An anniversary commemorates the completion of a year centered around a specific event. We celebrate all kinds of anniversaries but nothing more commonly than that of a wedding. The word "anniversary" is derived from the Latin annus, meaning year. In good company with the wedding band (an infinite, unbroken circle), the circular nature of our calendar year allows married couples and their families to celebrate the date of their original union again and again.
We take anniversaries for granted now, and in the US each completed year of marriage has a specific type of gift associated with it. Historically speaking, this is new. According to historian George Stimpson, the giving of a particular type of gift on a particular anniversary originated in medieval Germany. This started, appropriately for Sheffield, with the celebration of the 25th year of marriage.
This quarter-century milestone was marked with a gift of a silver wreath — a ring — presented to the wife. Silver was symbolic of presumed harmony in the home. The 50th anniversary was also significant (a rare occasion in Medieval Europe when the life expectancy was often less than 30), and was marked with the gift of another wreath — this one in gold. Silver and gold remain the traditional gifts for the quarter and half-century wedding anniversaries.
Now, of course, we mark many more anniversaries and have a gift for each of them. The Chicago Public Library compiled a list of known anniversary gifts, both traditional and modern. You can see an archive of it here.
Each gift surely has a reason for its association with any particular year; however these are largely unknown, no doubt having been sifted through decades of cultural, social, and regional change. A general trend does emerge: pedestrian or utilitarian in the early years when the couple is making a home (paper, cotton, glass), to solely precious in the later years (crystal, china, jewels, silver, gold, and diamond), as an homage to the preciousness of a lasting union.
The actual celebration of the wedding anniversary has also changed over time. Historically, as mentioned above, the anniversary marked a harmonious continuation of a bond between two people and their families. Today we honor this same notion, and a significant anniversary like the 25th or 50th is often celebrated with an unparalleled gathering of the couple's extended family , including not just blood relatives but also close friends, colleagues, and neighbors. The party is often formal or semi-formal, and imbued with a certain elegance lent by the silver and gold themes and color palettes.
The big change in anniversary celebrations has emerged in the in-between years; the early or less significant anniversaries of the marriage. Just as the contemporary marriage places a far greater value on love and romance between a couple than ever before, so do contemporary anniversary celebrations. Common practice — whether it be dinner at the restaurant where the couple had their first date, or a return getaway to their honeymoon destination - demonstrates that a wedding anniversary is a perfect time to relive the earliest days of the relationship and, as they say, fall in love all over again.
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