A common custom is dying out: That of party-goers watching the guest of honor open presents.
A dismayed hostess reports giving showers at which the ladies being showered took home their presents unopened. "Is it now an acceptable practice not to open them with the guests present?" she laments.
The mother of a preschooler who has accompanied him to birthday parties at which the presents went unopened asks, "Am I wrong to want to buck this trend? I am planning a celebration for my son, who will turn 4, and I would like him to open his gifts in front of his guests because I feel that doing otherwise deprives them of the joy of seeing his excitement and gratitude."
Miss Manners, guardian of tradition, will be of no help or comfort to these Gentle Readers.
It is true that children's birthday parties and bridal and baby showers have long featured a routine whereby the guests gather around while the person being honored reads aloud the card on each present, opens them, and shows them or passes them around, publicly thanking each donor by name.
But frankly, this was not the best thought-out custom. At large gatherings, it would become tedious, putting a damper on conversation and a strain on expressing admiration for duplicate presents.
There are worse consequences now, because the circumstances at such events have changed for the worse. Too many people who are not particularly close to the honoree are likely to be invited -- whole classrooms, adult relatives and the parents' friends to children's birthday parties; and work colleagues and acquaintances to showers. That makes a lot of presents to open.
The stakes have also gotten higher. Token presents, chosen for their amusement value and because they said something -- preferably something charming -- about the recipient are rare. Children's presents have expanded to become a financial burden on the givers, and, from their numbers, of only passing interest to the recipients.
Furthermore, there are not likely to be any surprises when the packages are opened, thanks to the ubiquitous gift registry. This effectively eliminates surprise. The recipient dictates the choices and the donors buy from the list.
The result is a mere show of greed, envy and shame. Those 4-year-old guests are hardly likely to feel gratified, even if the host has been perfectly trained to express joy and excitement for everything -- the disappointments and the duplicates, along with the rest.
They are more likely to feel resentful that none of it is for them, and worried and embarrassed if their presents do not measure up to what others have given. Shower guests, as adults, should be more mature, but Miss Manners wouldn't bet on it.
She commends those who have noticed the problem and taken the step of abolishing the public show. She considers it a better solution than substituting charitable donations for presents, which can have the unintended consequence of turning a disappointed child against philanthropy.
Eschewing gift registries and agreeing on spending caps would still be valuable ways to rescue present-giving from the crude practice it has become. But Miss Manners considers killing the public opening to be a mercy.
DEAR MISS MANNERS -- My brother has a friend whose wife recently gave birth to a baby with Down Syndrome. My brother was about to talk to his friend for the first time since the birth and did not know what to say to him. He asked my advice and I suggested he simply say, "Congratulations on the birth of your baby." Was this good advice, or was more called for in this situation?
GENTLE READER -- That more would be called for is a dangerous thought that often leads to a cruel form of rudeness. Miss Manners reminds you that births are to be celebrated, not critiqued.