"What's wrong with the old rituals?" Miss Manners feels like asking when people proudly announce that they have invented a new ritual.
But there is really no need to ask. Every time a holiday or ceremonial occasion approaches, the air crackles with complaints:Some old rituals carry the appalling expectation that people socialize with their own relatives, while other rituals inflict the unbearable pressure of making people produce at least one person who cares enough to spend the holiday with them.
The historical ones whitewash unsavory events. The religious ones pervert their original meaning. All of them feature menus that are nutritionally and aesthetically - if not morally - offensive.
Rituals associated with personal milestones - birthday parties, graduations, weddings - are only staged to get people to fork over presents, except maybe funerals, and those are a drag.
And the worst thing about all those rituals is that they never live up to expectations.
Miss Manners finds that last charge especially odd. One would hardly think they could come in under such expectations.
Yet the sounds of merriment in anticipation of one of our ritual celebrations have been replaced by groans heralding depression. People now only use the term "to celebrate" when talking about a death; on other occasions, they speak (wanly or resentfully, depending on temperament) of hoping to cope.
Nevertheless, periodic attempts to do away with rituals have never been successful. Children might refuse to attend their college graduations; affianced couples might request the wedding money for a trip; old people might leave instructions not to have any funeral rites, since they won't be around to appreciate them. But the human craving for ceremony will out. Those who skip marking major occasions with ritual not only risk leaving their families dangling, but they often feel cheated and keep trying to make up for it later (except maybe for the ones who skipped having funerals).
In ordinary life, as well as on momentous occasions, there is something aesthetically and emotionally pleasing about going through set routines. From daily dinner to holiday picnics-and-fireworks, it is repetition that places That is why Miss Manners favors a policy of letting old rituals evolve with the times, rather than starting from scratch. But in principle, she is not against starting new rituals, so long as they observe basic niceties. Amateurs who delve into the etiquette business have a way of skipping those.
They have come up with such new rituals as: the divorce celebration ("Whoopee, I got rid of that idiot I chose!"), the unveiling of results of plastic surgery ("Oh, look at that!"), and the labor room party for friends to watch one giving birth ("Oh, look at THAT!"). These all violate the requirement that the theme of a ritual, whether solemn or jolly, should not produce the effect Miss Manners can only describe as "Eeeeeew."
A way around that is to choose the other participants with a thorough knowledge of what will engage their sympathies. Families and intimate friends can have great fun inventing rituals that they all enjoy, however unappealing these may be to outsiders.
But this means that the help-me-pay-for-it event, which so many people think of now when they want to buy or do something they cannot afford, should have a very limited guest list. Only people who have been desperately trying to push money on the guest of honor should be invited.
And that brings Miss Manners to the third point of etiquette for anyone considering inventing a ritual:
Has it occurred to you that it might tie in nicely with your signing up at a gift registry? In that case, with no further questions asked, Miss Manners declares it an improper ritual.
Dear Miss Manners: My boyfriend has been talking about buying me an engagement ring, and if he picks out a ring and surprises me with it, I will delightedly accept anything he chooses. But I think that he probably will involve me in the selection, and the problem is that I don't really like diamonds.
It seems that engagement rings are always diamonds.
Must this be so? Are there any other stones which are considered appropriate? Would it be proper for me to request something else - perhaps an amethyst, emerald, sapphire or maybe a pearl?
Gentle Reader: Miss Manners offers her congratulations to the gentleman, and not because he has chosen a lady who does not care for diamonds. It is because he has chosen a lady who understands that the symbolism of a present, most especially such a significant one as an engagement ring, is more important than that it conform exactly to her taste.
But it would be extremely nice if it did, which is why it is a good idea for gentlemen who do not come equipped with family rings to involve their intended brides in the selection. By all means, choose something you like.
As a matter of fact, sapphires and the birthstone of the bride are every bit as traditional as diamonds. In any case, etiquette does not get a cut of the jewelry business. It doesn't require an engagement ring at all, let alone decree what it should be.