Renewing wedding vows

Another person asks: “What kind of ceremony is appropriate for two kids who decided to get married and didn’t tell anyone until a few months later. He went to Korea until June and now in June she wants to make a public announcement but I think a full blown wedding is inappropriate since they are already married. Can you give us some advice of how this can be handled in an appropriate manner?”

Different Reasons, Same Issues

I’ve combined these two questions because, although one deals with the renewal of long-acknowledged vows and one deals with what sort of celebration follows a secret marriage, the two situations share some underlying issues.

First and foremost among these issues is that weddings are ordinarily issued one to a couple.<

According to U.S. tradition, however you legally marry, that’s your wedding. This principle is waived for emergencies, such as a civil wedding on the eve of a military transfer, when the “real wedding” is already planned and scheduled. You’ll also occasionally hear of couples who must, for religious reasons, have a full wedding ceremony months, even years, after their civil ceremony. However, the vast majority of the time, it is most proper and accepted that there is only one wedding ceremony, however humble. Any celebrations of getting or being married that come later are, depending on circumstances:

  • A blessing of the marriage. This usually is done when the original ceremony lacked some key element of “church” approval. Marriages get blessed only once (at most, twice, if both partners come from different religious traditions that call for a blessing).
  • A vow renewal. This affirmation of the original wedding vows is done in public only on major anniversaries. Every five years is probably sufficient.
  • A reception. Receptions may be held at any time during the first year of marriage, and a couple may have as many receptions as their friends and family can stand.

A key similarity among all three of these not-quite-a-wedding celebrations is that none of them properly involves a literal-minded staging of a formal wedding as if there had been no earlier vows. The food and drink can be as elegant as you like; the music can be ravishing and the spoken words moving; and the bride (well, wife) can be so beautiful that she leaves guests breathless. But she does not wear a formal wedding gown and veil, there is no hiding of the bride from the groom before the ceremony, and there are no references to “beginning our new lives together.”

Beyond that, the three formats diverge, so let’s take them one by one.

Blessing of the Marriage

A blessing of the marriage is always a religious ceremony, so the final arbiter on the format is the officiant. Sometimes the couple is simply called up to be blessed during the Sunday service. Sometimes local tradition calls for holding something very similar to a full wedding ceremony. Sometimes the blessing is a simple 15-minute ceremony performed with a small gathering of friends and family.

If the church treats the blessing as a full wedding (i.e., it does not acknowledge the validity of the original civil vows), there is no harm in going along with their practices and treating it as a wedding. However, it’s more likely that the church avoids pomp and circumstance when handling blessings. If the couple’s blessing will be during an ordinary Sunday service, they wear their “Sunday best” and the bride might wear a corsage. If the blessing is a private daytime ceremony, the couple wears “Sunday best” or garden party clothes. For an evening ceremony followed by a formal evening party, the bride may wear an evening gown and the groom a tuxedo.

Unless the religious format calls for attendants, there are usually none. Invitations are handwritten to a select guest list who will appreciate the religious significance of the ceremony. The words and music are set in consultation with the officiant. A celebration afterward may include whatever you like-if there was no original wedding reception, it may be treated as a full wedding reception, including cutting of the wedding cake.

An invitation to a blessing does not call for a gift, although some relatives who didn’t think the couple were married until now may decide to give one.

Renewal of Vows

A renewal of vows can be religious or civil, depending on what the original ceremony was (and on whether the couple’s beliefs have changed since then). The central idea here is to renew existing vows, so the ceremony is patterned on the original ceremony. If the original ceremony was a 10-minute quickie at the courthouse, it is okay to have a somewhat more elaborate renewal. What’s likely to excite unfavorable comment is to stage the blow-out wedding you wish you’d had, complete with six matching bridesmaids, showers, a bachelor party, and endless stress and fuss.

Something I learned in looking for sample vow renewals: there’s apparently a trend for couples to renew their vows as part of a second honeymoon on a tropical isle. If the wedding you wish you’d had was an elopement to Maui or the Caribbean, you’re in luck! Since the renewal ceremony is private, capital-E etiquette doesn’t care what you do, and you can thus have your cake and eat it too, all beneath an equatorial sunset.)

The bride wears a gorgeous dress appropriate to the time of day of the ceremony, and the groom wears a suit (for daytime) or a tux (for a formal evening party). It is rarely a good idea to try to recreate the couple’s actual wedding attire exactly, although it may be both practical and touching to recreate the bouquets and other flowers.

The attendants are the same people who attended the original wedding; or, if many years have passed, the couple may instead be attended by their children. The maid of honor and bridesmaids do not wear their original dresses, and we will leave it to the bride’s conscience to decide if recreating the original wedding color scheme would be cruel or kind.

The guest list also consists of people who attended the original wedding, plus their children and grandchildren as the years go by. Adding people who were not invited to the original wedding, or people you didn’t even know at that time, is usually “not done” until at least the 20th anniversary. Use your judgment about what your friends are likely to enjoy and expect. In general, until the couple is quite old and has enjoyed many years together, a smaller list is better than a long one.

The vows should be the same as the couple used the first time, although they may add more if they like, to reflect their experiences together. Readings may be the same as at the original wedding or may be chosen to reflect the couple’s ongoing commitment. Any kind of sermon, homily, or long toast should focus on the couple’s ongoing and renewed commitment rather than repeating the sorts of things that people say about starting new life together. If there is a processional at the beginning of the ceremony, it is best that the couple enter together, arm in arm, rather than separately as in a wedding ceremony.

In general, quieter is better for vow renewals during the first 19 years of marriage. A short guest list and a simple ceremony are most accepted, although you may certainly follow another custom if you belong to a religion or culture that has one. Elaborate celebrations are most accepted at the twenty-fifth, fiftieth, and seventy-fifth anniversaries. The invitations, food, and attire follow the type of party you choose to give.

An invitation to a vow renewal does not call for a present, although most people invited to any party attached to an anniversary will bring an anniversary present.


A reception is simply a party, as elaborate or casual as you like. If there was no “public” reception after the original ceremony, the bride and groom may feed each other wedding cake, be toasted as much as anyone cares to, open the dancing (although technically it’s not exactly their first dance), and even toss flowers at people while having rice or rose petals tossed at them. There are no official attendants unless the original ceremony had attendants.

The couple wears attire appropriate to the party: formal and elegant if the party is formal and elegant, casual if the party is casual. The invitations are usually printed if the guest list is long. If the reception is to be formal, the traditional wording is:

The pleasure of your company is requested
at the wedding reception of
Bride’s Maiden Name
Groom’s Name
Saturday, the tenth of July
at six o’clock in the evening
Bullwinkle Garden Hotel
Brunswick, New York

If you fear that this wording will confuse guests, who may think that the wedding took place at five o’clock on July 10, you may alter the wording to something like this:

The pleasure of your company is requested
at a reception in honor of the recent marriage of
Bride’s Maiden Name
Groom’s Name
Saturday, the tenth of July
at six o’clock in the evening
Bullwinkle Garden Hotel
Brunswick, New York

If the party is to be casual, you may use any wording you like to convey the same message, using, of course, more informal invitations. For a short guest list, you can send letters or phone instead.

As far as the length of the guest list, it may be as small or as large as you like. It is equally appropriate to invite 20 friends for turkey and stuffing, 200 people for barbecued burgers, 150 people for a formal meal with champagne, or 50 people for a buffet Whatever the host might wish to hold is fine.

Gifts are not required. If guests are generally excited about the marriage, they’ll tend to treat the reception as “the wedding” and bring gifts. If there is something in the air that suggests something fishy about the whole situation, or if guests feel robbed because they weren’t included in the vows, fewer presents will arrive. It’s best for a couple who eloped to be prepared to be gracious about the whole gifts issue. There’s no harm in registering now if there’s every reason to believe that guests will ask for registry information, but there’s also no point in being disappointed if the delayed reception is treated as a party rather than as a wedding.

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