Timing of the wedding ceremony and reception

You have sent out your invitations and your guests have saved the day. For the next few weeks and months you will plan and plan and plan. One of the more important decisions is how you handle the time between the ceremony and the reception.

Separating the ceremony from the reception is one of those plans that is either delightful or disastrous, depending on how you manage it. The results are more likely to be disastrous, which is why very few couples do it! But there’s no absolute etiquette rule saying that you must have your reception follow your ceremony.

The key to success here is the same as with any wedding reception: put your guests’ comfort first! Avoid, at all costs, the Disaster Days below-and consider some of the Winning Weddings and Awesome Alternatives.

Disaster One: Right Party, Wrong Time

Guests expect to go straight from the ceremony site to the reception, with perhaps a slight delay for handshaking and photography. If you don’t note the reception time on the invitation card, guests will assume that it follows immediately. They’ll drive straight to the reception site… only to find locked doors or be told, “No, that wedding isn’t until six!” That’s no way to make someone feel welcome!

This is one of the few cases where I would advise spending a few dollars extra for separate reception cards. The separate card gives you more space for time and place information, and its separateness reinforces the message that the reception is distinct from the ceremony. If you’re determined to squeeze reception information onto the ceremony invitation, make sure to write “Reception at six in the evening” rather than “Reception follows.”

Disaster Two: Bored, Bewildered and Bushwhacked

It’s every guest’s nightmare: stuck in a small town for six hours, on a 100-degree day, wearing his or her best clothes, with no lunch choices other than Dairy Queen or the local truck stop, and nothing to do after lunch but stare into space and swat flies.

These guests are still your guests between the end of the ceremony and the beginning of the reception: you are responsible for seeing that they have a reasonable chance of being fed, comfortable, and entertained. This is much easier to accomplish in a good-sized city than in a tiny rural town!

Provide your out-of-town guests with the information they need to be amused, rather than annoyed, during the break between the ceremony and the reception. This includes a map of the local area, a list of restaurants at various price points, and a list of attractions and shopping. You can often get nifty (and small) packets from your local Chamber of Commerce or Tourist Bureau for free. You don’t even have to spend postage on mailing the packet with every invitation-send it separately to out-of-town guests who accept.

Disaster Three: Bride in Bondage

Formal wedding dresses are not always a picnic to get on and off; elaborate updos with veils simply don’t come down without destroying the hairdo. If the bride can’t take off her dress during the inevitable lull between the last formal photos (no one can fill six hours with photography!), what does she do? Sit very still and itch? Not much fun!

If you go with the later reception, the bride should think in terms of a more flexible hairstyle that will survive the day-and about how she’ll get in and out of the dress. Bridesmaids and male attendants also may need some help planning for how to look fresh and unwrinkled half a day after getting dressed for the ceremony. Or you may want a theme reception that calls for more casual attire.

Disaster Four: Harumph Time!

The traditional rules for men’s formalwear are different for morning and evening: morning suits for events before six o’clock and tuxes or “white tie and tails” for evening. Renting two sets of formal attire is unlikely to be a hit with the groomsmen-so which rule do you intend to break? If everyone in your social circle wears tuxes for daytime weddings, you don’t have a problem-but if the old rules are still followed, you might want to start thinking about that casual reception again!

Disaster Five: Photo Fed Up

The cost to keep a photographer from 10 a.m. (for pre-game coverage of the bride dressing) to midnight (when the dancing ends) will be little short of astronomical. And don’t count on getting a bargain by sending the photographer home between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. He or she could shoot two weddings in the time needed for your one wedding. Will you do without photos of reception events or prepare to empty your bank account for full coverage?

Disaster Six: Party Pooped

The ceremony excitement has dissipated in the six-hour wait… the guests have kept themselves busy all afternoon… now it’s time for the reception… and it’s just a formal dinner that could have been held at lunch time with equal success. Tired, bored, and out of energy, the guests yawn, eat, and leave early.

If you’re going to have a reception much later in the day than the wedding, there needs to be an exciting reason for the gap, like dancing.

Winner One: Dance Fever

One of the best justifications for a later reception is to have more lively dancing. You can have dancing during an afternoon reception, but it’s more difficult to generate enthusiasm to keep the dance floor filled.

Since most women’s formal daytime dresses aren’t cut for hard dancing, you may want to mention dancing in the invitation. I suggest something like:

Host’s names
request the pleasure of your company
for dinner and dancing
at six in the evening
location of reception

Winner Two: Living Large

Can you make the gap between events into a treat for your guests without entertaining them in person? Suggesting an affordable but luxurious hotel-which is possible in areas that get lots of business travel but few tourists-with swimming pool, spa, and shuttle to attractions can be a big hit. So can providing an outstanding list of activities that your specific guests are likely to enjoy, such as a foreign film festival for your artsy friends from college. It is sometimes possible to arrange group rates or even, rarely, free complementary tickets.

Alternative One: Elegant Luncheon

Almost anything you can do with a dinner can be done at lunch time-including dancing! There’s much to be said for taking advantage of your guest’s party mood at the end of the ceremony and heading for the reception as quickly as possible. With an 11 a.m. wedding, the ceremony will end just in time for lunch anyway.

A luncheon reception has two major advantages. First, it’s usually a bit less expensive than dinner. Second, the reception will end before you and your new spouse are exhausted-which gives you more time and better time together on your first night as a married couple.

The question, of course, is how you fit photos into the day without neglecting your guests. Take as many photos as possible before the ceremony-separately, if you want to avoid “seeing” each other. Do only a small number of posed photos with both of you after ceremony. If you plan this carefully, your post-ceremony photos will take about 20 minutes.

Alternative Two: Evening Ceremony

Why not hold the ceremony later in the day? There are, it’s true, a number of churches that don’t hold Saturday afternoon ceremonies due to conflicts with other events-but double check that this applies to your church! There’s a popular belief that all Roman Catholic weddings must be before noon… but our parish does weddings at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.!

If you’re not planning to get married in a church, then there’s much to be said for simply holding the ceremony at the reception site. Most popular reception sites can easily be set up for ceremonies as well.

The advantage of an evening ceremony is that you have all day to get ready-no rushing around early in the morning! You can even, if you have your heart set on formals in a park, do those photos before the ceremony, in the afternoon light! (Yes, you’ll “see” each other. Many couples do.)

If you look for examples of successful “split” ceremonies and receptions on the Web-well, good luck! Very few couples take this route, which might be a good warning of the dangers.







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