What Is The Wedding Reception Order Of Events? A Step-By-Step Guide

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When planning a wedding, it stands to reason there will be a program and a certain order of events. But are there any specific wedding reception order of events or rules that need to be followed?

According to Bethel Nathan, Ordained Officiant and VP of the International Association of Professional Wedding Officiants, “I am asked regularly if there is a specific order that a ceremony needs to follow to be official, complete, or legal. My officiant colleagues who do religiously-based or traditionally-based weddings and ceremonies would likely have a very different answer, as usually, their traditions and/or organizations require certain components and/or verbiage to be included in a wedding ceremony.”

Sometimes, there are options for personalization amongst that; however, there is likely a relatively set pattern they follow. “For those of us who do weddings outside of a specific tradition  in my case, do weddings that are either completely secular or are 'spiritual but not religious' there is much more freedom and opportunity and less specific structure or flow,” adds Nathan. 

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Most states in the U.S. don’t have too many specifics about what a ceremony needs to include in order to make it legal and complete. Says Nathan, “There is no easy or specific answer on ceremony components or flow,. As I talk to my officiant colleagues across the U.S. and Canada, it’s so interesting to hear how others approach it, to fit them and their couples.”

For couples who are in the midst of planning their wedding, there are certain things to keep in mind regarding the reception.

1. Setting a plan

Planning doesn't seem very romantic, but it is essential. Suggests Kimberly Allen, Chief Executive Officer of Something Fabulous, “We don't believe in getting too specific in scheduling, but stick with a general outline of the order of events. Vendors have schedules such as venues, caterers and transportation, but couples need a framework and perspective.”

It's important to begin with the end in mind and to walk through the entire experience a few times before it actually starts. “What does your day look like? What are the details of your fashion, photography, entertainment, hospitality requirements, family traditions or politics?” Allen adds. This method works for every tradition — religious, cultural, personal preference, or otherwise.

The benefit to this planning philosophy and time management practice is that every transition has been imagined from beginning to end, and couples are able to let go of anxiety associated with the anticipation of the day.

As Allen says, “It's true that no one has a crystal ball, and things sometimes happen that are outside everyone's control. But the early preparedness and timing structure takes this fact into consideration... We encourage the use of a timeline as a tool in planning, but when it comes to the celebration, it's a guide not a fixed agenda. The best experiences honor the day and unfold mindfully with joy and love.”

2. Ceremony

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

A post shared by Wedding italy by Vera Weddings (@weddinginitaly) on Aug 20, 2019 at 7:17am PDT

Nathan says that the purpose of having a schedule is to focus on the main event: the joining of two lives:

“The ceremony not only kicks off the wedding for all those who have come to celebrate this couple, setting the tone for the whole rest of the day or night — it also kicks off their marriage and a special next chapter in their lives together; therefore, together as their community, we set the tone for that in the ceremony too. That means that we want it to be genuine, meaningful, fitting, and touching...

The core of those who care for the couple have come to see, are the words and promises they want to express to and about each other. What specifically is included in each section, though, really is based on what fits and speaks to the couple."

As a result, that is the core of the ceremony. Everything else is either setting the foundation for that, or celebrating that. So, if we break the ceremony into thirds, the first part is setting the stage. Sometimes this includes readings or quotes, sometimes family or community blessings and honorings.  

The next is where vows and rings are exchanged, and this can be done in all sorts of ways, based on what the couple wants and is most comfortable with. 

“The final third is celebrating what was just started in these moments and looks to what is next, so this might include unity rituals, readings or quotes, and a vision to the future. Plus, the pronouncement, the kiss, and often an introduction or celebration of some sort, sending them back down the aisle with the joy and excitement that continues throughout the rest of the evening.”

According to Nathan, a ceremony outline may look like this:

  • Opening remarks and welcome
  • Family blessing and remembering those who have passed away
  • Reading
  • General marriage blessings or aspirations
  • Remarks by the Officiant, sharing the couple’s story
  • Exchanging of the vows
  • Exchanging of the rings
  • Unity ritual
  • Reading 
  • Closing comments
  • Pronouncement, kiss, and presentation

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Of course, ceremonies vary. Some rituals might be better earlier on, while some readings might be better later on, based on messaging and tone and purpose. But there really are very few rules when it comes to a non-traditional ceremony.

“There are many benefits to a couple choosing to work with a professional and experienced officiant, and that knowledge and comfortability with flexibility to make it all fit are definitely two of them. Therefore, there is both freedom and opportunity to make it truly theirs, and worthy of what they are doing in that special moment,” adds Nathan.

3. Seating

Once the ceremony has come to a close, this is typically the time when guests will be directed to the reception area or venue space to be seated. “While the order that follows can go a number of ways, it’s common for the guests to be settled before the wedding party and the couple make their grand entrance,” says Kylie Carlson of International Academy of Wedding & Event Planning.

4. Dinner

This is also around the time that dinner is finishing up and preparing to be served. It could also be the time when dinner is announced, especially if you're opting for family-style or buffet services.

5. First dances

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

A post shared by Flamur Ilazi (@iamflamurilazi) on Aug 10, 2019 at 11:25am PDT

First dances and dances with the parents of the couple also take place around this time, followed by dinner and any toasts by family and friends that are on the itinerary. “The DJ or live band should begin setting up at this point, and everyone will begin to transition from dinner to the dance floor!” says Carlson. 

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6. Cake Cutting

Generally speaking, there will be a break where the couple will do cake or dessert cutting, and then the party will resume until it’s time for them to exit at the end of the reception.

“Push the cake cutting to the later part of the evening (usually about 1.5 hours prior to the close of the reception),” suggests Laura Maddox, owner of Magnolia Celebrates. “Here in the south, we have a large contingent of guests that will wait for the cake cutting and then leave. It does not matter if the cake cutting is just after the dinner or later in the evening; this is their cue to leave, so let’s keep them there to enjoy the evening a bit longer.”

7. Prayer additions

“For receptions with varying religions, you may choose to opt out of ‘traditional’ elements such as cocktail hour, and insert a group prayer or reading before and after dinner,” says Carlson. For example, in Jewish tradition, the meal begins with a blessing over a special type of bread called the challah, and the blessing itself is usually given by the couple’s parents. 

Indian wedding receptions themselves are particularly elaborate and follow tradition closely, and the entertainment aspect is a huge part of the reception. “The go-to after dinner is typically a dance called the bhangra, and this can be performed by the couple themselves or by the wedding party and guests that want to perform for the couple,” adds Carlson.

8. Destination weddings

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

A post shared by Mark Broumand (@markbroumand) on Aug 18, 2019 at 6:21am PDT

Intimate destination weddings are anything but traditional. And according to Shannon Tarrant, founder of Wedding Venue Map, “Intimate is defined as a wedding of less than 30 total guests, but the guest count can be as small as just the couple by themselves.”

There are plenty of small weddings that have a "traditional" ceremony and reception. But there is another option for those couples who want the wedding to be a part of their grand trip instead of planning a vacation focused on the wedding. “Look for cities, venues, and planners that have all-inclusive packages to make the planning process very simple,” recommends Tarrant. 

According to Tarrant, a simple intimate ceremony and celebration often follow this type of timeline: 

  • 3:00 PM: Personal ceremony
  • 3:30 PM: Photos
  • 4:15 PM: Champagne toast
  • 4:30 PM: Wedding cake cutting
  • 6:00 PM: Group reservation at a local restaurant

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Aly Walansky is a NY-based lifestyles writer who focuses on health, wellness, and relationships. Her work appears in dozens of digital and print publications regularly. Visit her on Twitter or email her.