In my first marriage, I had two weddings with the same partner: first the Big Fat Wedding of 100 family and friends from all over the world, in a boutique Victorian town several hours from our home in Seattle, in 1998 before there was really much Internet. We arranged everything, including our vows, the whole ceremony, website, directions, travel guide, accommodations, catering, and renting everything we needed on site. Whole 9 yards.
Unfortunately the Big Fat Wedding was not a legal wedding, as my partner and I were of the same sex. So five years later, as as soon as it became legal, we rushed up for a Very Tiny Wedding, on a beach in Vancouver Canada. We didn’t even tell most of our parents about it until it was over. They could read about it in the NYT (which despite their fact-checker had errors, and only published us because we were their first legal lesbian wedding announcement).
Many years later, my second wife and I had a tiny, pandemic-compliant wedding in our home, on Christmas Eve, with a very small number of guests in person and a large number on Zoom.
I have also helped friends plan their weddings, including on top of a mountain in a daily thunderstorm. “It will all be fine at the time,” they assured us, and sure enough a rainbow miraculously came out right on time.
Your wedding is unique
Your wedding should be custom tailored to:
- You and your partner
- The words and spirit that are most meaningful to you, whether or not you write your own vows
- Clothes that make you look fantastic while feeling amazing
- Your cultures, traditions, religion and spirituality
- Your tastes in decorations, invitations, food, beverages, and music
- Your preference for small or large ceremony or reception. Some people combine them, some people prefer to separate them. It may be affected by factors outside of your control, such as who can travel to your location.
- The location, scenery, season, and times that work best for you
- Photography – type and timing that fits your ceremony and/or reception. A formal portrait session before the wedding? A mass photo of all the guests attending? Photos during the ceremony, or a ban on photography til it’s over, to keep people in the moment? (Even if you ban photography, someone will cheat, I promise. But someone behind a camera can feel intrusive on the mood of a solemn moment.) A hashtag for your guests to post all their own pictures of the wild reception on their social media?
- Your unique set of friends and relatives, and your unique relationships with them. Yes go ahead and invite Great-Uncle Victor, even though your list already has far more guests than you can afford, and you know for dead-certain that he will never come. If you don’t invite him and he hears about it (which guaranteed he will), his nose will be out of joint for decades, and so will all his side of the family’s. Invite him anyway. Who knows, he might even send a gift.
- How you feel about receiving gifts. Even if your house is stuffed and you say “no gifts please,” gifts will come. Be prepared, before twenty toasters arrive. Registry? Charity? Cash donations for a honeymoon? Make a plan and let your guests know well in advance.
- Your scale and budget. Try not to burden your shiny new marriage with debt: plan, and save up. Alas, gone are the days when the father of the bride paid for everything. You are lucky if your family chips in, as you’re probably footing the bill. Yes, you are getting married to your beloved partner for your own intimate reasons, and the wedding ceremony should be exactly the way you want it. However, a wedding reception is a floating party that moves around a family over decades, and now it’s your turn to host. The reception is really more for your guests than for you.
Why wear it just once?
Historically, most people wore their best clothes for their wedding. They may have had a new dress or suit tailored, but it was usually not the last time they wore it. Why not have wedding outfits that you will be able to enjoy again? For example, if you’re a fan of historical costume, why not dress up a bit? For my last wedding, a costume designer friend made me a Renaissance dress from purple silk. It has since come in handy for musical performances and recreating paintings.
Poetry in its place
A wedding ceremony is the perfect place for a beautiful poem – if it suits your wedding. Otherwise it can be excruciating. Consider its length, author, enduring fame, themes and overtones, and raunchiness vs family friendliness. One of our wedding party read aloud this lovely poem by Christina Rossetti: A Birthday Ask a librarian (like me) to help you find just the ticket for you.
Music makes the moment
Whether it’s a wedding ceremony or even a funeral, such an important event in your life deserves at least a bit of live music. (And do pay, or at least feed, your musicians! Start your marriage with good karma.)
Music makes the moment solemn, and can ring out memories from your family or culture. For example, the first waltz at a Danish wedding is usually the 19th C “Bridal Waltz” by Neils Gade. When my grandmother heard it, she turned it to my mother and said (in Danish), “Now I’m going to cry.” Not the sentimental sort, my grandma hadn’t cried in years, but hearing the waltz from her own wedding played again over 60 years later at mine brought tears to her eyes.
I have been a semi-professional musician at weddings for over 30 years, playing flute, recorder, viola de gamba, and singing. I know processionals to play while watching the wedding couple process up the aisle, and stop at any two-bar cadence so you reach the end just as they do. And if I don’t have the music needed, I can compose it. “Pavane for the nursery” by William Jay Smith is one of my favourite poems from childhood, and my musical setting of it was part of my Big Fat Wedding.
I’ve sung jazz standards as love songs and played them as dance tunes. And I’ve played lots rollicking tunes from the British Isles, like Mairi’s Wedding, to get reception guests up on their feet dancing together at the reception . “Step we gaily as we go, heel for heel and toe for toe.”
I have also been a sound designer and music director for theatre. I know how music can gather and define a special space at the beginning, smooth through transitions, be a centrepiece for the most solemn moment, and bring everyone together in joyfulness at the end. 35 of our 100 Big Fat Wedding guests performed in our ceremony, with only one short rehearsal. As I said to my partner right after the ceremony, “Not bad for Preview!”
We had only one big glitch, when a new tradition we’d borrowed turned out to take much longer than expected: passing our rings round all 100 guests for each guest’s individual blessing. We should’ve known this would take forever, while we circled each other not only the traditional 7 times but many many more – it felt like 77. Our stage manager told us later her wish for the rings was, “Move fast to the front!” But our cousin playing “Pavane for the Nursery” rolled with it like the pro she is. She repeated the chorus, humming it over and over. Guests all around the room began humming with her, until the rings finally came back round to the front. In retrospect, that long awkward moment had surprising beauty.
Your Three Graces: Officiant, Stage Manager, and Guest Wrangler
Really, on the day of your wedding you will have more than enough to do. Even if you are “on book” and reading your own vows from paper, you can easily forget organizational details. And you have far too much on your mind to stress about table seatings or Auntie Bea’s hurt feelings.
- Do have an Officiant – minister, rabbi, marriage commissioner, your friend with the piece of paper from the Universal Life Church, whatever. Even if you write your own vows and every bit of your ceremony, and have nary a religious bone in your body, you need someone to stand up at the front, host and welcome everyone to the event, and cue you at the right time so that you say and do what you need to, without having to think much. Trust me, your brains will be too full and you’ll be glad of the help.
- Do hire an event organizer/wedding planner, or assign your most fearsomely-organized guest, as Stage Manager, to make sure that every thing and everyone that you need for the ceremony and reception are where and when they should be, on time; especially if you have scenery changing to do, like setting up tables after the ceremony, or moving tables to dance. She can also rope the spouses of the wedding party into her crew. Delegate any table seating charts to your Stage Manager, in consultation with your Guest Wrangler.
- Do hire an event organizer/wedding planner, or assign your kindest but firmest guest who knows the greatest number of the other guests, as Guest Wrangler. Guest Wrangler answers everyone’s questions, keeps them out of your hair, gives the kids goody bags of quiet things to keep them busy (e.g. bubbles, drawing pads – no yo-yos!) and gently plucks kids off the walls. Most of all, your Wrangler will subtly steer your guests away from creating any extra drama – and there is always is something. Weddings can bring out the best and worst in people, and the greater the number of guests the more chances rise exponentially that someone will bump into someone who rubs them the wrong way. You, the wedding couple, deserve to be shielded from all this.
- Do assign someone to push a plate of food in front of you, repeatedly, and make sure you eat some of it, on the day of the wedding. You’ll think you’re not hungry, but really you are. And, if you are someone for whom this is a good idea, take an Ativan or light sleeping pill the night before. If it won’t make you hung over before the wedding even begins, it will help you get a good night’s sleep – which is priceless. You might even be able to remember and enjoy your own wedding.
Don’t sweat the reviews
Most important is that you and your partner enjoy yourselves at your wedding. Nothing else truly matters. If well-planned, with enough good food and conviviality, your wedding will be a wonderful memory for you and your guests. If homophobic Uncle Fred refused to be caught dead at your wedding, or your divorced parents cold-shouldered each other, or disapproving Grandma Ethel looked like she was sucking lemons, or Little Niece Mirabel upended and displayed her frilly undies to all, or Great-Aunt Gertrude kvetched afterwards about everything you should have done differently, that’s still not your problem.
Even your vendors may surprise you. We rented a huge pile of party supplies from the one rental place in the small rural town of our Big Fat Wedding. They also rented backhoes, tractors, and pretty much everything. When we returned the stuff, they said, “Oh we heard about your wedding.” “Oh yes?” we asked nervously. In 1998, lesbian weddings were very new in those parts, and our ball-cap-wearing rental guys struck us city slickers as rather redneck. “Yeah we heard about your wedding,” they said. “It was an unusual wedding!” “Yes?” We inquired even more gingerly. “Yeah,” they said, “we heard your wedding was a Jewish wedding and it had all this great music and dancing!” “Oh!” All we could reply in our astonishment. “Thank you!”