As an interesting glimpse into the differences and similarities that exist among different cultures, the practices surrounding Tibetan wedding gifts can serve to demonstrate some of the universals that underlie surface differences among wedding traditions.
Within our own culture, we tend to have a sort of unquestioning acceptance of the traditions and practices surrounding weddings. True, we may need to check out specific points of wedding etiquette to be sure we don't transgress or forget some important rule, but we rarely think about the source and reasons that can underlie these traditions and rules.
Tibet is a country so far from the usual in the minds of most westerners that they might expect bizarre and unusual practices to surround wedding gifts. In reality, while Tibetan wedding gifts are still very strongly embedded in the past traditions, they are a hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with how western marriage customs have evolved.
Tibetan wedding gift practices begin when the marriage is first proposed. In general marriages are still arranged by the young persons' parents and may be proposed by either the potential bride's or groom's family. After the "Democratic Reform" in 1959, the extremely strict rules requiring equal social and economic status of the two families were substantially relaxed, though great disparities in status, quite naturally remain rare. Equally, the young couple may have met and fallen in love well before one of families makes the proposal. Usually, the family with whom the couple will live makes the proposal and today there is much less social concern about which family the couple will live with.
At the time of the proposal, gifts are provided by the proposing family to each member of the other family. These gifts, with the exception of the hada, a strip of silk or linen, are utilitarian, but also symbolic, items including clothes and cloth, wheat, butter, mutton and wine as well as what is called "milk" and "apron" money for the mother as an expression of thanks for the raising of the child. It is customary for the proposing family to provide the day's food and at the end of the day, assuming the proposal is accepted, which is the usual case, they will be given hadas and other gifts.
A dowry or betrothal gift is also traditionally presented by the family marrying off their child. The specific nature of the dowry gifts depend on the financial conditions of the family and can range from jewels and so on to more typical and utilitarian gifts such as cloth, clothes, quilts and food. Wedding gifts from guests are again dependent on economic conditions but are generally similar to previous gifts - clothes, cloth, food, wine, money and, today, domestic appliances as well.
While the custom of the dowry is no longer common in the west, the tradition of the bride's family paying for the wedding still is. Curiously, Tibetan customs appear to be ahead of the west in providing a more egalitarian approach to this. In the west, gifts often begin with the engagement which is equivalent to the proposal in Tibet. While the specific gifts vary, they are generally also utilitarian and designed to aid the future couple in establishing their household. In the west also, economic conditions of the giver will affect the specific gifts and the cost.
Aside from the use of marriage as a way to reinforce social ties and bonding and to integrate the new couple into the community, it seems quite obvious that cultures everywhere use the wedding gift process associated with marriage both to confirm that the new union will have a reasonable chance at economic success and, once that is established, to provide specific items that directly support the new couple in establishing their household and a new life. Looking just slightly beyond the surface, we can see that we all, regardless of culture, have common needs and problems involved in major life changes and surprisingly similar methods of responding to and resolving them. In a very real sense, cultural factors and belief structures which often seem to create huge barriers to understanding, are an overlay on our basic human condition and as we learn to see beneath the surface, the world becomes a less confusing place filled with people much like ourselves instead of distant and incomprehensible aliens.