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Reception 101: Party Protocol

Martha Stewart Weddings, Fall 2009

You've played dress-up in bridal boutiques, tasted tarts and tartare, sipped rose with a sommelier, and picked the perfect peonies for your bouquet. And the ceremony site, reception locale, and first song? Check, check, and check. But even if you have the details down, there are still parts of the planning that require more than playing a game of favorites. These decisions usually have to do with etiquette, that age-old art, and demand patience and diplomacy. Before you decide to go strictly by the rule book, though, remember that there's a difference between traditional etiquette and modern manners. It's always good to be familiar with the former, but the latter might be a better fit for the forward-thinking bride. Where appropriate, we reference both points of view so that you can make an informed decision.

In the end, "you should be your most gracious, beautiful self at your wedding," says Marcy Blum, a wedding planner in New York City. "You want your guests to look back and think the day was such a dream" -- even for them. Here's how to navigate party pitfalls while minding your manners.

You're worried that a couple of your friends will show up with dates even though they weren't invited with them and though children weren't invited, you have a sneaking feeling one of your friends might bring hers. What can be done about the crashers? 
You should make all guests who walk through the door -- even if you did not receive a reply card from them or if they were not invited -- feel welcome. "There will always be enough food and enough booze," says Blum.

In fact, always assume that you'll have more people attending than replied, says Hotchkiss. "Oftentimes, a reply card will get lost in the mail, or someone will think they replied when they didn't." Tell the person in charge of your venue that you'd like two to four extra place settings ready, just in case. And if you're renting, always order three to five percent more of everything than the number of guests who RSVP'd yes, says Hotchkiss. (Besides being prepared for an extra guest or two, you'll also be covered in the event a chair breaks or a napkin rips.) Don't max out every single table, and it will be easy to squeeze in an extra chair or two. 

If you're at the stage where many of your friends have little ones, and you're determined to have a grown-up affair, be proactive. Don't mention children's names on the invitation; include a card that says, "Children are welcome to the ceremony. During the reception, they are expected in our kids' hospitality suite." You may want to have individual conversations with parents you think may have a problem with this. "If you know them well enough to invite them, then you know them well enough to call them up and discuss the matter," says Mac Adam. Suggest babysitting services in the area if it's a destination wedding. But if someone brings their kids regardless? Ask the person in charge of the venue to plate a child-friendly meal -- plain pasta, perhaps -- and arrange for an extra chair at the table. Then take a deep breath and go back to enjoying your party. 

Just as common as an unexpected guest is an unexpected no-show. If someone cancels last minute, always make sure to have the staff remove the place setting and chair, suggests Tara Guerard, a wedding planner who splits her time between Charleston, South Carolina, and New York City. The feeling at the table will remain intimate and lively as long as no one has to talk over empty place settings.

Your circle of friends is large, and you have a wedding party to match. To show them how much you appreciate all they've done, you want them seated with you at the head table. There's just one problem: That leaves no room for dates.
"In traditional etiquette, it's absolutely acceptable to split someone from their date," says Elise Mac Adam, author of "Something New: Wedding Etiquette for Rule Breakers, Traditionalists, and Everyone in Between" (2008, Simon Spotlight Entertainment). "But if you're sensing there's friction, you should rethink your plan."

In fact, allowing your bridal attendants to dine with their dates is a foolproof way to keep them happy and to keep the bash lively. "If there's a huge wedding party, seat the best man and his date and the maid of honor and her date with the bride and groom," says Blum. "Then sprinkle the rest of them at tables across the room to be ambassadors." As for showing your appreciation? Putting their happiness first will send the message clearly. After all they've done for you, they deserve to kick back and enjoy themselves post-ceremony.

Considering all the other details you're juggling, you're pretty sure organizing a seating chart will push you over the edge. Besides, isn't it better for guests to sit where they want anyway?
Though it seems logical that guests would enjoy sitting with whomever they wish, a seating free-for-all can be stressful for them in the moment. In addition, it will most likely leave some revelers feeling left out or resentful there wasn't enough room for them at their preferred table -- not to mention, not everyone at a wedding knows one another. A little prewedding planning on your part will go a long way the day of, says Mac Adam. Designing a seating chart allows you to separate people who may have friction -- without anyone being the wiser -- encourages lively conversation between unacquainted guests with like interests, and, by preventing a scramble, helps ensure the reception will begin on time.

That said, unless it's an extremely formal event or there are cultural or language barriers, there's no need to assign individual seats, says Alison Hotchkiss, a wedding planner in San Francisco. "Assign guests to a table, but let them choose their seats, first come, first served." Another bonus of this arrangement? You'll save money on place cards. If you do decide to assign individual seats, start well in advance, suggests Blum: "Don't wait until you get RSVPs back. Start with groups you know will be there."

All the etiquette books say that gifts should be shipped to your home (or your parents'), but you're pretty sure some guests will still bring them to the wedding anyway. How best to handle the situation?
There will always be guests who bring presents or envelopes with them to your reception. In many circles, the convenient solution is to set up a gift table. "But if you display your gifts for all to see, it may make non-gift-bearing guests feel a bit self-conscious," says Mac Adam.

Instead, you could designate a secure, out-of-the-way area -- such as the coat check, suggests Hotchkiss -- to stow the physical presents. As for the very special presents that come in envelopes, some brides carry around a drawstring purse to collect such gifts. A more subtle option is to set up a card box. Or, often, the bride's mother will place them in her purse, or the father of the bride or groom will keep them in his jacket pocket. It's also perfectly acceptable to ask a hired planner or a trusted friend to hold on to them. Last, be sure to plan for someone to deliver the envelopes to you or your parents that evening, and the gifts to your home after the wedding, whether that night or by shipping them.

You're planning a five-hour reception that starts at five o'clock. Do people expect the toasts to start by a certain time? The dancing? The meal? The cake cutting?
This is one area where you can do what you wish. But here are some tips to help you arrive at a timeline that works for you. "To figure out how much time to allot for each activity, I suggest couples start at the reception's end time and work their way backward," says Hotchkiss. Decide how much time you want for dancing. (Traditionally, dancing begins shortly after the couple is introduced and before the first course is served, but more and more, says Blum, dancing doesn't start until after dinner is done.) If you're saving the dancing for the last two hours -- from, say, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. -- cut the cake either before you start or just after the traditional first dances. "It's the symbolic end," says Mac Adam. "Older guests may be waiting for that moment before they go home." 

Assume that dinner will take approximately two hours, or about 30 minutes per course, says Hotchkiss. Allow toasts to happen during that time. You want to be sure people have at least an appetizer in front of them when the welcome speech occurs, Mac Adam says. As for cocktail hour -- the final hour of your planning but the first of your event -- make sure it doesn't go over an hour and 15 minutes, max, and only that long if the photos are off-site. "Longer than that and people start to get a little too drunk," says Hotchkiss.

You're having a church ceremony but want a nighttime reception. Is it really that big a deal if you have a two-hour gap between the wedding and the reception? 
Though, in traditional etiquette, a pause between the ceremony and the reception is acceptable, there is perhaps nothing more reviled by guests. "It's so uncomfortable and awkward," says Hotchkiss, adding that it is often the only complaint she will hear about a wedding. 

That said, if your ceremony is at a church, there's not much you can do to avoid the dreaded wait: Many churches don't allow ceremonies after three or four in the afternoon. If the wait is under two hours, delay at the church for up to a half hour if you can (serve refreshments, if space permits); then provide transportation to the reception area.

When facing a delay of two to three hours, you should, at the very least, suggest a list of fun things to do in the interim. If the wedding is a destination event or in an interesting city, and you're already shuttling people to the reception, hire a city tour guide, throw in some Champagne and local snacks, then give guests a spin around the local landmarks before taking them to the reception. The more remote your location, the more effort you should exert in helping plan activities for your guests, adds Mac Adam.

Filling the time isn't even the main concern for most guests, though. The big reason they dread the gap? Wardrobe, says Blum. If a reception is black tie, guests most likely will not wear their gowns or tuxedos to the church in the afternoon, which is fine for those who live in the immediate area or have a hotel room. But for people who drove more than an hour to attend, it's a different story. Give those guests logistical help. "Offer them the use of your home or a certain hotel room to change in," says Blum. And if you have a choice, a long interval -- four to five hours -- is better than a two-hour one. Guests can go about their day after the ceremony before having to change for the reception.

What's the alternative to a receiving line?
Receiving lines may be traditional, but they're no longer the norm. Who wants to wait 45 minutes for 20 seconds of face time? Mac Adam suggests an alternative for the bride and groom: stopping at every table during dinner. "Everyone's captive and seated, so you won't miss anyone." As each course comes out, take a break for a few bites of your own.

You want to have an intimate ceremony but a big party. Can you invite some people just to the reception and not the ceremony?
There are only a couple of scenarios where this is acceptable: "If you're having a small, private ceremony with just one or two family members," says Guerard, or if there is a large disparity between the number of guests you'd like to have at the ceremony and the reception. "If you invite 20 people to the ceremony and 100 or 200 people to the reception, that's fine," says Blum. "But you can't invite 150 people to the ceremony and 200 to the reception." 

Indeed, you want to avoid making it seem as if there's an A list and a B list, says Mac Adam. Another way to soften the unintended slight is to hold the ceremony on a different day than the reception so that it feels more like two distinct but equal events.

Just remember: Though having the ceremony in a small setting can be a great way to save money, "part of the whole experience of the wedding is seeing the bride walk down the aisle and the couple exchange vows," says Blum. "Unless there are real reasons you don't want everyone at the ceremony, you should invite guests to both parts of the wedding."

You fear your toasts will go on for too long. And while you love the best man, he tends to be a little risque; you'd like to approve his speech beforehand. What's the best way to broach the thorny subject? 
You can ask those toasting you to keep their speeches short and sweet, but the best way to keep toast time down is to limit the number of people speaking. "On the wedding day, it 's appropriate for the father of the bride to give a toast, the best man, and maybe for the groom to say a few words about his new wife," says Guerard. Of course, the maid of honor may also be granted her fair share of time with the microphone, or the couple may wish to thank their hosts and guests together as they cut the cake. 

During the toasts, make sure guests are comfortable, with full wine glasses and either an appetizer, dinner, or dessert in front of them. "Keep the contentment of your guests at the top of your mind," says Mac Adam. "Remember: They can't talk, dance, or get up at this time." 

As for preapproving a speech, keep in mind there's life after the wedding, says Blum. You can certainly give parameters -- whether of time or topics -- she says, but asking to read the speech first is pushing it. If many friends would like to publicly chime in, encourage them to speak at the rehearsal dinner. Spontaneous speeches can cut sharply into your reception.

Your mother says you should ask your cousin to serve the wedding cake. But isn't that work? Is that really an honor?
Consider the larger message: "When you assign someone to take care of something like the guest book or serving cake, you've given them a job that prevents them from having fun while saying they're not good enough to make the cut for bridesmaid," says Mac Adam. Honors include being in the bridal party, reading something at the ceremony, giving a speech, or singing. Anything else, says Hotchkiss, is work. Someone, on the other hand, who may appreciate an odd job? A child. Kids often want to be of service and may enjoy being in charge of the guest book at the reception.

You're paying for the reception, but you don't want to have to deal with the bills on your wedding day. How do you avoid day-of sticker shock?
There's a simple and practical way to avoid end-of- the-night financial hassles: Pay everything, including gratuities, ahead of time. Most vendors require payment up to a week in advance, says Guerard. If they don't, even if it's the morning of the event, go to the venue beforehand and settle the bill with whomever is in charge -- you don't want to end your night by writing checks and forking over cash. "They're happy to get it over with too," says Mac Adam. "They're just as busy as you are that night." 

It may seem counterintuitive, but tip before the event. Place money in individual envelopes the day before and give them to your designated money person -- be it a parent, your best man, or your planner -- to distribute before the reception. "I encourage lavish tipping for all sorts of reasons," says Blum. And when done in advance, it will, quite literally, pay off. 

Tell the vendors that if there are any outstanding charges, such as overtime, you expect to talk to them the next day or when you return from your honeymoon. At that point, you'll be relaxed -- and ready to take on real life again.

You hardly know your officiant; you found him via Google. Must you invite him and a date? 
If it's a justice of the peace, no. If it's a pastor or rabbi, yes. But rest assured, more often than not, he or she will either decline or will stop by only for the cocktail hour. "They don't want to sit at a dinner with people they don't know any more than you would," says wedding planner Marcy Blum.

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