There's more to attending a wedding than getting dressed up, shedding a few tears, and partying all night long -- you've got responsibilities, too! Here's everything you need to know to be a great wedding guest.
Getting an Invitation
When you receive an invite (usually six to eight weeks before the wedding), don't let it get lost on the coffee table -- check the date and decide if you'll go. Whether you can or can't, respond ASAP -- the R.S.V.P. date noted on the invitation isn't arbitrary. It's important for the couple to find out who's coming promptly, so they can give their caterer a final head count no later than two weeks before the wedding. Don't add to their stress by procrastinating.
How you respond depends on the invitation. If there's a preprinted response card, fill in the blanks ("Ms. Kim Williams and Mr. Brian Jones will" or "will not" attend; editorialize a bit, if you like -- "will happily" attend). Feel free to slip an additional note of congrats into the pre-stamped envelope too, if you haven't talked to the to-be-weds recently.
The most formal invitations may arrive without a printed response card; in this case, you should write your response on nice stationery, mirroring the language of the invitation: "Ms. Kim Williams and Mr. Brian Jones/accept with pleasure/the invitation of/Mr. and Mrs. Michael Livingston/for Saturday, the second of August/at five o' clock in the evening." If you can't make it, say that "Ms. Kim Williams/regrets that she is unable to accept/the kind invitation of/etc." (You don't need to include the time on a regret, just the date). If the invitation is more casual but doesn't include a response card, just write a warm, informal note accepting or declining.
A few dos and don'ts:
Do let the hosts know if you must cancel at the last minute; don't just not show up.
Don't assume that you can invite a date (unless it says "and Guest" on the outer envelope along with your name) and/or bring along your children or other family members whose names are not explicitly included on the invitation. Only the people who the invite is addressed to are invited -- seems pretty common sensical, but you'd be surprised how many wedding guests think they've got free rein to invite the rest of the neighborhood. The bottom line: It's the couple's decision who to invite, and you have no business asking them if you can bring someone else along, even your significant other.
Getting an Announcement
Well, you're not invited -- but the bride and groom want you to know about it. Don't get mortally offended off the bat -- if these are close friends, they may have chosen to have an intimate family wedding and so couldn't invite all their friends. If it's not such a close friend, or it's a business associate, don't feel obligated to send a gift. It's a nice gesture to send a personal note of congratulations, but even that is not automatically expected.
Always plan on sending a gift when you accept a wedding invitation. If you can't make the wedding, it's still nice to send a gift, but you won't be committing a major faux pas if you don't. At the least, send a congratulatory card before the wedding -- better yet, take the couple (or your friend the bride) out to dinner to celebrate with them sometime soon.
Technically, you have up to a year after the wedding date to send a gift, but it makes sense to shop for a gift soon after you decide you'll go. Find out where the couple is registered -- ask the bride's mother or sister, the honor attendant, or the couple themselves. Don't expect this information to be included in the invitation (except for shower invites) -- you're supposed to ask them about it.
The wedding gift should be sent to the address the couple has given their registry -- don'tbring it with you to the reception. While this is still the custom in some regions, gifts at the wedding mean the couple has to worry about security, making sure cards stay with boxes, and getting them home somehow after the reception. (Also, you have to lug it along with you that day.) If you're also invited to the shower, bring the gift with you to that party.
You don't have to get the couple a gift from their registry, of course -- but the upside is that they've chosen these items themselves, so you know they want and like them. If you have another, special idea for a gift, by all means go for it -- but still send or bring it to the couple's home instead of handing it to them on wedding day. (If you're not having a package mailed through a store, make sure to insure the box against damage.) If you want to give the couple a money, make your check payable to the bride or groom if you're sending it before the wedding (use the bride's maiden name), to both of them if you give it to them on wedding day or after.
If you still haven't received a thank-you note a month after the gift was sent, it's okay to call and ask if it got there. (You might first call the store to confirm that the gift was in fact delivered -- the couple might just be behind on their acknowledgements!)
What to Wear
Dress as you would for any other social event held at the hour and during the season of the wedding. For example, if it's a spring brunch or luncheon, a pretty suit or floral dress would be appropriate for women; a light-colored suit and/or shirt and tie for men. For evening, depending on how formal the wedding is (you can usually tell this from the formality of the invitation and/or where the wedding is being held), the dress code is cocktail dresses for women and darker suits (or tuxedos, if it's a black-tie affair) for men. Don't wear anything too flashy -- sequins are probably a no-no -- and remember that if the ceremony is at a religious site, you don't want to show too much skin, either (i.e., shoulders should be covered).
Black used to be taboo for weddings, but these days a black dress is perfect for evening, just as it is for a night at the opera. Female wedding guests should not wear white -- it's really, really not polite to take away from the bride on her special day by wearing her color. Try to avoid off-white and ivory, too, if at all possible. It's not as if you don't own or can't buy something another color, right?
You should get to the ceremony on time -- this is not a party to be "fashionably late" for. Also, do not consider ditching the ceremony and just going to the reception. You've been invited as an honored wedding guest to watch this couple get married. Don't just take advantage of the free food and drink.
Ideally, you should arrive at the ceremony site 30 minutes before the time printed on the invitation -- even earlier for a large event (200 wedding guests or more). If you do get there after it's begun, seat yourself quietly in the back. If the procession is going on, wait until the bride reaches the altar to enter the sanctuary and find a seat.
You're not expected to participate in religious rituals (if you're Jewish and attending a Catholic wedding, for example, you don't do Communion). But it's polite to follow the lead of family members sitting in front as far as standing and sitting goes (you don't have to kneel if you don't want to, though). After the recession, wedding guests remain in their seats until the families of the bride and groom have been escorted out. If the receiving line is scheduled post-ceremony, get yourself in line.
Usually the first thing you'll see at the reception (if the couple has arrived before the guests, which is ideal) is the receiving line. Don't blow it off -- this is your chance to talk one-on-one with the couple, meet the bride or groom if you haven't yet, thank the parents for inviting you, etc. Especially if it's a large wedding, you might not get a chance later to chat with the couple and give them your love and best wishes. Don't spend too much time in line, though -- just say congrats, shake a few hands, and give a big old kiss to the bride and groom (if you're that close -- otherwise a hug will do!).
After the receiving line it's time for the cocktail hour, when people mill around with drinks and hors d'oeuvres. This is prime mingling time. You'll know when it's officially time to be seated for the meal (it's fine to sit before you're asked to, but it's more fun to walk around a talk to people!). Don't just park it anywhere -- check to see if there's a seating chart and sit where you're supposed to. At your table: Introduce yourself to anyone you don't know; explain your connection to the couple. Be nice, and don't just talk to people you're already acquainted with! If there's a specific seating arrangement, the bride and groom probably put you with people they thought you'd enjoy talking to -- so you probably will.
As far as dancing goes, guests generally follow the lead of the couple, wedding party, and families. Usually the bride and groom dance together first (although the first dance sometimes happens later on in the reception). Once the party gets going, though, feel free to dance as much as you want to!
As for the bouquet throw and garter toss, if you're not crazy about these traditions, don't just avoid them by hiding out in the bathroom. If you're not one of those who's going to dive for the bouquet or garter, just go out there and stand in the back -- and smile. Even if you think these traditions are silly, or that something else about the wedding is tacky or inappropriate -- keep your feelings to yourself. Maybe this isn't how you'd do it, but it is how the bride and groom chose to do it, and (as much as we'll all like to sometimes) it's not your place to complain.
When can you leave? Receptions usually last about four hours, and you'll know when things start winding down. You should stay at least until after the cake has been cut. Many brides and grooms stay until the bitter end these days, so it's hard to leave after them. When you decide to leave, find a member of the bride's immediate family (like her mom) and thank them. Also attempt to give the couple a last hug before you depart.