Wedding Plans: The First Step

You’ve decided to get married. Now what?

Maybe celebrating your marriage with a wedding reception (and other events) is a foregone conclusion. Or maybe it’s a decision you’ve approached gradually. Whatever the route taken, the first step in planning a wedding is to talk things through with your mate and then, talk with those who will be directly involved.

Ask yourselves, what are our expectations? What’s important?

From my experience, bridal couples usually report one thing that is very important to them right from the start. For some, that ‘thing’ is very specific. Here are a few examples:

One couple I know felt that the music was really paramount in their planning.

 “We wanted live music and went to hear a lot of bands before deciding on the right one. It was more important to us than the food, decoration, or a lot of other stuff. We were so happy with our decision – everyone danced and the music really made the party.”

From another couple:

“We have always loved cooking and entertaining and at first, we thought we’d do our wedding reception ourselves. But we decided instead to have a wedding at a small (but cool) hotel with special cocktails and great food. So, what was most important to us? Not doing it all ourselves but staying within our budget. We saved up for the wedding because we planned to buy a house and didn’t want to rack up a lot of credit card debt. Our reception was just what we wanted and we felt so good about the whole experience.”

And yet another:

The location. We had family coming from out of town and found a great place that had plenty of room for everyone, a great reception area, beautiful grounds, and good food. It all worked out so well.

In the same vein:

“We rented a big beach house. We wanted to spend the time with our family and friends over a couple of days. It was unforgettable.”

To home in on your own plan, think about your wedding in general terms. What do you think would be important? You might think the size of your crowd is the first thing to determine or setting the date but I would not agree. Whatever your particular ‘important thing’ is (and it might change), envision that first. Don’t immediately start making lists.

I have posed the “What was the most important thing?” question to many couples but I found this response very touching:

“Mary, I’ve thought about your question a lot and I have to say that making my parents happy was the most important thing to me.”

This came from a young woman in her twenties whose parents threw the wedding. Quiet and scholarly, this bride would not be the one to focus on all the bells and whistles of wedding planning.

“To my surprise, my parents had a much clearer vision than I of how the event should take shape. I realized I cared less about the small details and more about seeing my parents enjoying the planning process. I would add that it wasn’t only my parents. My fiancé’s mother was also very involved with the rehearsal dinner and I got the sense it also pleased her to plan and that she also had strong opinions about how things should go.”

I think it would be hard to find a more mature and thoughtful response.

A wedding is a shared celebration.

 When parents are the funders, it’s hard to argue that they shouldn’t have a say in planning the event. The young bride mentioned above understood this. Moreover, she and her fiancé recognized that the wedding day is an event involving families. Her attitude was not one of self-sacrifice or cringing agreement but rather, recognition that the day is a shared one.

Another example of sensitivity comes from a couple marrying for the second time, each with children.

“We really wanted to celebrate and get our families and friends together but we also were in the process of blending our respective families. We thought an over-the-top event would be confusing and uncomfortable for our children.”

They opted for a small afternoon wedding (but it was on Valentine’s Day!) at the bride’s brother’s house. It was comfortable, cozy, romantic, and elegant. It was in a familiar place. Everyone had a great time – including the kids.

In my questions to brides, I have never heard one say that her dress was the most important thing and or that the wedding was ‘her’ day. This is not say that brides shouldn’t be excited and interested in their appearance but rather that wedding clothes, as with many other details, are one aspect of a larger picture.

Families all have their specific personalities, quirks, and yes, peculiarities. But you know each another. I’ve always thought that bar mitzvahs are joyous and straightforward because it’s all the same family. Wedding are, by nature, a delicate dance: when two people get married, two different families come together.

So, as you think about your wedding in a broad sense, inform and include those who will be directly involved in your plans. A lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication can be avoided if the participants are clear and frank with one another right from the start.

A final thought: talking is fine but listening is critical. When I was married (for the first time), my father said two things:

“I’d like champagne at the wedding.”

And “I won’t wear a rented suit.”

 What he meant was:

“I want you to have a nice party and I’m prepared to be generous.”

And “Please don’t ask me to participate in an event I’m not comfortable with.”

In the previous year, I had been to a couple of very fancy weddings in New York where the men in the wedding party wore white tie and tails. I suppose I did have a fantasy about something similar. But that style of wedding wasn’t right for my fiancé, our families, or me. As it turned out, we talked and we listened and it was a very nice party indeed.

So that’s step one in wedding planning.

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“A Haverford landmark for sixty years was the Haverford Hotel, built of brick in 1913. Its stately white columns supported the roof over a wide and gracious porch entrance. Many wedding receptions, balls, other parties, and meetings were held there.” *

As your common sense guide to planning and enjoying your wedding, let me introduce myself with a story.

Up the steps. Across the porch. Through the big doors and follow the noise to the ballroom. First things first: I looked for the bride. She was always at the center of things, her beautiful billowy white dress, her happy smile, and all the conversation that whirled around. Then, I sought out the cake. If my timing was right, the cake was already being served.

In the late-1950s, I lived right around the corner from the Haverford Hotel in Haverford, Pennsylvania. For a brief period, at the age of about eight years, I frequented the hotel on Saturdays. I figured out that if I put on a party dress and showed up around five-ish, I would somehow blend in. People would think I was someone else’s child. My modus operandi worked like a charm. I loved the happy crowd, the chatter, the rustling dresses, the men in their dark suits, the clinking glasses, the occasional pats on the head. And the beautiful cakes.

After a time, my attendance at weddings, to which I was not invited, tapered off. It’s possible my mother questioned where I was headed in my party dress every Saturday. But about 15 years later, I was married at the Haverford Hotel.

 I felt it was the right thing to do.

My afternoon wedding in 1970 was not so different from the ones I remembered from the late ‘50s. The reception lasted a few hours; there were hors d’oeuvres, tea sandwiches, champagne, and cake. After a bit of tame dancing to a small combo, we cut the cake, I threw my bouquet, and off we went in a hail of rice.

Twenty years later, as a caterer, I found myself again attending weddings, this time not as a gate crasher or a bride, but as a paid participant. Weddings had changed in many important ways. The bridal couple, not the bride’s parents, was more often than not the client. A bouquet might be thrown but the bride did not dash off early in the proceedings. Dinner replaced the tea sandwiches and rock bands took over from the little combos. Weddings were less tradition-bound, more festive, time-consuming, and definitely, more expensive.

My professional experience as a caterer coincided with more personal connections with weddings: my second marriage, my daughters’, and son’s weddings and those of our friends. I continued to appreciate the originality and exuberance of the bridal couples but I also began to notice a much heavier commercial influence.

When Mom and Dad paid for everything (and many still do), it was taken for granted that most of the guest list was comprised mainly of their friends and family members. The bride and groom were presumed to have fewer friends due to their youth. The mother of the bride had a lot to say about every aspect of the wedding. Undoubtedly, for many, this led to a lot of friction.

But as Mother’s influence waned, there was a sort of vacuum of knowledge about the ‘rules’ surrounding weddings. It was at this point the wedding industry stepped in where the mother of the bride stepped back. Wearing beads and getting married on the beach freed a generation from some outmoded traditions, but in their place, a new stricter order emerged. Wedding consultants, planners, and caterers are called upon as social arbiters of the ‘correct’ way to tie the knot. Couples learn early to fight their way through the maze of ‘must haves’ for their wedding, most of which turn out to be services or items for purchase.

Families have changed as well. The bridal couple has not only siblings and parents but step parents, half and step siblings, significant others, and partners. The bridal couple of today is older, might be gay or lesbian, might be marrying for the second or third time, might already have children, and most probably lives together.

With this changed landscape, what exactly are the rules? Any discussion of etiquette begins and ends with good manners, which Emily Post defined in 1922 as follows:

Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use.

Weddings are no different from any social interaction when it comes to manners. That ‘sensitive awareness of the feelings of others’ is fundamental to every aspect of planning a wedding.

Manners are universal but tradition evolves and etiquette falls somewhere in between. Much of what we believe to be time-honored and traditional is myth. What we assume is long-established custom changes with every generation. A wedding reception with a sit down dinner was virtually unknown a few generations ago. Can’t find any wedding photographs of your grandparents? Not surprising. During two world wars and the Great Depression, brides arranged weddings in a matter of days, wore tailored suits, or borrowed dresses. Grooms showed up in their uniforms, sometimes on a three-day pass. Bridesmaids, if there were any, frequently had mismatched dresses because they wore them to more than one wedding. Receptions were hastily arranged with flowers from the garden and cakes made with rationed sugar coupons. The mother of the 1960’s bride probably based her ‘traditional’ advice on hearsay and perhaps wanted for her daughter a wedding that she had not experienced herself.

I mention this not to make light of tradition but simply to say: when it comes to weddings, most of what is touted as traditional is commercially motivated. Emily Post wrote a great book on etiquette and given her social standing was considered a real expert on the subject. But, more interesting, is that she was a formidable businesswoman whose books still sell. In an era when society women had no professional role, she created one for herself based on people’s insecurity about what to do in public.

From the proposal (champagne, diamond ring) down to the last wedding detail (Make your getaway in style! Hire a carriage!), every aspect of getting married can be supported with money. And lots of it. Even memoirs and blogs detailing and wailing about all the hoopla, in fact, support the industry. Wedding mania isn’t dissimilar from the housing bubble. People are encouraged to spend what they don’t have and told that their ‘special magical day’ is worth every penny whether they can afford it or not.

It’s very hard to resist the hype. Being in love and feeling romantic do not go hand in hand with pinching pennies and saying no to fun stuff. But the wedding business is like the funeral business. The vendors have you at your most vulnerable. The prospective bridal couple (We’re in love! Nothing’s too good for us!) is the wedding equivalent of the grieving family (“He was the most wonderful man in the world! Sign us up for the gold casket!”) This may sound like a bitter lesson but it’s true. Whether it’s about joy or about sorrow, business is business.

About two years ago, my husband and I were invited to a wedding in a small town in France. The bride, the daughter of an old friend, was American, born in Tonga, raised in Botswana, and St. Mary’s County, Maryland. She and her Italian fiance, who was from Rome, met in Armenia where they both worked. Joining in the celebration were sisters, brothers, mom and dad. And then it got complicated: boyfriends, girlfriends, significant others, adopted stepsiblings and godparents. It didn’t end there. The guests arrived from Africa, Europe, America, and the South Pacific.

They didn’t have a wedding planner, a videographer, or a caterer but they did have help, both hired and volunteer. They also had a website with a lot of thoughtful information which helped guests arriving from afar. Those who arrived early had the pleasure of participating in the preparations. In our case, we topped and tailed 8 kilos of string beans, all the while chatting and getting to know other guests. We felt as though we contributed to an important day.

Although rain threatened, the sun broke through and the whole party was held outside. The ceremony was lovely, the food and wine were delicious, and the music, a local band, was lively. Even the oldsters got up to dance. Bride and groom just smiled and smiled.

This experience has given me the impetus I needed to write about weddings. I want to advocate for a straightforward, meaningful, and yes, exuberant approach to this important milestone. Their wedding reminded me just how personal, romantic, funny, and festive the occasion can be. Their experience confirmed that when you are planning a wedding and want to do all of it or parts of it yourself, it’s not only possible, it’s a great idea. Furthermore, it’s no secret: people do it all the time.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called Throw A Great Party, Inspired by Evenings in Paris with Jim Haynes. I had been struck by the ease with which one American man threw Sunday night suppers in Paris for large crowds. With friends as volunteers and helpers, Jim puts on a terrific party without a lot of expense or professional help. Using Jim as my inspiration, I wrote about how to give a big party from start to finish.

During the process of writing that book, I realized that many of the same organizing principles apply to weddings. I thought about the weddings I’ve been to and what made them remarkable. How people, faced with a lot of conflicting choices and pressures, manage to have wonderful weddings. How supposed ‘disasters’ often have surprisingly pleasant conclusions. How some simple old customs still have meaning.  

In this blog, you will find sensible suggestions for planning a wedding. Drawing on my professional and personal experience, I want to show how to home in on a plan, draw up and stick to a budget, determine a location, and make decisions about the food, flowers, photography, decorations, invitations, and wedding-related events. I will devote a significant amount of space to wedding menus and recipes that you can do yourself or have help managing.

Celebrating a marriage with a wedding has the enduring history it deserves because it is a significant moment in life. And not to be morbid, but the funeral analogy is apropos. Your loved one is not honored and your sadness is not eased by the amount of money spent on a funeral. In the same way, your marriage will not be strengthened nor your celebration made more joyous by a lavish wedding. But are funerals and weddings important? Absolutely.

For as long as human interactions have been recorded, there have been weddings. Yes, they take time and organization but remember this: you’re not alone. Generations have gotten married and had a wonderful memorable time. You don’t have to break the bank, feel guilty about having a budget, or listen to phony social advice. It’s your wedding and you can and should call the shots.

So trust yourself and throw a great wedding!


*Montgomery County: The Second Hundred Years, edited by Jean B. Toll and Michael J. Schwager, Montgomery County Federation of Historical Societies, Norristown, PA, 1983, Chapter 3 Towns