Once upon a time in America, people receiving gifts had no idea what was wrapped in the pretty paper. Surprise was part of the delight. People chose presents with care and imagination, and hoped the giftees would treasure them.
But that was before something called gift registries came along and caught on among newly married couples and mothers-to-be. The bride-to-be, usually, or the expectant mother, marched down to the local department store and registered. If she fancied a certain spoon pattern, or a particular pillowcase -- or a special crib for Babykins-to-come -- she'd put these items on her wish list, then tell her friends she was registered at that store.
For gift-givers, this meant no more fretting over what the happy couple might like as they start life together, or what would be ideal for Babykins. Like a supply clerk filling an order, they picked something from the registry, and the store checked it off the list.
Then came the Internet, and online registries popped up like mushrooms after a Spring rain. Now, online, you can register your every material desire -- not just the gifts you'd love to get for weddings and baby parties -- but also your wishes for bar mitzvahs, graduations, holidays, and retirements. Even if there's no special occasion, these registries will record your family's material dreams -- just in case somebody wants to give you something. Right there in cyberspace for all to see, you can list that fireplace screen you've always wanted, a video game for Johnny, that new camera for Sue.
Gift registries save shopping time. They take the guesswork out of giving. A lot of the affection, too. And they leave the stubborn few who still insist on surprising someone to quiver with doubt: Will she like the toaster I got her? And will she still like ME?