occasion, and would consider it rude to not bring a gift to a child’s birthday party.
Some people write things like “your presence is our present.” I would rather not host a party at all than have such a cheesy line grace my 3-year-old’s birthday party invitation.
While my mom may be right that it’s rude for me to presume guests will bring a gift, presents really are customary at children’s birthday parties, at least among my children’s friends. I’ve seen invitations that ask guests to bring books in lieu of gifts (last time I checked, a book was a gift, and one I often give to kids for their birthdays. Who knew all this time I was giving a second-tier present?), and others suggest donating to a charity of the child’s or the guest’s choice. I appreciate this sentiment, but it still places a burden on the guest to not do what’s easiest for them and instead, follow the gift-giving preferences of the host. None of this feels right for me. I don’t want to expect that my guests will conform to my generosity guidelines. It feels too controlling.
About two weeks ago, I received an invitation that said “no gifts necessary” and it confused me. Does this mean no gifts, or does it mean I can feel OK not bringing a gift even if others bring one? I think it was supposed to relieve the burden on guests, but it just made it more difficult for me to figure out what to do, and made me wonder if gifts are ever really “necessary?” Earlier this month, another friend tried to organize a group gift for her son and asked guests to donate a small amount to a Paypal account, but she kept wondering whether this approach was tacky.
The irony in all of this is that I happen to love giving gifts. With few exceptions, I enjoying looking around bookstores or toy stores to find something perfect. I love how beautifully some of our local stores wrap their gifts, and I have an extensive collection of wrapping paper and bows that I enjoy deploying for any celebration or occasion. I realize that there are two sides to the gift giving custom, and the line “no gifts, please” robs the potential gift-giver of the chance to receive a little bit of joy by offering what they want to share with me or my child. I’m always a mixture of relieved and disappointed when I see “no, gifts,” particularly when I had something great in mind for the guest of honor.
I think for this party, I will include the date, time, and where to RSVP and leave it at that, or just send everyone a link to this page and let them figure it out for themselves.