I had never heard of this custom, so I inquired further. What on earth does it mean to 'cover your plate?'
It seems that, in some pockets of the country (apparently, not mine), a wedding guest is supposed to give a gift commensurate to the costs incurred by the host to feed him or her at the wedding. If the wedding is an extravagant one at a posh hotel or historic mansion, for example, you give a nicer gift than one being held at the VFW. The idea is to be a 'good guest' by defraying the cost of the wedding.
Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked how is one to know what is being spent? I got married years ago, so I have no clue how much it costs to have a wedding anywhere these days. Some people said you can make discreet inquiries, but generally you just guestimate. One person told me the mother of the bride at one wedding to which she was invited loudly broadcasted the cost-per-head so people would know what to pay. That was generally frowned upon by the cover-your-platers as 'really rude.'
I tried to contain my shock and horror at this barbaric practice as I questioned further. What if your beloved sister is being married at the local Cracker Barrel? Do you get her a vegetable peeler, while giving a random colleague a KitchenAid mixer because her wedding is more expensive? I mean, really, I'm asking. Because this whole idea is, to me, abhorrent.
"Oh no, not necessarily. Cover your plate is a guideline. It's just good manners. It's, like, in Emily Post, you know."
No, I don't know, so I did some of my exhaustive internet research. As I expected, it is NOT a rule of etiquette. Emily Post (and her progeny who carry on her work) never advocated covering your plate. Neither does Miss Manners, who is quite adamant that a gift is freely given, never required. The whole idea that you are expected to effectively pay for your food at a wedding is awful. And, according to one wedding planner, it encourages brides and grooms to spend more on their weddings with the assumption that they'll recoup some of their losses in gifts.
My face is in my hands and I am weeping for the barbarism of humanity. Truly, this is so awful. Have we completely lost any sense of what it means to be a gracious host? If I am hosting a party, I do not charge my guests at the door. Do you know why? Because they are my GUESTS. Being a guest means you don't have to pay. (This is why I hate it when hotels and restaurants refer to paying customers as 'guests.' If you are going to hand me a bill when I leave, I am not a guest.)
Guests receive the hospitality of others. Typically, a guest will provide flowers or wine (or in one case, a melon) as a gesture of thanks, but even that is not required. I will think nothing less of anyone who comes empty handed, because it is my pleasure to have them. I don't expect them to do some back-of-the-napkin calculation on how much I'm spending to feed them.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season in the liturgical calendar called Lent. It is the forty days (minus Sundays) preceding the high holy day of Easter, at which we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. Lent has traditionally been a solemn period of sacrifice and reflection. Historically, Christians engaged in the practice of fasting during this time. Many people give something up--TV, chocolate, wine, sacrificing some pleasure that makes them more mindful of the sacrifice of Christ.
Many protestant denominations do not observe Lent, and some people even denounce it as a works-based vestige of medieval Catholicism. That's not a completely unfair association--indeed, the middle ages saw practices like Lent sorely abused. The idea that we give something up, then God 'owes' us is an easy seed to sow in the human heart. When you think about it, the death of God's only son hardly competes with giving up Facebook for six weeks! That's about how absurd the idea of owing God is, but it's an easy place for the heart to go.
All that said, my Presbyterian self loves me some good Lent, and I commend other Christians to explore it. Your Easter celebration is immeasurably sweeter--literally--when it is preceded by a season of restraint. It is humbling. We can't bring anything to gates of heaven. We can't 'cover our plates' at the celestial banquet. We can't even try. The work was done on the cross, and not by us.
One cover-your-plate advocate said, 'it's just about being a good guest.' And I can appreciate how, on the surface, it might feel that way. I'm not being a bother. I'm not putting the hosts out too much by coming to the wedding if I pay up. But in so doing, we cease to be guests. Being a 'good guest' means, in a sense, to humble ourselves. We have to receive. The only thing required of a guest is to respond to the gift with thankfulness and rejoicing. Gifts, by definition, are freely given. Grace is a gift, we can't cover it.
During my plate-covering research, I happened upon a very entertaining blog called 'Hells Bells.' (It seems to be dormant, the most recent post is dated September 2014.) It's basically a catalog of wedding etiquette misdeeds. I guarantee it will make you feel better about loudly blowing your nose during a friend's wedding in 1997 (not saying I did that, just conjecturing, really...) It can also make you feel deliciously superior for never having transgressed quite as badly as some.
And if while reading it, you are troubled by a smug self-righteousness bubbling up in your soul, fear not--there's always Lent!