Bearing in mind that your minister, your mother, or your maid of honor may be horrified because “that’s not the way we do things here!”, what follows is the order of events for a fairly typical wedding.
Starting 20 to 30 minutes before the ceremony, the ushers seat guests. The musicians play background music. If formal photos were scheduled for before the wedding, they are now complete enough that the ushers are free to do their job and the wedding party is not hanging out in the church.
The mother of the bride is seated last, just before the scheduled start time of the ceremony (unless your religion includes her in the processional). She is traditionally the only person entitled to be seated at a special time. Approximately one minute after the scheduled start time, the minister, the groom, and the best man take their places at the front of the ceremony space and the musicians start to play the processional music (in some religions, the minister, the groom, and the best man are in the processional. Your officiant will tell you if this rule applies to you).
The most traditional order of the processional is ushers in pairs, followed by bridesmaids in pairs, followed by the maid of honor, ring bearer, and flower girl. The bride enters last, escorted by her father (unless your preference or religion dictates that she be escorted by both parents). In the most traditional weddings, the processional music is the same for the entire wedding party. The officiant greets the guests and, if this is a religious wedding, leads a brief opening prayer. He or she also (optionally) asks who gives the bride in marriage. If you plan to have readings, these follow.
After the readings, the officiant gives his or her message. At this point, you should be about 20 minutes into the ceremony. Be aware that some religious traditions may require more or fewer readings, or the addition of songs. It is actually more traditional for a Protestant or secular wedding to have no readings at all, but many churches have abandoned that format in favor of a wedding ceremony that is more like a Sunday worship gathering.
The vows are followed by the exchange of rings. If the ceremony includes the officiant “pronouncing you husband and wife,” he or she does so now, then you and your new spouse exchange a kiss. If you intend to light a unity candle-an excellent example of a “tradition” that is less than 20 years old-you do so after the kiss (the side candles were lit during the processional, which means you would rearrange the order of entrances so that the mothers come first).
The officiant then introduces the two of you as husband and wife, you both look deliriously happy, and you process out. The bride and groom are followed by the adult attendants in pairs. You may now go take some more photos while the guests sort themselves out to go to the reception.
The reception starts with a receiving line consisting of both mothers, the bride and groom, and the female attendants. It is distinctly non-traditional to skip the receiving line or to hold it at the church. The “announcement” with special theme music of the wedding party and parents is also not a tradition from mainstream etiquette.
Waiters can circulate with drinks and hors d’oeuvres while the receiving line is in progress. The presence of the waiters raises the question of what sort of reception you’re having. The most traditional reception in the northeast is a “wedding breakfast” held following a noon wedding, but evening weddings with dinner are now more popular. Traditional weddings in the south are more likely to serve only “cake and punch.”
No matter what you plan to serve, thirst-quenching drinks should be available from the moment the first guest arrives at the reception. The bride and groom can open the dancing either before or after food is served. If there is to be a dinner followed by dancing, the “first dance” occurs after dinner. If food is to be served after dancing begins, the “first dance” is the first major event. In the most traditional format, once the bride and groom have danced, other guests are allowed out on the floor while the bride dances with her father, the groom with his mother, both of them with the opposite-sex attendants, and so on. It is, however, more usual today for the “parents” dances to occur before open dancing starts.
Toasts should begin at the end of the guests’ time to eat. If the wedding cake is the major refreshment, then the bride and groom should cut the cake before any toasting takes place. The first toast is the best man’s toast to the bride. This may be followed by other toasts or not.
When the couple is ready to leave for the honeymoon, they leave to change out of their wedding finery. Last thing before she exits, the bride tosses her bouquet to the single women in the room (there is no garter toss at a “traditional” wedding). The bride and groom change into their “traveling clothes,” return to the party, and exit through a shower of rice, rose petals, or bubbles. And that’s it! The only thing left is to write the thank-you notes