Wedding planning is no easy task, especially when it comes to the ceremony. While you should be fantasizing about the moment you’ll say “I do," you’ll actually be sifting through tons of logical battles, like where you should seat your divorced parents or if you can include a man in your bridal party. Thankfully, our wedding experts have tips for navigating these dilemmas and many more.
"The bride and groom should have a vision when planning their celebration," says Julie Blais Comeau, chief etiquette officer at etiquettejulie.com. Communication between to-be-spouses is key to planning the ceremony, and their choices should always rely on strategy and logic.
Meet the Expert
Julie Blais Comeau is the chief etiquette officer at etiquettejulie.com. A speaker, author, media collaborator, spokesperson, and host, she is Canada's go-to dynamic etiquette expert.
If you're questioning your enthusiasm for some of the most long-standing wedding traditions, don't fret. "Everything is pretty much possible these days," says Blais Comeau. "Most customs can be upheld, tossed out, or switched up at the couple's will, so there's much more flexibility to create a ceremony that's true to their values."
Ahead, we asked a wedding etiquette expert to answer the most common ceremony questions.
Can we have a small ceremony but a big reception?
If you want to keep your vows exclusive but still host a big reception, definitely consider it, but be mindful of your loved ones' feelings. "When making these choices, consider the perceptions of others, especially those of uninvited guests. Who could feel excluded, and more importantly, why?" says Blais Comeau.
Guests more commonly attend both the ceremony and the reception, but, says Blais Comeau, people understand if they aren't invited to both. She says, however, that if you plan to host a big reception and a small ceremony, you must invite people in categories, such as cousins, siblings, team members, etc. You should not exclude any member of these groups unless you are sure it's justifiable. In that case, you should always make a phone call and speak from your heart to validate your decision. Otherwise, the consequences can last a lifetime.
Furthermore, wedding invitations should make it clear that the recipient is invited to the reception only. If there are questions or confusion, politely explain to friends and family that you intentionally kept the vows small.
Can I have a pre-reception break?
A short hiatus between the wedding ceremony and reception is probably helpful to you since you can take your formal pictures and still make it to your cocktail hour. However, your guests may be sitting around twiddling their thumbs if a “short” break means hours. If you’re not asking guests to completely change outfits (as is common for Indian weddings), keep the break to under an hour. Part of that time may go to transferring from the ceremony location to the reception venue.
To keep guests from seeking out a random coffee shop or bar to kill time (the worst!), invite guests to a hospitality suite, either at the hotel or the venue, where they can grab a light refreshment, like tea and cookies. If everything is happening at the same location, consider extending the cocktail hour so that guests can mix and mingle while you take a breather.
Do I have to have a wedding party?
While the wedding party is a great way to honor your friends and family, it’s not the only way. Traditionally, bridesmaids were summoned as decoys for the bride—they would dress up like the bride to throw off evil spirits or robbers out for the dowry. Since those issues don't usually come up these days, the wedding party has morphed into the VIPs of the day who are also tasked with assisting the to-be-weds.
You should, however, consider who it is you'd like to recognize on your big day. If you don't want to have a wedding party, you can always include other loved ones in the processional, like grandparents and siblings, says Blais Comeau. In this case, have them walk down the aisle in order of precedence.
Do note that you will need two witnesses for your marriage license—commonly the maid of honor and best man—so be sure to give two guests a heads up that they have an important job to do after the recession.
May our dog participate in the wedding ceremony?
Dogs, cats, llamas, and even turtles—we’ve seen all sorts of pets help their owners say “I do.” You should, though, consult with your venue. For instance, if the ceremony takes place in a religious institution, make sure to ask the officiant if it’s ok to have a pup present.
Further, be honest with yourself about how your dog reacts to large crowds. Is Fido chill, or will he jump and lick all your guests? Will your pet sit quietly during the ceremony, or run off to find the appetizers? Will he bark over your vows or have an accident on your train? If the answers seem reasonable, go for it.
Designate a dog-friendly attendant to escort your fur baby down the aisle and keep hands on the leash during the ceremony. A treat at the end is always appreciated!
Can my best guy friend be a part of my bridal party?
"When you have a strategy for a celebration of love, you should think, 'Who do we want to honor and recognize?" says Blais Comeau. If the answer is your best guy friend, you should absolutely include him in your bridal party. Several couples have fused the idea of bridesmaids and groomsmen into mixed-gender wedding parties. Consider calling him a “bridesman” and have him participate in all the same activities as the ladies.
The same goes for grooms who want their close gal friends as part of the group. Christen her “best woman” or “groomslady.” One of our wedding party highlights included two bridesmen who carried bouquets down the aisle. Have fun with it!
If my 14-year-old cousin is in the bridal party, do I have to call her a junior bridesmaid?
You don’t often see the inclusion of a junior bridesmaid these days, but they are a customary member of the bridal party. Typically, a junior bridesmaid is a female who is too old to be a flower girl and too young to be a bridesmaid. These younger girls enter the ceremony before the posse of bridesmaids.
However, it all comes down to how close you want to stay to tradition. Today, we have grandmothers and pups serving as flower girls and our male BFFs as bridesmen. We say, call her whatever you want. We're sure she’ll be excited to be in the “big girl” group.
Can we have a wedding party even though it's not traditional for Hindu weddings?
Absolutely. Plenty of modern Hindu weddings have picked up the idea of a wedding party. Hindu couples, like those of other faiths and cultures, want to honor their close friends and family in a special way. While there’s less for the wedding party to do in a traditional sense—the best man won’t need to hold onto a ring—you can have the bridesmaids strategize to steal the groom’s shoes.
Do I have to wear a gown on my wedding day?
First off, let go of the expectation you have to wear a dress. Just because a dress is traditional does not mean it's necessary. Designers have also gotten the memo that it’s not all about strapless lace ball gowns, so look for elegant pantsuits and jumpsuits at local bridal salons and online. You can even go custom and design your very own bridal suit.
We’re two grooms, is it okay if we both wear white?
"Definitely!" says Blais Comeau. Just because there is not a bride doesn’t mean you both can’t rock white hues. Attire for the to-be-weds is a personal decision, so head to the haberdashery to design your look. We especially love a white dinner jacket with a sleek black lapel.
Can I wear heels for my beach wedding?
Heels do wonders for a dress or chic pantsuit: They lengthen your look and make your posture absolutely perfect for photos. Heels and sand, however, are a recipe for disaster. Could you imagine missing your first dance thanks to a twisted ankle? Don the stilettos for photos on stable ground, then swap them for chic flats or bejeweled sandals for the walk down the aisle. Plus, you picked the beach for a reason, and we’ll bet you want to feel the sand in between your toes.
How do I keep from crying at my wedding?
Whether from joy or nerves, many brides and grooms sob throughout the ceremony, and we don’t think you have to try not to! Rather than ruining their time, many couples report it makes the experience more real and emotional for everyone.
If you’re worried about messing up your hair and makeup, which is really the only downside to happy tears, apply waterproof mascara and alert your makeup artist you’ll likely have some waterfalls. Most pros are used to the request.
Before you walk down the aisle, try a few calming exercises, like yogic breathing techniques (Google nadi shodhana) and power posing, popularized by Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Finally, a glass of bubbly never hurt.
Have your maid of honor or best man carry a decorative handkerchief for your sniffles during your vows. You’ll find dainty ones at vintage shops and on Etsy.
Can we use a chuppah at our ceremony if we're not Jewish?
If you aren't part of a religious group but are considering incorporating religious customs into your wedding, seek advice from all parties involved. "To ensure that no faux-pas are committed or that no one is embarrassed, couples should validate their anticipated activities with the officiant, the venue, and, if needed, their close family members," says Blais Comeau.
Since chuppahs hold specific significance in Jewish culture that may not reflect your religious beliefs, we suggest designing a canopy instead, which will give you a similar look. Especially popular for outdoor weddings, canopies help define the altar area and provide a backdrop of sorts for the couple. They look awesome in photos, and since you aren’t beholden to religious requirements, you can get creative with the details and embellishments.
Do I have to walk down the aisle to a classical song?
Outside of religious institutions, it’s fair game as far as music. (Churches, for example, sometimes have a list of specific, approved songs you must choose from). Want Mariah Carey, Louis Armstrong, or Blake Shelton? Go for it.
The only etiquette requirement is to make sure the lyrics are appropriate for all ages. For a unique twist, consider the instrumental version, (which also avoids any debatable words) or have a string quartet play an arrangement of popular music, such as a song by Kanye West.
I'm closer to my stepdad than my biological father. To avoid hurt feelings, can I walk down the aisle alone?
"The only way to make these kinds of decisions is to be up-front and speak with your heart," says Blais Comeau. Whether you want to walk alone or would prefer to walk with your stepfather, an effective conversation with your father is key. Start by saying, "This is going to be difficult," then calmly explain your reasoning and intentions. Since its possible feelings will be hurt, have the conversation early on; it will alleviate drama, lower your stress level, and leave more time before the wedding for everyone involved to make peace.
If you choose not to include your father or father figure, there are plenty of other thoughtful options for your escort: Your mother can walk with you, or you can take parents out of it entirely and walk with a sibling, close friend, or mentor. If you’ve thought about everything and all parties involved seem cool, go for it solo and rock it.
In what order does the wedding party walk down the aisle during the procession?
While you can certainly change it up, there is a traditional order. The officiant, groom, and best man enter first and stand at the altar. Then enter the bride’s attendants, either escorted by the groom’s attendants or alone. The maid or matron of honor enters last. In some cases, the best man and maid/matron of honor enter together, but it's less traditional. Then come the ring bearer and flower girl, either single file or together. At the altar, they can stand with the wedding party if they have the attention span; otherwise, have them sit with their parents near the front. Then, of course, comes the bride.
Whatever you do, make sure there is some kind of logic involved that has to do with precedence. "Have people walk in an order that is strategic and logical according to the couple's values and the type of ceremony," says Blais Comeau.
For same-sex couples, one, both, or neither partner may walk down the aisle, so it depends on what the pair decides is best. If they have a wedding party, the group will follow a similar order as above.
For a guide on the processional order, watch our handy video.
Where do I seat my divorced and remarried parents during the ceremony?
When deciding on prime wedding ceremony seating, your guidelines should be good judgment and family dynamics. If everyone is comfortable and on speaking terms, your mother and father can sit in the first row with their respective spouses. If they need a little space between them, put one set of parents in the front row and the other in the second row.
Another option is to place them in the front row, but with a mutual party, such as close relatives, in between. If you’re mixing up the seating sides, consider having each set of parents on opposite sides of the aisle intermixed with your soon-to-be spouse’s parents and close relatives.
"Whatever the couple decides, they should inform their parents ahead of time of the seating plans. Being open will ensure that no one is surprised, or worse, offended by where they sit," says Blais Comeau.
Which side of the aisle do guests sit on at a same-sex union?
Like any wedding, it’s up to the couple to decide if they want separate sides for the separate partners. Judging by what we’ve seen, typically, anything goes. Today’s couples, whether heterosexual or homosexual, want to bring their community of people together, and that means letting them sit wherever they please.
Whatever you decide, communicate it to your guests with signage. We particularly love the phrase: “Choose a seat, not a side.”
Can our minister use my nickname instead of my given name during the vows?
Yes! During one of life's most memorable moments, you should go by the name that feels like you. "It is the officiant’s responsibility to reflect your wishes for the ceremony," says Blais Comeau. "He or she can state your full given name and also add your nickname," she suggested.
You must, however, use your official name on your legal documents, like your marriage license.
How do I select my readings?
There is a broad range of material to use for your readings: Biblical passages, quotes from the Quran, poems, excerpts from books, poems, song lyrics, and more.
While there’s no strict rule, you should consider a reading that speaks to your love story and is appropriate for all ages. That said, some religious institutions do pare down your choices. For example, Roman Catholic churches often have a short-list of Biblical passages to choose from.
If your ceremony is non-denominational, consider works of literature or music that inspire you or speak to you as a couple.
Do non-Catholic guests and the wedding party have to participate in the Catholic ceremony?
In all cases, an individual’s participation depends on their personal beliefs, especially if they adhere to the dogmas of other religions. "They do not have to comply by saying the words or making the gestures, but they should have a solemn demeanor that respects the chosen rites of the couple," says Blais Comeau. Make sure everyone feels welcome by having your officiant explain that guests should kneel, stand, and sing to the degree that they feel comfortable. It’s also helpful to print this information in the program.
Blais Comeau adds, "If a guest wishes to follow along what is customary, it is perfectly acceptable to inquire beforehand, practice, and participate at the appropriate moment."
For your VIPs, including close family members, your future in-laws, and your wedding party, speak with everyone ahead of time to let them know what to anticipate and discuss any discomfort with the ceremony expectations.
As a gay couple, will our marriage still count if we don't want to kiss at the end of the ceremony?
The only thing that’s legally needed to make your “marriage count” is the marriage license. If a kiss isn’t your thing, don’t make yourself uncomfortable at your own marriage thinking you have to. Cut that part out of the cues; just let your officiant know ahead of time.
"A wedding is a celebration of love according to the couple’s preferences. It is up to each individual couple to kiss or not or to include another symbol for the officialization of their union," says Blais Comeau.
That said, if you do want to kiss but think your guests won’t be into it, that’s a valid concern. Not all homosexual couples are ready to showcase their love physically, and that’s a respectable decision. Just make sure you won’t regret it later by worrying too much about your guests and not enough about you and your partner.
How can we be introduced at the end of the ceremony if I'm not changing my last name?
Some couples choose to still be introduced as Mr. and Mrs. Groom’s Last Name, since the bride may go by her husband’s name socially. If that feels wrong to you, you can change how you’re announced. Ask the officiant to simply say “Mr. and Mrs.” without a last name, or have them announce you as your names will be: “Introducing Mr. Miller and Mrs. Abbot.”
For same-sex couples, if you are both keeping your last names, you can be introduced in the order you wish, and a good officiant will consult with you ahead of time, says Blais Comeau. If you are taking your husband or wife's last name, you may be introduced as such: "Mr. and Mr. (or Mrs. and Mrs.) Newlywed."
Or, feel free to skip last names entirely. Be titled by your first names, or bypass names altogether and simply go with, “Introducing the newly betrothed couple.”