DEAR MISS MANNERS: Why is it OK for parents and relatives to give birthday parties, retirement parties, engagement parties and receptions for family members and loved ones, but -- time and time again -- you have said it is never OK for a mother to give a daughter a bridal or baby shower?
What is the difference? I am struggling with this.
GENTLE READER: You have an excellent point. Indeed, the family-generated (or often self-generated) entitlement party, complete with a list of expected tributes, and sometimes even an entrance fee, now dominates what passes for social life.
The conventional ways of marking life's milestones were not always so crude.
For one thing, such celebrations occurred within the context of robust society, at all economic levels. From the simple sharing of supper to the grandest occasions, people exchanged hospitality for no more compelling reason than that they enjoyed one another's company.
Guests did not even have to hand over a bottle of wine at the door as the price of admission. Except for explicitly defined cooperative events, they never brought food. Instead, the expected contribution was to give reciprocal parties. The idea was just getting together to enjoy themselves -- not to celebrate themselves.
This easy, pleasant sociability waned as work routines increasingly encroached on people's time and resources. A pseudo-social life, rationalized as promoting workplace morale and efficiency through forging colleagues into "teams," sprang up. Rather than seeing old friends through their ups and downs, or foraging for new ones, it was just easier to accept as "friends" those who were at hand because the employer had chosen them.
And so the shower and the birthday party became a routine of office life. These were not generated voluntarily by friends out of spontaneous affection, but by co-workers checking off an obligation. In bad economic times, employers stopped sponsoring retirement parties.
No longer able to count on others to make a fuss over their milestones, people resumed throwing their own parties. But now those whom they wanted to honor were not their friends, but themselves or their families.
The patterns most used come from two, hitherto minor, rituals: the children's birthday party, and the wedding or baby shower. Miss Manners doubts that it is a coincidence that both have the giving and opening of presents as a central part of the ritual.
For that reason, birthday parties were limited to children and the occasional major years for adults -- the latter organized by non-relatives, or, if given by the celebrant or that person's family, they were just supposed to treat the guests, not expect the guests to treat them. (The graceful way to avoid the expectation of presents is to refrain from naming the occasion on the invitation, but to save it for a party announcement, so guests can complain that they would have brought something if they had only known.)
As for showers, there was simply that ban you mention against their being given by relatives, let alone requested by the guest of honor, as is sometimes now horrifyingly the case. It was not necessary to have such a ban on weddings, when the presents were sent separately from the event, nor for engagement parties, which were not associated with presents at all, as the announcement of the engagement was supposed to be a surprise.
Miss Manners is not retreating from her condemnation of self-generated showers. Rather, she extends the ban to all pre-announced celebrations to honor oneself.
(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, email@example.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)