With spring now upon us in the northern hemisphere, the wedding season is just starting. Maybe you’ve only attended small weddings in someone’s home or church basement, and now you’ve been invited to a large wedding and reception. Maybe you’ve received an invitation that reads “formal attire” and do not know what that means, exactly. Maybe you’ve received your first invitation to a Buddhist or Muslim wedding. For every gentleman that knows how to behave and how much to spend on a gift for an American-couple-to-be and what to wear, there are other gentlemen with questions.
The Most Important Role of the Wedding Guest
Expectations of wedding guests may seem cumbersome or too fraught with opportunities for failure. If you can remember and fill your heart and mind with the following knowledge, you will have no difficulties at anyone’s wedding: One or both members of the couple have asked you to attend the wedding as a witness to their joy and to your importance to one or both of them. Set aside any lingering cynicism (which is difficult in the United States, with our multi-billion dollar wedding industry) and relax! The couple expects you to bring levity and laughter to the nuptials. You will make the wedding as boring or fascinating as you choose to. If you are truly lucky, you may even meet your future partner at a wedding. What follows below is a two-part etiquette list. One is a basic list that addresses wedding guest expectations in the United States; the second list describes what you can expect at explicitly religious ceremonies.
Respond to an invitation as soon as you are able to do so. Most invitations contain a response card with a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. Please use it before the requested date. Even if you respond months before the wedding, the couple-to-be appreciates your timeliness. Meal costs drive up wedding expenses in the U.S., and the number of guests, for the most part, dictate meal costs.
What Does Plus One Mean
If an invitation reads “requests the company of you and a guest,” that means you and a guest. That is it. You cannot bring anyone else. If the invitation requests you alone, then you’ll be attending the wedding by yourself. An invitation for you alone will have your name only on the envelope. If the envelope reads “Mr. X and Guest,” then the couple expect you to bring a guest on your choosing.
Plus one means one only. Not two or three. Not your brother visiting from out of town or your dad because he’s lonely. Unless your children are mentioned in the invitation, either by name or “and family,” they are not invited. Hire a babysitter for the day.
What Saying Yes Means
If you agree to attend the reception, then attend. Unless you are deathly ill, hospitalized or have a family emergency, go to the wedding.
Follow the advice given in the invitation. If no dress code is specified, ask your hosts. In the near future, we will create a separate guide about wedding attire. In the meantime, take a look at the stroller article and guide to cocktail attire.
If the couple has registered at a department store, buy something from the registry and have it sent to either one of their homes (or their joint home if they live together before the reception). Alternatively you can give money. as a rule of thumb you should spend at least as much on the gift as the party is spending on you. In the U.S. that means at least $75 per person or more, depending on the venue and state. A wedding in New York City is going to be more expensive than a wedding in rural Ohio.
Outside the U.S. traditions are different but cash is a common gift most of the time, though gift amounts are higher. For example in Spain you are expected to pay at least the cost of the dinner which is usually €150 + the gift at least €150 per person. So altogether that’s $400 person. If you are not sure, ask someone else who will attend the wedding as well.
Arrive on time to both the ceremony and the reception. Allot time for traffic. If you are traveling in an unfamiliar area, allow time for getting lost.
Attend the Ceremony
In the U.S., the wedding ceremony is often as important as the reception. For some couples, the ceremony is more important; they will invite only family and close friends to the ceremony and request co-workers and distant relatives attend the reception. If you are invited, do not skip the ceremony! Couples put effort and thought into this part of the wedding. If the couple does invite you to the ceremony (and do not assume they will), return their respect and show up on time.
What to Do If You Arrive Late to the Ceremony
In U.S. ceremonies, guests and family members who are not part of the wedding party sit down first. Then the processional begins. If you find you have failed to arrive in a timely manner, wait until the processional ends then sit in a row or pew in the back.
The Wedding Reception
When you arrive at the reception, there will be a table with place cards or the place cards are on the table. If you pick the cards from a table, they will be displayed in alphabetical order by name. Once you find your card, there will be a table number on it. Take your card to that table and put the card in front of the plate(s). Sit in the chair directly across from your name card. Do not swap name cards. If there are no name cards, sit whereever you like. Introduce yourself. Follow up with a question like “are you a friend of the bride/groom” or, if it is a gay or lesbian wedding, “you are a friend of which bride or groom.” Brush up on the art of conversation.
Some traditions have a money tree or a money dance. Bring some small bills to contribute.
Say Thank You
Thank the couple before you leave. Thank their parents, too.
After the Wedding
Call the couple and congratulate them again. But wait a week or two after they’ve returned from their honeymoon.
Write a Note
In years past cultural etiquette dictated a handwritten thank you note from all gentleman and ladies. There is nothing stopping you from keeping up this now largely forgotten point of etiquette. You might also think about writing a note to anyone you met at the reception you’d like to contact again. Your handwritten note will set you apart.
The Wedding Guest Do Nots
Do not make a spectacle of yourself, whether by drink, dance or disrobing.
Guidelines for Guests Attending Religious Weddings
What follows are suggestions. Religious weddings will vary depending on the degree and type of religiosity, the ethnicity of the couple as well their personal preferences. Gay and lesbian couples may also choose to have religious ceremonies. How they will enact their faith through the sacrament of marriage will probably depend on the couple and their faith tradition. If you receive an invitation to a religious ceremony, and are unsure about anything, ask. You can expect a varying degree of differences even within a single religious tradition. Some weddings may directly contradict the tenets of the couple’s faith. A flexible and nonjudgemental attitude can help when confusing situations arise.
General Suggestions for Religious Weddings
A dark two piece of three piece suit and tie is an excellent choice to wear to any religious ceremony, regardless of what other attendees may wear. Unless specifically asked by either person being married, avoid so-called ethnic dress, unless it is your appropriately ethnic dress. If you attend an Islamic wedding or a Conservative or Orthodox Jewish wedding with a woman, she should wear conservative dress. Her arms, neck, knees should be covered (even while sitting) and her head covered. Take some time to understand what you should do at a religious ceremony. Kneeling is act of extreme humility in Catholicism; less so in Judaism. Orthodox Judaism segregates women and men by gender. Reformed Judaism does not. Islam prohibits dancing at weddings, but many Muslim ceremonies are infused with cultural practices that may predate the adoption of Islam. Some of these practices include dancing. More modern interpretations of the teachings of the Prophet allow for photography and videography (see the video below). This Indian Muslim wedding video perfectly encapsulates the many contradictions within Muslim communities. Photography may be forbidden by Allah (haram), but there are interpretations of the teachings that suggest pictures done by artistic renderings are haram but photographs, which simply capture and store an image, are not.
With the worldwide popularity of Hollywood movies, most people have been exposed to the general flow of a Protestant ceremony. Each denomination may have specific requirements (whether Communion is served, for example). There is an overall unity to a Protestant service, across denominations. After the processional is finished, the minister will make opening remarks and follow with a prayer. If you do not wish to pray, you may bow your head or close your eyes. If the wedding is a traditional one, the father will give away the bride. There is then an exchange of vows, the exchange of rings and the presentation of the couple. There may signing of hymns or not. Protestation denominations run the gamut from very strict to extremely casual. With a nod to Hollywood, most of us have a general idea of what to expect. Ubiquitous images of Protestant wedding ceremonies does not, however, exempt us from politeness. Dress well, listen in silence, sing with joy and act with kindness towards everyone and you will not have anything to worry about.
You may be invited to attend the ceremony (called a Nikeh) or the reception (Walimah), or both. If the ceremony occurs at a mosque, you should remove your shoes upon entering this sacred space. Out of respect wear little, if any, jewelry. Islamic weddings will typically be segregated by gender. If the couple being married are pious, and you have a significant other but are not married, you may be asked to attend the wedding alone. At the Walimah you may continue to sit at sex-segregated tables. Food will be in abundance, and dancing will not. Islam proscribes dancing because music is haram (forbidden by Allah). If there is dancing, and many Muslim cultures do have dancing at weddings despite Allah’s proscription against music, watch what others do. Know that you may very well dance with other men, not women. You should give a gift but do not overspend. Islam requires that no one go into debt because of a wedding! Give what the bride and groom require in a humble manner, which is to say your gift should not be ostentatious. Photography is out. Taking a photo of living beings is also haram. Keep your camera at home and your cell phone in your pocket.
Whether the service is outdoors or indoors, and especially indoors at a Synagogue, wearing a kippah (yarmulke in Yiddish) is a sign of respect but not one of religious identification. However, the tallit, or braided shawl, worn by men and some women in liberal congregations is a sign of religious identification. (The four corners of the shawl remind Jews to keep God’s commandments). As a non-Jew, you may wear a kippah but not a tallit. Your invitation may contain two different start times. The first one is a time to greet the couple before the ceremony begins (kabbalat panim). You can arrive at the time indicated or at any time between the start time of the kabbalat panim and the second time. The second one indicates the start of the ceremony itself. If your invitation contains one start time, that probably indicates the start of the ceremony. Unlike the kabbalat punim, you should be on time to the start of the ceremony. During kabbalat panim, you greet the couple in a room. If it is a traditional wedding, the bride and groom will be in separate rooms. There may be light refreshments. Feel free to eat in front of the couple. But know that some couples may fast on their wedding day until after the ceremony. In this situation, you would be considered rude if you offered food to either person getting married. There may also be a tisch for the groom and bride (depending on whether the service is liberal or not). The tisch is time of fun and singing. The groom (and also the bride) may attempt to share words from the Torah (done from memory). At this time, family and friends may heckle him or her by shouting or singing. The goal is to cause the speaker to stumble. You may feel free to participate in these activities. The ketubah, or Jewish wedding contract, is typically signed during this period. In traditional weddings, the ketubah is signed by two witnesses in the groom’s tisch. In more liberal ones, everyone in the kabbalat panim will join, and the ketubah will be signed by two witnesses in front of the bride and groom and all guests. Unlike Christian weddings, where guests typically sit on either the bride or grooms side of the aisle, guests may sit on either side of the aisle. If the wedding is a conservative or Orthodox one, however, the seating will be sex-segregated. Near the end of the ceremony, the groom will break a glass. This act symbolizes the fact of pain in even the most joyous moments of life. Now is the time to join everyone as they stand and yell “Mazel Tov!” Then the dancing begins. Expect to eat a full meal, too.
In the Catholic faith, weddings are one of the seven sacraments. Sometimes called Holy Matrimony, Catholic weddings will have a mass. As Catholic services in general have the reputation for a certain kind of devotional practice absent from Protestant and other religious services, most Catholic ceremonies include an order of service for non-Catholic guests. Upon entering the Church, you may see Catholics dip their index and middle fingers into a small cup of water and genuflect (or bow if the knees are bad) in front of the altar before seating themselves. Catholics do not expect non-Catholics to genuflect. At the beginning of a Mass, the priest may say, “Peace be with you.” The congregation responds in kind. If he asks you to greet your neighbor, it is typical to say “peace be with you” to all the people whose hand you shake. The mass ritualistically requires participants to sit, stand and kneel depending on the order of service and what is happening. Congregants stand for the reading of the Gospels and sit during other readings and the homily. Kneeling is of especial religious significance. Believers kneel during prayer, which will typically happen towards the end of Mass. Out of respect, you may participate in these actions or you may not. You may choose to stand and sit and not kneel. You may be older and have bad knees or believe kneeling to pray is not appropriate or are not a believer. If you can, try to be consistent for the service. Even if you don’t kneel, you can close your eyes or bow your head. What you may never do as a non-Catholic is take Communion. Communion (eating the wafer and drinking the wine) is the holiest of sacraments in the Catholic church. Taking Communion as an Anglican, Espicopalian or Luthern does not qualify you to take Catholic Communion. Technically, only Catholics in good standing may take Communion. Some couples may make provisions for the non-Catholics attending their wedding to receive Communal blessings. The priest will instruct non-Catholics to cross their arms over their chest (cross their arms and place their hands on their shoulders). You will then receive a verbal blessing during Communion. If the option to receive a blessing is not available to you, stay seated in your pew row. It is a sign of respect to do so.
Hindu weddings are bright, lively multi-day events. There are multiple ceremonies to attend over three days. Clothing is both casual and formal. You will attend some or all of the events depending on whether you are a friend of the groom or bride, and how close you are to the bride or groom. Mehndi (the bride’s family and friends) – the henna painting party for women. Men will hang out in a room near the party. Later they will meet the women to help feed them as the women wait for the henna to dry. Sangeet/Raas-Garba (the bride and the groom’s family and friends) – happens the night before the wedding. Sangeet is the Sanskrit for singing with instruments. Guests dance Raas dances (traditionally male folk dances) and Garba dances (traditionally the Gujarat state dance, with many variations) throughout the night. Family members also plan a production of songs and dances that tell the couple’s story. As an invitee, you will probably be asked if you want to participate in this excellent production. If you can, do it! Gran Shanti (the bride’s family) – members of the bride’s family and her closest friends gather the morning of the ceremony to make offerings to the Gods to ensure a blessed union. The wedding ceremony (the bride and groom’s family and friends) – a ceremony that varies in length that ends with the tying of the sacred thread (manga sutra) or the saying of the vows (sapta padi). Below is a lovely video of a Hindu wedding.
We The reception – hosted by the groom’s family. It may be more Western-like if the wedding is in the United States, with further dancing and eating. If the wedding is in India, the reception is something closer to the receiving line in Western weddings. The bride and groom spend several hours greeting guests, who bring envelopes of cash.
Buddhist weddings will follow the traditions of the country from which the bride and groom come. Compared to other religions, it is a relaxed affair. Unlike other religions, in which marriage is a sacred act and an enactment of a couple’s religion within their marriage, the decision to marry is not a specifically religious one in Buddhism and does not affect a person’s practice. In fact there are no specific instructions in Buddhist texts regarding weddings. Dress should be respectful. When entering a temple (if the wedding takes place in the temple), you must remove your shoes. Your feet must never point to an image of the Buddha. The ceremony is about thirty minutes long and consists of the temple monks chanting Pali texts. As the chanting as evolved over centuries, the bride, groom and guests are expected to listen and not participate in the chanting. There is no organ or choir. Monks chant during a Laotian wedding.
Photographs and video recordings are allowed. When the service is over, there is typically a reception.
Have you ever attended a religious service? How was it for you?
Of course, things such as table etiquette are very important at a wedding. Take a look at all our etiquette guides.