22 Wedding Ceremony Etiquette Tips from the Experts

Your top questions answered.

Updated 11/08/18

Photo by Gianluca & Mary Adovasio

Planning is no easy task, and especially not when it comes to the ceremony. Odds are, you haven’t organized one before! And while you should be basking in the moment you’ll say “I do” to your forever partner, you’re actually sifting through tons of logical battles, like where to seat your divorced parents or if you can include a man in your bridal party. (That’s an enthusiastic yes, by the way!) We gathered our best wedding etiquette experts to answer popular ceremony questions, so you can get back to the fun part: relishing in that pre-wedding glow.

01 of 22

We'd like to have a small ceremony but a big reception. Is that okay?

small ceremony rugs in aisle and altar structure

Photo by Pat Furey Photography

You should feel comfortable at your wedding and design the day as a reflection of you. If you want to keep the actual “I dos” to an intimate group, definitely consider it. But before you make the decision, ask yourselves this: "Will we look back and regret the fact that everyone we love didn't get to see us seal the deal?" If you don't think so, then go for the smaller ceremony. We do advise that you take into account the feelings of your guests in that situation. Guests more commonly attend both the ceremony and the reception. Your 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. To make the reception-only guests feel more included, hire a videographer who can edits highlights of the ceremony to show during dinner and dancing. A short clip of the first kiss, and any hard feelings will quickly be forgotten.

02 of 22

Can I have a pre-reception break?

bride and groom backyard

Photo by Kate Headley

A short hiatus between the wedding ceremony and reception is probably helpful to you as 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, like 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 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, considering extending cocktail hour so that guests can mix and mingle while you take a breather. With the extra-long event, you’ll get to enjoy it too.

03 of 22

I don’t want a wedding party. Do I have to have one?

first kiss

Photo by Addison Jones

Absolutely not. 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 aren’t really issues these days, the wedding party has morphed into the VIPs of the day who are also tasked with assisting the to-be-weds. But that brings a lot of drama, too, and sometimes it’s easier not to pick and choose among your best buds. Just 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.

04 of 22

May our dog participate in the wedding ceremony?

dog ring bearer

Photo by Valorie Darling

Dogs, cats, llamas, and even turtles—we’ve seen all sorts of pets help their owners say “I do.” You should, though, check a few items off this list to avoid any downsides. If the ceremony takes place in a religious institution, consult the officiant to make sure it’s ok to have a pup present. Be honest with yourself about how your dog reacts to large crowds. Is Fido chill or going to jump and lick all your guests? Will your pet sit quietly during the ceremony or run off to find the appetizers? Will he be barking over your vows or, to be frank, have an accident on your train? If the answers seem reasonable, go for it. Bonus tip: Designate a dog-friendly attendant to escort them down the aisle and keep hands on the leash during the ceremony. A treat at the end is always appreciated!

05 of 22

My best friend is a guy. Can he be part of my bridal party?

Athena Pelton

We love a “man of honor!” You can absolutely include your favorite dude in the 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, unless he’s not into pre-wedding mani-pedis. The same goes for grooms who want their close lady 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!

06 of 22

What’s the deal with a junior bridesmaid? If my 14-year-old cousin is in the wedding party, do we have to call her that?

Junior Bridesmaids and Flower Girls

Photo by Jen Huang

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 too old to be a flower girl and too young to be a bridesmaid, and the girls would enter before the posse of bridesmaids. What does that even mean? Today we have grandmothers and pups serving as flower girls and our gay BFFs as bridesmen! We say you can call her whatever you want, and we’re sure she’ll be excited to be in a the “big girl” group.

07 of 22

We’re Indian, and we want to have a wedding party, even that is not traditional for Hindu weddings. Can we do that?

Wedding Party

Photo by Tec Petaja

Absolutely. Plenty of Hindu weddings these days have picked up the idea of a wedding party. Hindu couples, like plenty 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 the shoes.

08 of 22

I never wear dresses, and I don’t want to start at my wedding. However, I’m feeling pressured to don a gown on the big day. What do I do?

white jumpsuit

Photo by Shane Shepherd

First off, let go of the expectation you have to wear a dress—you don’t! Just because a dress has become traditional does not mean there is a rule out there saying you must. Designers, also, have 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 own. We’re going to bet you’ll find the perfect pair of pants.

09 of 22

We’re two grooms, and we both want to wear white. Is that cool?

Grooms laughing

Photo by The Nichols

Of course! 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.

10 of 22

Do you think I can wear heels for my beach wedding?

bride and groom wedding shoes

Photo by Collective by Concept Photography

Great question. 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 your toes.

11 of 22

How do I keep from crying at my wedding?

Groom crying

Photo by Gianluca & Mary Adovasio

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. Go with the flow, quite literally! 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. Also, 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. 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 bubbles never hurt.

12 of 22

We're not Jewish, but we love the look of a chuppah. Can we still use one at the ceremony?

chuppah

Photo by Callie Hobbs Photography

We suggest designing a wedding canopy rather than a chuppah. Chuppahs hold specific significance in Jewish culture; according to custom, four attendants hold or stand by the poles and a prayer shawl is draped over the top to represent the home the couple will share together. Since that may not signify your religious beliefs, canopies 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.

13 of 22

Do I have to walk down the aisle to a classical song, such as Pachelbel’s 'Canon in D'? Or can I pick my favorite pop song?

Bride walking down aisle with mother

Photo by Kelly Anne Berry

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.) You 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 an unique twist, consider the instrumental version (which also avoids any debatable words) or have a string quartet play arrangements of popular music, such as Kanye West. If you’re looking for inspo, check out our list here.

14 of 22

My parents are both remarried. I have always been closer to my stepdad than to my father, but I don't want to ruffle any feathers. Would it be okay to walk down the aisle alone?

bride walking down aisle

Photo by Katie Grant

How you walk down the aisle is totally up to you. Look at Meghan Markle when she married Prince Harry! That said, it would be considerate of you to understand everyone’s feelings. Have an honest conversation with your mother about how it might affect your father and your step-father. Plus, there are plenty of thoughtful options if you do want to be escorted: Your mother can walk with you, your step-father, or even both your father and step-father. 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.

15 of 22

During the procession, in what order does the wedding party, including the children, walk down the aisle?

three flower girls walking down aisle

Photo by Winsome and Wright

This is a great question. While you can certainly change it up—we love a strong groom’s entrance—there is a traditional order. The bride’s attendants enter first, either escorted by someone from the groom’s attendants or alone. The maid or matron of honor would enter last, with the best man if both roles are filled. 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. 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 this handy video!

16 of 22

My divorced parents are both remarried. How do I work the ceremony seating?

ceremony seating and floral aisle decoration

Photo by Justin Lane of Brian Dorsey Studio

When deciding prime wedding ceremony seating, your guidelines should be good judgment and family dynamics. If everyone is comfortable, 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. We know that may still cause drama, so 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 spouse’s parents and close relatives.

17 of 22

Which side of the aisle do guests sit on at a same-sex union?

brides at the altar lesbian wedding

Photo by Katie Edwards Photography

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, it’s 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 with your guests with signage. We particularly love the phrase: “Choose a seat, not a side.”

18 of 22

I haven't gone by my given first name, Gwendolyn, since I was a child. Can our minister use my nickname, Lynnie, during the vows?

bride and groom holding hands ceremony

Photo by Danielle DeFiore

Yes! During one of life's most memorable moments, you should go by the name that feels like you. However, you will want to use your official name on your legal documents like your marriage license.

19 of 22

How do I select my readings? Are there only certain religious passages I can use?

exchanging vows

Photo by Within This Day

There is a broad range of material to use for your readings: Biblical passages, quotes from the Quran, poems, excerpts from books, 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 (click here for our roundup of 30).

20 of 22

What's the rule: Do non-Catholic guests and the wedding party have to go through the motions of a Catholic ceremony?

roman catholic ceremony couple praying

Photo by Sara Lobla

In all cases, an individual’s participation depends on their personal beliefs, especially if they adhere to the dogmas of other religions. Make sure everyone feels welcome by having your officiant explain that guests should kneel, stand, and sing to the degree that they feel comfortable. That goes for the wedding party too. If you’re offering Communion, for example, have the priest announce that guests can receive a blessing rather than the unleavened bread, which is typically reserved for only Catholics. It’s also helpful to print this information in the program, so guests can acquaint themselves with the expectations prior to the event’s kickoff. 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.

21 of 22

We’re gay, and we don’t want to kiss in front of everyone at the end of our ceremony. Do we have to or does it mean our marriage doesn’t count?

Getty Images

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. If you like the idea of an embrace instead, plan a loving hug. The whole day is about you as a couple, and if you’re not into PDA, then a kiss will not be a reflection of you. 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.

22 of 22

I’m not changing my name, so I don’t want to be introduced as Mrs. Miller when I’ll stay Mrs. Abbot. How can we be introduced at the end of the ceremony?

exit

Photo by Volvoreta

This is a great question. 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 him announce you as your names will be: “Introducing Mr. Miller and Mrs. Abbot.” 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.”

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