Get the ultimate order of events to consider when formatting your wedding ceremony.
Photography: Heather Waraksa
From the arrival of guests to their seats to the exit strategy for everyone involved, any wedding ceremony requires a fair amount of choreography to run smoothly. Here, we walk you through the basic timeline before breaking it down into the specifics for a Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, and nondenominational service. Of course, you may choose to conduct your ceremony in a different way (after all, it’s your big day!), but be sure to ask the officiant if he or she is amenable to changes before finalizing your plans.
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The Seating of the Guests
The first order of business at any ceremony is quite natural: guiding guests to their seats. Have your ushers start escorting guests up to 30 to 45 minutes before the ceremony begins. This can be timed to coincide with the music start time or the arrival of transportation. Ushers should assign places as the guests arrive, from front rows to back, with the exception of the parents and any special guests for whom seats are reserved.
At a traditional Christian wedding or a large civil ceremony, the bride’s family and friends are seated on the left and the groom’s on the right. At a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride’s side is on the right and the groom’s is on the left. Mark off the first few rows with flowers or ribbon as seating for immediate family and special guests (such as the flower girl’s and ring bearer’s parents, someone giving a reading, and close relatives). Divorced parents may sit together in the front row. If they are remarried or not on good terms, the father and his wife should sit in the third row.
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The Seating of the Parents
The final guests to be seated at Christian ceremonies are, in this order: grandparents, mother of the groom (with father walking just behind), and mother of the bride. At Jewish ceremonies, the parents enter with the bride and stand under the chuppah during the ceremony; stepparents may sit in the aisle seats in the second and third rows or stand under the chuppah if they are very close to the bride or groom.
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The Starting Players
Just before the procession begins, the officiant takes his or her place, with the groom to the left, and, if not entering with the rest of the bridal party, the best man to the groom’s left, all three facing the guests. The ushers may also stand at the front, or they may start the procession, walking in pairs.
The bridesmaids enter and may or may not be escorted by groomsmen or ushers, if they haven’t already entered. The honor attendant (maid or matron of honor) is the last of the bridesmaids to enter, sometimes alone and sometimes on the arm of the best man.
The Littlest Attendants
If a ring bearer and a flower girl participate, they are the last ones down the aisle before the bride.
Finally, the lady of honor arrives. At Christian services, she is escorted by her father, on his left arm, while at Jewish ceremonies, she is traditionally escorted by both her mother and father. Today, whether Jewish or not, the bride often asks her mother to join in the walk down the aisle.
Couples having civil ceremonies can customize to their preferences or circumstances. For example, some same-sex couples might choose to process together, from either side of the venue, or one after the other, either escorted by a parent or not.
Note: A Jewish wedding procession is largely the same as for a Christian service, except that grandparents, the groom’s parents, and the bride’s mother all join the processional. The rabbi and the cantor often lead it.
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Once everyone is present and in their proper places, the officiant generally offers an address to establish the reason for the gathering. Depending on the style of your ceremony, this speech may be short and sweet or include a combination of prayers, readings, anecdotes, or declarations of intent.
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The Vow Exchange
Here comes the important part: Consider the promises you make to one another—whether handwritten or borrowed from a book—the main event.
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When you both have spoken your peace, the officiant should prompt you to exchange rings, usually by asking you to repeat a phrase like “With this ring, I thee wed,” or “(Name), take this ring as a sign of my love.”
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The Closing Remarks
The priest, minister, rabbi, or officiant may now give a blessing or a few words of conclusion.
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With promises made and rings exchanged, it’s now time for the officiant to formally declare your union (“I now pronounce you [man] and [wife]”) and ask you to seal the deal with a kiss (“You may now kiss the bride”).
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Following your kiss, walk (or maybe dance!) up the aisle as a newly wedded couple. The bridal party exits shortly behind you, then the guests are dismissed, usually by row.
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Catholic Ceremony Order
Here’s a rundown of what to expect at a Catholic mass:
1. Processional: Ceremonial entrance of the priest and bridal party
2. Hymn: A starting poem to praise God, either spoken or sung by the priest
3. Opening Prayer: A greeting to everyone and/or prayer by the priest
4. Old Testament Reading: An Old Testament passage of your choice shared aloud by the reader of your choice (couples often choose an excerpt from the Book of Genesis)
5. Responsorial Psalm: An excerpt (usually sung by a songleader and the congregation) from the Book of Psalms in response to the Old Testament Reading
6. New Testament Reading: A reading of your choice from the New Testament, shared by the person of your choice
7. Gospel: An excerpt from one of the apostles in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John
8. Homily: A sermon from the priest based on the gospel and usually pertaining to your impending marriage
9. Rite of Marriage: The vow ceremony, blessing and exchange of rings, and an optional Unity Candle lighting
10. Lord’s Prayer: Recitation of “Our Father” together with the congregation
11. Sign of Peace: A moment to shake hands with neighbors and offer them peace and blessings
12. Communion: An offering of communion to bride and groom, followed by the bridal party and the rest of the guests. (Only those who are Catholic should participate in this portion, though non-Catholic attendants and guests may come forward for a blessing instead.)
13. Blessing and Dismissal: A formal blessing and introduction of the newly wedded couple by the priest before dismissing
14. Recessional: The bride and groom, priest, and bridal party exit the church
Typical Length: One hour. Want it shorter? Have your choir or songleader recite prayers instead of singing them to save about 10 minutes.
Added Touch: You can ask your priest to add the Prayer of the Faithful as a significant way to honor family members who have passed.
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Jewish Wedding Ceremony Outline
Jewish services usually go as follows:
1. Ketubah: Signing of the marriage contract
2. Badeken: Veiling of the bride
3. Chuppah Ceremony: The bride and groom move under the canopy, which represents the couple’s new home and life together
4. Kiddushin: Circling and exchanging of rings
5. Sheva Brachot: Seven blessings; breaking of the glass
6. Yichud: Couple’s alone time before the reception
Typical Length: 30 minutes. Want it shorter? The only absolute requirement is the signing of the Ketubah, so you can select what else you want to weave in.
Added Touch: Appoint a friend to collect the broken pieces of sheva brachot glass, which you can have hand-blown into a piece of art.
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At Hindu weddings, the ceremony traditionally includes the following:
1. Ganesh Puja: Prayer to dispel all evils
2. Baraat: Arrival of the groom
3. Parchan: Arrival of the bride
4. Kanyadaan: Giving the daughter away
5. Ganthibandhan: Tying the knot
6. Mangalfera: Walking around the fire
7. Saptapadi: Seven Steps
8. Saubhagya Chinha: Blessing the bride
9. Aashirvaad: Blessings
10. Viddai: The bride’s departure
Typical Length: Three hours. Want it shorter? Cut anything but the Seven Steps—without it, the marriage isn’t valid.
Added Touch: Place a coconut under the wheel of your getaway car, a modern update on the tradition of a carriage driving over the fruit to test its strength.
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Nondenominational Service Order
And finally, most nondenominational ceremonies follow this outline:
1. Processional: Entrance of the wedding party
2. Welcome: Opening remarks from the officiant
3. Readings: Opportunity to share meaningful passages
4. Officiant’s Address: A speech by the person leading the ceremony
5. Declaration of Intent: Also known as the “I dos”
6. Vows: Promises to one another, either handwritten or selected
7. Exchange of Rings: Ceremonial giving of the sign of love and loyalty
8. Blessing or Closing Remarks: Final words from the officiant
9. Pronouncement: Official declaration of marriage
10. Recessional: The exit of the bride, groom, and bridal party
Typical Length: 30 minutes. Want it shorter? Go straight to the declaration of intent, vows, and exchange of rings.
Added Touch: Get creative by having loved ones stand up and give marriage advice.