Origins of the tradition
Celebration of wedding anniversaries is a tradition of Germanic origin that dates back to the middle ages. After 25 years of marriage a husband would present his wife with a silver wreath, and after 50 years, a gold wreath. From this custom emerged the recognition of silver and golden wedding anniversaries. Initially, only these two anniversaries were celebrated – the others generally passed unremarked.
New Zealand origins
In New Zealand, European settlers brought with them the custom of celebrating silver and golden wedding anniversaries. These were relatively rare occasions. Low life expectancy (in 1874 it was 48 for Pākehā men and 50 for Pākehā women, and even lower for Māori) meant that it was unusual for both partners to reach a silver, and especially a gold, wedding.
Spare the turkey
While they published admiring accounts of silver and gold wedding anniversaries, newspapers also regularly ran quite cynical jokes about them. A common theme was the wife complaining that her husband forgot their anniversary. Another was the husband who preferred to forget. This is one joke from 1933:
Wife: Dear, tomorrow is our tenth wedding anniversary. Shall I kill the turkey?
Hubby: No, let him live. He didn’t have anything to do with it.1
During the 19th century, possibly because of growing emphasis on family and home life, it gradually became popular to celebrate other wedding anniversaries. These became associated with gifts made out of different materials, which symbolised the growing value of the marriage relationship and the investment that the couple had made in each other. By the early 1920s the additional anniversaries that were celebrated most commonly were the first (cotton), fifth (wood), 10th (tin), 15th (crystal) and 20th (china). Those few couples who made it to their 75th anniversary gave each other diamonds (later, the 60th anniversary became the diamond wedding). There was continuing discussion about which anniversaries should be celebrated and what gift should be given, with debates reported in New Zealand newspapers.
Retailers seized on the consumer possibilities of celebrating every wedding anniversary. In 1937 the American National Retail Jewellers’ Association published a complete list of the type of gifts to give on each wedding anniversary. This list became the standard one that is still referred to, although modern variants have emerged, along with lists of anniversary gemstones and anniversary flowers.
Silver, gold and diamond wedding anniversaries are still usually marked by a large gathering of friends and family, and couples who have been married for 50 years or more are often profiled in newspapers, a reflection of the value society places on traditional marriage. However, with higher rates of marriage breakdown, fewer people make it to these anniversaries. For many couples, a wedding anniversary is a more personal, low-key occasion, celebrated by an exchange of gifts and a special dinner. Couples who are not formally married may mark other anniversaries in their relationship.