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Meet and Greet
Traditionally, rehearsal dinners were thrown the night before the ceremony after the bride, groom, and their wedding party had walked through the paces of the next day. But today those customs have expanded. "Many people choose to start off the festivities with a get-together that includes everyone," says Martha Stewart Weddings editorial director Darcy Miller.
Whether you choose to go big (dinner!), small (cocktails and light bites), casual (no shoes!), or fancy (killer shoes), just make it your own.
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Find Your Theme
You may have toiled over the look and feel of your ceremony and reception, but keep it simple -- and different -- for your welcome event: "Design a party that's nothing like your wedding but still represents you and your groom," says Calder Clark of Calder Clark Designs. Think of this fete as your wedding's playful alter ego: "Use any quirky ideas or inspiration that may not have been wedding appropriate," says Michelle Rago of MR Destinations.
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Start by Six
The goal is to leave everyone wanting more at the end of the evening (and not feeling wrecked the next morning). So begin on the early side. "I'm a big fan of the four-hour event," says Clark. "After that, something starts to break down." This gives people plenty of time to meet and have some laughs, and you can get to bed at a decent hour. "It's also sweet when the bride leaves her own party to get ready," she says. "It steeps the whole event in the importance of the day to follow." End on a high note, and everyone will anticipate the good times ahead.
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The quickest way to get the party started is to give your guests what they want: a drink. "It loosens people up and helps ease them into vacation mode," says Lisa Vorce of Oh, How Charming! in LA. Signature cocktails are always hits, as are interactive setups, like Champagne pyramids at a cocktail party or do-it-yourself Bloody Marys for a brunch.
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Add Local Flavor
Without a doubt, foods that are indigenous to the area are always high quality and big crowd-pleasers. Rago suggests a miniature panini bar for a Mediterranean locale, for example, a make-your-own conch ceviche station for a Bahamian party, or a "fresh catch" table stocked with local fish for waterfront festivities. If you want to have a seated meal, vary the serving styles to keep things casual. "Start with a plated first course followed by a family-style entree and a buffet dessert," says Rago.
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Help Forge New Friendships
All of your loved ones are finally in one place, and many of them have probably heard about, but never met, one another. To speed the friendship building process, offer an activity that takes the cocktail-conversation pressure off and lets them mingle naturally, like a scavenger hunt, horseshoes, cornhole, or bocce.
Or work with what everyone has in common: you and your groom. A crossword puzzle, using your history as a couple for clues, will spark conversations. And if nothing else, warm desserts make great icebreakers.
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Toast, Roast, Reflect
Once you're all settled in, some entertainment is in order. Consider showing a photo slide show or a video of funny interviews with friends. Or give your families free reign. Then follow it with some spontaneity. Ask your host to say a traditional speech or blessing before opening up the floor to everyone. And at the end of the night it's your turn: "It's always a nice touch when the happy couple get up to thank everyone for coming," says Rago.