The Receiving Line
The traditional way to welcome guests is with a receiving line, formed either at the wedding site just after the ceremony or at the reception location as people arrive. A receiving line is most practical if you have a large number of guests.
Whom to Include
The shortest receiving line comprises, in this order, the bride's mother -- who is historically the hostess, and therefore stands at the head -- the groom's mother, the bride, and the groom. Fathers often join the line, although it is perfectly acceptable for them to circulate among the crowd instead. If one dad joins in, however, the other should too; each would follow his wife in the line.
The bride's honor attendant, sometimes followed by the bridesmaids, can also line up, standing after the groom. Some couples choose to include the best man -- he would stand after the bride's honor attendant -- but traditionally this is the time he discharges some of his responsibilities, thanking and paying the officiant on behalf of the groom. When that is done, he joins the groomsmen to mingle with the crowd.
There's no rule that says you can't create your own mix -- you'll just want to exercise a little flexibility and tact about whom will be included and in what order they will stand. Divorced parents, for example, may present a situation that calls for sensitivity, not only to family members but also to those moving down the line. Even if all spouses are on good terms, the guests may be confused as to who's who. In this case, some clever placement will make everyone more comfortable -- try having divorced parents stand on either side of the newlyweds. If there are four sets of parents, try alternating the bride's and groom's families. Some couples avoid this scenario altogether by sending all but the mothers of the bride and groom out into the crowd to circulate.
If one or more parents are deceased and there are no stepparents, another close relative can stand in -- a grandmother or an aunt, an uncle or a brother. If someone other than the parents is hosting, such as the couple's best friends or the couple themselves, they may choose to be at the head of the line instead. No matter what, the best strategy is to discuss the plan ahead of time with all the parties to prevent any confusion or hurt feelings on your wedding day.
Receiving Line Procession
Guests usually start with the bride's mother (or hostess), who greets them with a handshake or kiss and a few words. In turn, the bride and groom thank the guests for coming and make any necessary -- and brief -- introductions to the others in the line. Brief is the operative word, because a receiving line can be slow going, particularly if it consists of more than six members and the crowd is large. Wedding experts say to expect about 30 to 40 minutes per 200 guests.
You can keep the festive mood from stagnating -- and keep everyone in good spirits -- by asking the caterer to have waiters circulate with refreshments for guests while they're waiting their turn. You might want to ask that a table be placed near the start of the line so people can put their glasses down, freeing their hands.
Some couples interpret the receiving line casually by saying hello as guests leave the ceremony, when they pass through the doors of the church or synagogue, or when they move from one room into another if the ceremony and reception are at the same location. Another technique is for the bride and groom to walk by each row of guests while everyone is still seated at the ceremony; they pause at each row, and the guests get up and file out, greeting the newlyweds as they walk by.
At the Reception
Mingling has its appeal. It allows you to be spontaneous and personal. As far as the rhythm of your wedding goes, "working the crowd" is best pulled off during the cocktail hour when guests are milling about, nibbling hors d'oeuvres, and chatting with friends. With a large group, you may want to extend the cocktail hour to an hour and a half. If this is your plan, factor this extra time in to the overall schedule.
Some newlyweds are perfectly happy to waltz from table to table during the meal itself, which affords the longest chance to interact with the guests. If you take this approach, be sure to ask the caterer or maitre d' to put aside a plate of food for each of you so you don't miss out on the meal altogether.
You can also make a toast to salute everyone in one fell swoop -- a good idea if you've invited so many people that you won't have much time to speak with all of them personally. The toast can occur at any point during the meal, but a good time is while the main course is being served or before the cake cutting. You might also write a poem on a scroll or a note thanking the guests for sharing in your day, then attach it to the favor and put one at every place setting.
And if the people you don't get to spend much time with are the most special ones on your guest list, save a dance or two. You can always exchange a few words while cheek to cheek.