Following protocol before, during and after your celebrations will ensure you and your guests enjoy the big day, writes Elisabeth Galvin
When planning your wedding, there’s absolutely no need to turn into a bridezilla. Ranting, raving and generally misbehaving isn’t becoming to any bride. Accept every piece of advice—no matter how silly or offensive—with grace. Deal calmly with dress disasters and keep smiling when your future mother-in-law adds yet another obscure acquaintance to the guest list. A bride should never let her veneer of poise and elegance slip and spoil the day for herself or others. “Wedding etiquette is sometimes fraught with minefields,” says Jennie Hallam-peel, chairman of The London Season and an expert in the art of manners. In fact, after receiving a high volume of emails from around the world asking for advice on the subject, Hallam-peel is hosting a series of one-day wedding seminars at The Ritz London as part of The London Season’s series of high-society summer events. “A wedding ceremony is a tradition that has been followed for hundreds of years,” says Hallam-peel. “The most common pitfalls couples fall into is when the bride and groom—and often both sets of parents—have differing ideas of formality and accepted social codes. It is vital that there is an open discussion of this as soon as possible after the engagement, and that a compromise is reached before matters become contentious. The wedding day should be as stress-free as possible and arrangements should be made—and agreed upon—to ensure that everyone is able to relax and enjoy it.”
Before the wedding Planning and Invitations
These days, it should not be assumed that the bride’s family will take on the cost of a wedding. The responsibilities and division of costs depend on the financial circumstances as well as the age of the couple, advises British publisher and trusted etiquette source Debrett’s.
The company advises engaged couples to think practically as well as creatively when planning. “Couples may become carried away with a particular vision of their wedding day and may not consider impracticalities that have an impact on guests, such as the location of the venue, the distance between ceremony and reception, or the timetable of events,” says James Field, senior trainer at Debrett’s.
Ensure, within reason, that the event is held at a time and place that enables good friends and close relations to attend. It probably won’t be possible to accommodate everybody, but do check the availability of members of the wedding party when planning.
Be considerate when choosing a date. You could use the day to mark a family anniversary, for example. Avoid bank holiday weekends or major sporting events such as the Rugby Sevens, and be aware that families may want to travel during school holidays.
Debrett’s advises that the number of guests is usually determined by budget, and the size of the ceremony and reception venues. Early on, discuss the allocation of guests with both sets of parents. If the parents are bearing the majority of the wedding costs, they may feel they deserve a particular number of invitations—but this should not be at the expense of other key parties. If either the bride or the groom has a considerably larger family than the other, an equal split of guests may not be possible between the two sides.
It is acceptable not to invite partners of guests you don’t know very well, but both halves of an engaged couple or those in a long-term relationship should be invited.
If an elderly relative is travelling on their own, you might think about inviting their carer or a companion to ensure their comfort.
If you are considering not inviting children, think carefully about what impact this will have on your guests. You may choose to offer some sort of childcare so that parents—and their offspring—can have a lovely day.
It is acceptable to invite some guests to the reception only, in a separate invitation, if the venue for the ceremony is small. Sometimes— along with other guests—they might be invited to an evening-only reception after the wedding breakfast and speeches.
Wedding stationery should be carefully chosen, as it sets the tone for the day. It is advisable to follow traditional protocol for wording—debrett’s has a comprehensive guide to this available online.
A postal address must be provided for replies. Some couples choose to include an email address as well. Be meticulous when recording RSVPS—IF you are pressed for time, you could ask your parents to take on this responsibility.
On the day Ceremony and Reception
Wedding gowns traditionally don’t bare the shoulders, especially in church. If you’ve got your heart set on a strapless dress, you could wear a bolero and remove it after the ceremony. Too much cleavage is frowned upon, as are very short gowns.
Morning suits are the accepted British dress code for weddings—for both the groom and guests. A navy blue, mid-grey or charcoal grey suit is an alternative, as is an outfit traditional in a particular country.
The groom should arrive 45 minutes before the start of the ceremony and the bride approximately five minutes before. This way, you can follow tradition by walking up the aisle a little late, once the official photographs have been taken and you’ve gathered your wits.
Keep your composure and avoid tears by practising controlled breathing exercises a few days before the wedding, advises HallamPeel. “Take four or five deep breaths before you walk up the aisle. A tiny drop of Bach’s Rescue Remedy on the tongue calms the most anxious of brides,” she says.
It’s also important to make sure you know your vows by heart and have practised walking up the aisle, so you can avoid nasty surprises such as grates, steps and uneven flooring.
Once you are married, the groom may now kiss the bride—but this should be brief rather than passionate.
Ensure those all-important family photographs are taken to avoid hurt feelings afterwards. Discuss this comprehensively with your photographer well in advance and offer a list of must-haves. On the day, designate someone to ensure all pictures on the list are taken.
At the reception, it’s traditional to have a receiving line. “It ensures that every guest is made to feel important, and has an opportunity of thanking the host personally and greeting the new bride and groom,” says Hallam-peel.
“In between courses, it is very nice for the bride and groom to visit each table informally” —Jennie Hallam-peel
Seating plans are one of the most difficult aspects of a reception to get right, so plan ahead carefully. “Mismanagement of placement can cause family rifts or someone having a perfectly miserable time,” she says. “Older relatives usually feel happiest among people of their own age group. Awkward or shy guests are best seated between two gregarious guests, who will ensure that the conversation is kept flowing on either side.” If possible, each guest should be flanked by the opposite sex and know at least one other person on the table. Names must be spelled correctly on the seating plan and on tables.
It’s traditional to have a top table, but this is not compulsory. “In between courses, it is very nice for the bride and groom to visit each table informally,” says Hallam-peel.
A bride should never be drunk nor be seen smoking in her wedding dress. The groom and best man must be sober—at least until after the speeches.
“It is so important that everyone remembers the speeches favourably,” says Hallam-peel. “Deeply embarrassing recollections of either the bride or groom is inappropriate—both sets of parents like to hear pleasant recollections and anecdotes of their offspring. It is offensive in the extreme to the hosts to make vulgar comments or crude anecdotes.”
It is protocol to thank the wedding team— traditionally the groom buys something for the best man, bridesmaids, ushers and mothers.
After the wedding Honeymoon and Thank-you Letters
“When the bride and groom leave the wedding, this is usually the sign that the wedding party is coming to a close,” says Hallam-peel. “The problem of guests who linger after the party can be resolved by the bride’s mother thanking and saying goodbye to the remaining guests, who should realise that the evening is then at an end. Closing the bar usually helps.”
Traditionally, honeymoons are decided upon by the groom and kept a secret. “He should choose a romantic destination, one which he feels his bride would love or incorporates a shared interest,” says Hallam-peel.
Every wedding present should be acknowledged with a thank-you card from the bride and groom. “Printed thank-you cards should be avoided,” says Hallam-peel. “They are deeply impersonal and show no effort on behalf of the sender. A few lines written in your own hand is so very appreciated and is correct protocol.”
Likewise, a short letter (rather than an email) to the church or civil ceremony venue is always appreciated.
Reverting to normal life after the wedding and honeymoon—and getting back into the swing of work and responsibilities—can be difficult, notes Debrett’s. Catching up with friends and family for a review of the day, choosing wedding photographs and unpacking the wedding presents can all help ease newlyweds back into reality.