Wedding favors: The good, the bad, and the live goldfish

Courtesy of Seth Jacobson

My sister was married on a beautiful October day in 2000, and we all loved the small brass bells wrapped in tulle she assembled for wedding favors. I saved mine to use as a Christmas ornament and didn't realize that she had also wrapped chocolates in them. That is, until this past December, when I heard strange rattling as we hung the bell on the tree, and subsequently discovered their tiny, shriveled, chocolatey corpses.

I promptly called her.

"Hey, I never ate the candies you put in your wedding favors."

"What? Oh. Okaaaay...."

"I just found them."

"You're kidding. Were they moldy?"

"Well, they were no longer serviceable. Were they good?"

"(long pause, then laughter) You know, I stayed up until two o'clock in the morning wrapping them the night before the wedding and I have no idea."

Wedding favors have evolved since the days when everyone - including my parents, who never smoked a day in their lives - handed out matchbooks. And, as with all matters of human progress, there's been a learning curve. Some cautionary lessons stand out:

Don't hand out anything. Flammable. EVER. Pair "flammable wedding favor" with the term "open bar," and you will join the ranks of those people who have to start every story about their wedding day with the words "It seemed like a good idea at the time..."

Honor your interests but understand that not everyone may get the joke. One couple, who were avid fans of both horror movies and trivia games, wanted their favors to be nontraditional and sort of tongue-in-cheek, so they handed out tiny pots of "poisonous" plants. Now there are many common garden plants and flowers - including hyacinth, lilies, daffodils, irises, foxgloves and wisteria - parts of which are dangerous when consumed. Along our evolutionary path, we seem to have developed a natural aversion to eating them. (Way to go, humans!) But hand someone a bulb with a note that basically reads "at any moment, this plant could kill you," and surprise! No one wants to take it home. (On the bright side, the wedded couple made quite the garden out of their leftover favors that year.)

Oversized wine glasses: Great for storing some things. But not everything. The most disastrous use I've seen was the couple who handed out live goldfish, not to each guest but as the centerpiece for each table. The favors themselves were fortune cookies - a lottery to see who got to take the goldfish home. The kids were fighting over the fish, the adults were angry to be saddled with yet another pet their kids would forget to feed, the elderly relatives were flat-out confused ("Where are the matchbooks?") and most importantly, no one wanted to use a wineglass that a fish had pooped in.

Now let's get to some good ideas, courtesy of Facebook and friends:

> Wine glasses filled with chocolates or paired with a small bottled sample from a local vineyard

> Wine bottle stoppers and/or wineglass charms (These are small ornamented rings which clip around the glass stem to help guests remember which glass is theirs.)

> Personalized pens

> Small frames can double as placecard holders at the tables. (But the bride who suggested this advised to opt for something simple, since it can be tough to pick out something that would match the home decor of every single guest.)

> Small personalized bottles of infused olive oil and/or sachets of spices - with a favorite or meaningful family recipe attached

> Small jars of jams or jellies

> Small snowglobes can be a great takeaway from a winter wedding

> A bookmark with a quote from one of the couple's readings

> Refrigerator magnets - some friends glued magnets onto little bottles filled with shells as mementos of their seaside wedding

> Favors that reflect the couple's home states; one couple paired little bottles of coffee syrup (the bride was a Rhode Island native) with little bottles of hot sauce (the groom hailed from Texas.)

> Birdseed clusters shaped into hearts and affixed to a ribbon to hang from a tree branch.

> A souvenir from a charitable donation: This can reflect an interest close to couple's heart, like cancer research or animal rescue. For their November wedding, some longtime friends made a sizable donation to a landmine recovery program in Cambodia. Their favors were clusters of jingle bells made from pieces of the disabled mines, attached to a small tag explaining the project. A touching keepsake as well as a beautiful twisting of a horrible legacy.

> One groom asked wedding guests in advance which songs they'd most like to dance to and made mix CDs for everyone out of the list of suggestions. The CD cover bore the wedding date and a collage of photos. Admittedly, this idea has the potential to backfire if everyone requests "The Thong Song" by Sisquo and "My Humps" by the Black-Eyed Peas, so reserve the right to edit. But even if your guests wind up using the CD as a coaster, it still beats a matchbook. Or a glass of fish poo.

> Slightly off subject, but another neat suggestion: One bride gave her attendants gift baskets which included slipper socks so the ladies "could ditch their high heels at the reception and dance up a storm."

Editor's note, or one last word of caution: When conducting an informal Facebook poll for insight on a column, it's a great idea to mention WHY you are looking for suggestions. That is, *before* the panicked call from your mother and the bewildered congratulations ("I thought you were single?! What the hell happened?") start pouring in. Sorry mom.

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