Nearly every aspect of planning a wedding tosses up one choice after another, so it may come as a relief to recognize that there is one custom no one has to debate: Every gift must be acknowledged with a personal, handwritten thank-you note. Preprinted or typed notes won't do. And even the most enthusiastic phone call, while it may be welcome, can't replace a written acknowledgment.
If you receive one hundred gifts, you can plan to write that many notes. Gifts will begin to arrive as soon as you announce your engagement, so you'll want to be prepared. Think about what you want your notes to say, both aesthetically and literally. These, after all, will most likely be your first expression of yourselves as a couple, and the details deserve careful consideration: What kind of paper is appropriate for the occasion? Whose initials or names go on the stationery? Who writes the notes? Who signs them? What, and how much, do you say? What is the acceptable time lapse between receiving a gift and sending a note expressing your gratitude?
Start with the foundation of a thank-you note -- the paper. Selecting a style of writing paper has become simpler in recent years, according to Joy Lewis, the owner of the New York City stationer Mrs. John L. Strong. "Handwritten correspondence has come to be used for ceremony and presentation only -- thanking and inviting," she says. "Otherwise everyone uses the computer or the telephone."
There are two common formats for thank-you notes: a stiff five-by-seven-inch card on which the correspondent can write on both sides, or an "informal," a small fold-over card typically about four-by-five inches. The informal may be engraved quite formally; its name comes from the placement of the fold at the top, in contrast to formal correspondence, such as wedding invitations, which fold at the side like a book.
As an alternative to formal thank-yous, paper can be trimmed with bold colored borders, engraved with nontraditional typestyles, or embossed with whimsical emblems. An informal (top left) is embossed with a single initial. The fine quality of the lined envelope and bordered card (bottom left) compensates for it not being personalized. A couple's names are letterpressed in green ink (top right). A bee emblem (center right) separates the bride and groom's embossed initials. An informal (bottom right) is decorated with a pear.
Some couples order their writing papers at the same time as their wedding invitations, and, in the interest of establishing a style, carry through the same typeface and colors. Others treat thank-you notes as an entirely separate opportunity to exercise either formality or whimsy, and choose writing paper that's in deliberate contrast to the invitations. The most traditional colors for writing paper are ecru and white, but you can pick lively color combinations for thank-you notes as long as your writing can be read clearly against the background.
If a bride is going to change her name, a couple should order one set of writing paper to use before the wedding and another to be used after. The prenuptial paper might carry the bride's maiden name or initials, both of their first names, or both sets of initials -- but it's too soon to use a combined monogram. Engagement-phase envelopes should be printed or handwritten with the bride's current return address. The paper for notes written after the couple is married traditionally bears either the wife's married monogram, her formal name (Mrs. John Smith), or the proper way in which she and her husband will be addressed (Mr. and Mrs. John Smith).
For the most formal thank-you notes, names or monograms are printed in black ink on white or ecru paper. The writing papers (top and bottom left) are engraved with the most traditional typestyles; the lined envelope (top) is a modern trend for informals. Under a feather emblem (center right), a bride and groom's first initials are engraved and centered above their last initial; this monogramming style was popular on eighteenth-century silverware. An ornate monogram (bottom right) is centered on a bordered informal. A bride and groom stack their names (center left), a good device for notes written during the engagement and for a bride who will keep her maiden name.
These traditional styles won't suit couples who prefer a more informal approach. For them, one option is to head the paper with the husband's and wife's first and last names. It doesn't matter whose name comes first, although Lewis says that traditionally a woman's name was placed second to reflect the quaint idea that a wife was protected when flanked by her husband's first and last names. You can also create a monogram that blends your initials. A bride who plans to keep her maiden name can order paper that is headed by both hers and her husband's full names, stacked one above the other -- again, there is no rule as to which comes first. Or you can forgo names and monograms altogether, and incorporate a favorite wedding photograph into a keepsake thank-you note.
The right paper and pen -- blue or black ink -- will make your notes beautiful, but it's what you write that will make them meaningful. Before you begin to compose, however, you will want to make sure you have all the facts at hand. Establish a system to keep track of all the presents and who gave you what and when. It does not have to be complicated: Make a computerized or handwritten list. You can also compile this information on index cards and file them away. If you are of a disposition to be more ceremonial, you might annotate the gift cards with the specifics, then stash them in a box or paste the cards in an album next to a snapshot of the gift.
Some of the most personal thank-you notes include a photograph of the bride and groom. The least elaborate (top) is a photograph duplicated on heavy-duty color printer paper and tipped onto a fold-over with rubber cement. The picture on the card below is attached with photo corners. A photo can be simply glued into a card with a precut frame (left). This note (right) is three layers: a card with a photo glued to it and a computer-printed vellum overlay on which the bride and groom's names have been printed; the pieces are tied at the top with satin ribbon. Because photos take some time to develop, address the envelopes and write the notes first so they can be mailed as soon as the pictures are ready.
The next step is to determine who will write the notes and who will sign them. Often the answer is that the bride will write some and the groom others, although this is a recent development: Brides used to write them all. That is partly because at one time gifts were considered to be the property of the bride. This custom is a vestige of a social order in which a woman might not have had much, if anything else, that belonged to her.
When the economic status of women changed, wedding gifts became the property of both the bride and groom, and either or both can express their thanks. To make it clear that whoever is writing is representing the two of you, say, for example, "John and I were delighted to receive..." then sign the letter, "Bonnie." Sometimes it's easier to split up the list according to the people you each know better, especially since there may be a few guests one of you has only met at the wedding. You can also choose to write thank-you notes together by starting the note with, "We would like to thank you..."
Only one person should do the actual writing, but as coauthors, each of you should sign in your own handwriting. The sign-off you use will indicate the degree of intimacy: The least intimate is "Sincerely"; after that comes some variation of "With affection," and finally, "Love." The matter of to whom the note is addressed has also changed in recent years. A while back, thank-you notes were written from the bride to the wife of a couple. Now, it's more customary to write to both husband and wife. If you prefer to do it the way your grandmother did, though, and address your note to the wife, you will want to include her husband's name somewhere.
To customize any paper, names and initials can be combined with simple details and personal touches. A wheat emblem (far right) is printed above a bride's initials on a fold-over note (right). A bride has enclosed petals from her bouquet (center). A simple leaf motif (left) is printed above the bride's and groom's names; this note was created on a computer.
You don't have to say too much after the salutation (which is always followed by a comma, not a colon, in handwritten letters); a four-sentence note can be plenty. But whatever you do say should be personal and reflect your relationship with the giver and the nature of the gift. Points that should be included are a specific mention of the gift ("the Victorian dessert plates"), why you like them ("because I enjoy setting a table with different china for each course"), and how you plan to use them ("for our first annual holiday dessert party" and "we hope you'll be there!"). The words "thank you" usually go in the first sentence, although they can stand on their own at the end of the note.
How long is too long to wait before writing a thank-you note? Two months after you've returned from the wedding trip should be plenty of time to get the job done; three months is the maximum. For gifts arriving before the wedding, getting notes out as soon as you receive them is usually easier than waiting until after the event; since gifts do not come all at once, you can write a couple of notes a day to cover the recent arrivals.
Occasionally, a bride and groom will receive hundreds of gifts and will not be able to write all the notes promptly, so some couples order printed acknowledgments that can be sent out stating that a personal note will follow. When the backlog of notes piles up and begins to seem like an insurmountable task, it helps to remember that your friends and relatives spent considerably more time selecting each gift than it will take you to express how pleased you are by their thoughtfulness.
Stamps and Embossers
An economical way to customize packaged paper is by having an embosser or rubber stamp made. The his-and-hers monogram embossed on blue deckle-edged paper (top left) and the rubber stamps for two couples (bottom) were made from custom calligraphy. A heart is embossed on the front of a rose-toned card (center); another heart on the envelope links the unmatched papers.
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