Even if you’ve been to a wedding, being on the “getting married” side of the wedding day can be much, much different.
As you start planning, you may realize just how much you haven’t paid attention to or really understood, so I wanted to take this chance to break it down a bit – start to finish.
Please note: most of these explanations will stay gender/role neutral. There will be some specifics based on our experience, but know that we are open to any gender/role taking part in any of these moments however works best for them.
I’m going to get really real for a second. You do not have time to set up your own wedding. Your family and wedding party really won’t either. They may be able to help unload, but there is so much to do on the morning of a wedding. Guys may be able to help a little, but even then, you’re going to want more help.
Once you arrive and unload, you’re likely going to need to hurry away to the ready space to start prepping for the day. And you should – this isn’t a day to stress and feel like you have 1000000 things to do. It’s all done now, let someone else set it up and you just relax and enjoy.
Hire a wedding planner/coordinator (even just day-of) and/or a set up team. Take photos of your table set ups and number them. Put them into a bin with everything that goes on that table, numbered. Have a master binder that you hand to someone that lets them know how it all should look – the tables for dinner, the guest book table, the dessert table, gift table, favors, etc. Break it all down with instructions and photos and then hand it off.
If you have rentals, make sure someone knows the pack up and pick up or return procedures and policies.
While not exactly a tradition in the sense of it, there are some unspoken expectations that can lurk around getting ready. This is an important thing to be discussing with your parents and wedding party.
Many parents want to be part of the getting ready. They’ve thought a lot about the moments they’re helping you get into your dress or suit, putting on your veil or boutonniere or necklace or cuff-links. They want to be part of these moments and not feel like an after thought or third wheel. We highly encourage you to have these discussions with your parents, because it’s truly a small thing to give them in such a huge day, and it may mean the most to them.
Some wedding party members may have similar expectations – especially if you helped them do specific things at their wedding.
Another couple of things to note – please don’t put on your jewelry before you dress, including your shoes. Your photographer (and videographer) will want to be present for this – same thing if you’re wearing a suit. Don’t get dressed and fully ready before your vendor team is ready for you, or you’ll be taking off your tie and doing it again a couple of times.
It is tradition to give gifts to your wedding party, parents and partner. These gifts are usually given during the getting ready part of the day, although sometimes parent gifts are given at rehearsal the night before (especially if it’s something you want them to use or wear). If you plan on getting jewelry for your wedding party or parents, be aware that they may not choose to wear it on your wedding day if they’ve already invested time and money into buying something they specifically planned to wear with their outfit.
We do a couple of different versions of these, so we will break down each one. Please know, it is ALWAYS ok to move once the first look has happened, no one has to stay glued to their spot.
First looks tend to be private moments (we recommend it – so prep your parents and wedding party) and give you a few moments alone before the rest of the fun starts. They’re often very emotional and intimate, and no one needs a crowd.
Some brides really love the idea of their bridesmaids seeing them in their dress for the first time. This can be a little tricky to coordinate as they’re usually getting ready with you in the room. If you plan to do this, please let your wedding party know, as they’ll need to be dressed & ready, and out of the room waiting nearby while you get your dress on.
Once you’re dressed and we have you positioned for the best photo op, we will bring the group in together with closed eyes, and tell them when to open them.
Sometimes this is done with both parents, sometimes with just one (if the other helped you dress for the day). We normally take the parent to a specific spot and have them wait facing away from where you’ll be.
Once you approach, you can stand back a few feet and say their name or you can go up and touch them to let them know they can turn around.
Parents: you’re going to want to make sure you either have tissue or a hanky on hand. And it’s ok to cry!
When you do your first look with your partner, we can do this a couple of ways. One can be similar to a parents first look where we ask your partner to stand somewhere facing away from your approach. We can also have them facing your approach if you’d rather have more of a candid first look.
If you choose the facing away option, you can stand back a few feet and tell them to turn around (or say their name) or you can go up and touch them instead.
First and foremost, your job on your wedding day is to be an Ambassador of Affection to your spouse. When you’re near them, touch them, even if it’s just a hand on the arm or low back. Butt grabs are ok too. This is the first moment of the day you really get to take on that role.
Take these moments to center yourself for the day ahead. Really look at your partner and see them. See the effort they’ve made to look this amazing for you and for your wedding day (and of course for themselves). You’re going to want to make sure you either have tissue or a hanky on hand. And know that it’s ok to cry!
Smell them – I know it sounds weird, but anytime you create a scent memory on your wedding day, you’ll come back to that moment again later in life when you smell the same thing. It’s very powerful.
Try to not place expectations on your partner for this moment. Know that it’s very unlikely for them to do something completely out of their normal character. Instead, enjoy this moment as your time of re-connection with your soon to be spouse and as a reminder for why you’re marrying them.
The order this will happens depends on your photographer. For us, we prefer to start with wedding party after first look, then immediate family and then the couple. We do this order so that the wedding party and family can go help with setup when they’re done and help manage early guest arrivals or issues.
Actually, the real reason we do this order because we want you guys to get through all the group stuff, and be able to have some alone time snuggling up and hanging out before you head down the aisle to get married.
For family photos we will need a list (we ask for this in our final email to you about 6 weeks before the wedding), but we really don’t need any other kind of photo list from you on your wedding day. We take 30 minutes for family and 30 minutes for wedding party. During family photos, we start with both sides of the immediate family – parents (and step-parents), siblings (and their spouses and kids), and grandparents (and step-grandparents) and do a large combined family portrait. Then we take the larger side and work through those family photos, sending people off once we are done with them; then the smaller side’s family and do the same thing.
During this, we do full group photos first (including child attendants if there are any). Then, we split up and each of us take a side and work through group photos of that side, and then individual photos of the wedding party with the person they’re standing up with. We do a nice portrait and then a funny or sweet one (their choice).
Then it’s on to couple portraits. We take the two of you off alone and do portraits. You can choose to wear your rings or not (we do recommend you wear them for a few photos if we don’t have a separate sunset photo time scheduled in your timeline), that’s all personal choice. Please note, it’s going to be nearly impossible to keep your dress clean, and especially if you’ve chosen an outdoor venue – so either expect to get a little dirty on the bottom of the dress, or you can bring a clear shower curtain liner that we can set underneath you (you still may get a little dirty, we can’t guarantee you won’t).
If you have any aunts, uncles, cousins, etc that you want photos with, we recommend scheduling time for that right after ceremony (after you sign your marriage license of course), and before you officially enter the reception.
Time to Hide
Guests start arriving roughly 45 minutes before ceremony, sometimes an hour depending on where your ceremony is taking place. We try to have the bride hidden before their arrival, so we end portraits an hour before ceremony. This is a great time to use the restroom, eat a snack, drink some water and relax before the rush of the rest of the day hits – it’s your last chance for quiet!
To make things easier, I recommend packing everything up during this down time. Have your wedding party bring their belongings out to their vehicles or clean them up so they’re easy to grab and take out later in the evening.
Make sure you have a bag to take with you when you leave, and a bag that someone you trust can take home with them. Someone should know what each bag looks like and be responsible for it.
The first bag will need to be loaded out to your car during the reception, before you’re scheduled to leave. This bag should have your phone, charger, ID, wallet, and anything you’ll need for your honeymoon and that evening (as well as a way to store your dress if you’re needing to pack it with you to your honeymoon destination). Do not put your marriage license in this bag.
The second bag should hold your marriage license, your ring box, your vow books, and anything else super important that may need to be dealt with when you return. This should go wherever any of your presents or gifts should go.
This part seems/is easy. You line up, you go down the aisle. But then what?
Ceremonies can hold a mix of things. From short and sweet recounts of your love story to personalized vows, it’s kind of up to you (and your officiant – some don’t allow personal vows if you don’t book a specific package).
You can have singers, readings from favorite poems or books, musicians. You can have only your commitment and vows. Ceremonies usually involve a ring exchange and “The Kiss”. Some involve unity ceremonies, and then there is the recessional (where you walk back down the aisle after you’ve been pronounced as married and introduced for the first time).
This one can go a couple of ways. Some people opt to wear their engagement ring down the aisle on their ring finger, others choose to put it on their pinky finger, and some choose to have their partner put it on them at the same time as the wedding band. Whatever feels right to you is just fine!
Usually one of the wedding party members carries the rings down the aisle and holds on to them until the officiant asks for them. It’s not recommended that a child attendant (yes, not even the ring bearer) hold the actual rings … and we don’t recommend them be in ring boxes, either (you’d be surprised how far those things can fly when a box is opened).
The wedding band is supposed to go closest to your heart, so just remember to switch them if you don’t have them in that order during ceremony. Rings go on the finger next to the pinky on the left hand (if you mess it up during ceremony, don’t panic – just fix it afterwards).
Guess what – that ring may not go all the way on during ceremony. That’s normal. Nerves, excitement and stress can make us swell up, and especially in our hands. Push the ring on as far as it will go, and then stop. Don’t panic, and know that you can always put it all the way on after the ceremony.
Bring lotion with you for your hands – you can apply it before ceremony to increase the chances of the ring going on smoothly. This is also another reason that you should be drinking water on your wedding day, the hydration will help your hands to not get as swollen!
These are promises you’re making to each-other, commitments of what you’re vowing for the rest of your lives. While some people opt to include these in the ceremony themselves, some also prefer to do them in private, during the first look.
While these are slowly moving out of the normal, some people are finding awesome new ways to symbolize two individuals making a choice to come together and work towards a common goal in unity (their marriage). These are normally done after the vows but before the kiss. Traditional ways are a candle lighting or sand ceremony. Some couples plant trees together, pour a shot or wine from specific decanters, join together sand to be blown into a display piece for their home, do a paint dripping, etc. There are a lot of options out there as unique as the couple themselves.
Signing the Legal Documents
When building your wedding day timeline, this gets forgotten a LOT. This can be done before or after ceremony (some officiants have a preference). You gather with your officiant, and two witnesses of sound mind, and sign the documents provided by the county of the marriage. There is a legal document that is returned to the county and state, and another that you keep to display. I highly recommend hiring someone to fill that one out in calligraphy and then having it ready to sign on your wedding day.
Even if you sign these documents before ceremony, we recommend you schedule 10-15 minutes of time alone in a ready room or private space to just relax and enjoy the fact, privately, that you’re officially married. See if your caterer can put a drink and some appetizers wherever you’re going to spend that time. You’ll really need that little boost to get through the rest of the evening.
Entering the reception happens next. Your DJ will go over this process thoroughly with you, from who all they will be introducing and how you want them introduced. They will ask you how you’d like to be introduced as well (you have a lot of options!). Once you’re in the room, your timeline will dictate what comes next. We won’t highlight anything in a particular order, so just find the parts that apply to you.
There is a common thought leading up to the wedding day that a reception is one big party – and it is, to some extent… but we don’t want you to walk into it expecting it to be down time. There is a lot of “performance pieces” that happen in most receptions, and it’s better to go in realizing that you’re going to be doing a lot before you can just hang out. We do recommend getting as many of the traditions done consecutively as possible so that once the dance floor is open and the partying part has started, you don’t have to kill the flow to do another activity. It always sucks to be pulled away from a good conversation, beer, or dance to have to do something else like cutting the cake.
We do also want to touch on the old tradition of “Clinking of glasses”. If you have any guests that are present that are over 40, you’re likely to hear someone clink their glass at your reception. This is a sign for you to kiss your partner. Of course, you can kiss them more often, but we are always surprised how many of our couples don’t know what the clink means.
One more thing – make sure you have someone who is responsible for moving your gifts and cards to a secure location before reception starts on your wedding day. The cards can go into your bag to come with you when you leave the reception, and you should make a plan for where your gifts will go when everything is packed up for the night.
If you’re doing a buffet, you and your partner are expected to go through the line first. Your wedding party and family should follow, and then any of your vendors (so they’re fed and ready to go when you’re done eating). After that, your DJ will excuse the guests in an orderly fashion to head up to the dinner line.
After you’re done eating, we recommend going around to the tables and greeting your guests. This isn’t a time for full conversations, but a quick “Hello, thank you so much for coming, I’ll try to come over and chat with you more in a little while!” kind of thing. The goal is to try to get through one side of the room (or even both) before you head into your next event.
You will start with your first dance as a married couple. Not everyone is comfortable with a lot of attention and ask all married couples to join them, but selfishly, I really prefer when they just have a few minutes of that time alone on the dance floor – the photos with everyone else out there just aren’t as sweet or as powerful. At least start out alone for one minute of the song, and then have your DJ invite others to join in.
Other traditional dances include the mother/son and father/daughter dance. If you want these dances to be short, make sure you touch base with your DJ about a signal to fade the song out and end the dance early. This can be a really awesome time to pay tribute to your parents with a special song that would have meaning to them (and sometimes couples let the parents pick the song secretly with the DJ – that ends up pretty special, too).
Bouquet and Garter Toss
These are also not as common anymore, or couples are finding ways to spin this to fit them better.
Traditionally, the bouquet is tossed by the bride to single female guests. You would be facing away from the guests and toss the bouquet backwards over your head for someone to catch.
The garter (I don’t recommend putting your garter on until reception – I’ve seen far too many fall off in really awkward moments, not to mention they’re uncomfortable as heck) is removed from under the dress and thrown to the single male guests. You’d stand facing away from the guests and throw it over your shoulder to be caught (they don’t fly far, sometimes shooting them like a rubberband works better).
Anniversary Dance & the Money Dance
Talking about traditional dances earlier, these are the two most common.
For the anniversary dance, all married couples join the floor and the DJ calls out anniversaries to excuse them (ie “if you’ve been married less than 5 years, leave the dance floor”) with the goal of the last couple on the dance floor having been married the longest. They’re usually then asked if they have any marriage advice or what has helped them stay married so long.
The money dance is when guests line up to pay money to dance with you. It’s no longer common that guests bring cash to weddings, so setting up a phone with venmo or cashapp can be a modern way to do this now. Some family’s traditions have them “pin” the money to the couple using safety pins (if this is your family don’t forget to bring some and give them to the DJ!).
The one tradition no one knows how to do! Cake cutting is a symbol of both teamwork and caring for each-other.
You’ll take the cutting knife together – yes, both of you – and cut a small (for real, it only has to be big enough for you each to have a bite) piece from the bottom tier and put it on a plate. The cutting and the piece removal should be done together. Yes, it’s awkward and weird to both hold a knife, but it’s a great testament to the fun you have as a couple.
Once the cake is on the plate, you can do this two ways: use forks to feed each-other the bite of cake at the same time; or use your hands to break the piece in half and feed each-other that way. This is usually when people smash the cake … but please don’t do this without having had a prior conversation with your partner about their feelings on the matter. Especially if one of you has had professional hair and makeup done or if there might be things you want photographed doing (like dances, a special exit, etc) after the cake smash.
Once you’ve each taken a bite (or a face-full), you kiss. Then you should probably have a napkin and help clean your partner’s face… even if you didn’t choose to smash the cake.
Then you’re done. You don’t serve the cake or cut it up for anyone else – please make sure you have catering or serving staff set up for this (otherwise it ends up being a parent, wedding party member, or sometimes even us that has to do this for you).
Packing to Leave
At some point before you’re ready for your special exit, a member of each side of the wedding party should grab your bag and put it in your getaway vehicle. This is not your job – so make sure this person knows who they are and isn’t too drunk to be responsible for this.
Have a member of the wedding party bring the getaway car around to where it will be easy to get to once you’ve done your exit.
We recommend you plan your exit for 90 minutes before you would need to have everything out of the venue. Guest won’t start leaving until after you do, so cutting it any closer can make it stressful for cleanup.
This is usually something that we help coordinate, and we will help guests know what to do. If you’re planning a special exit on your wedding day, make sure you touch base with me and I can help you figure out what you need to do it well: sparklers, glow sticks, and bubbles all have very different things that make them happen well, and some of it may require you to buy or rent things you may not have thought about.
Please note: If you want to stay and party with your guests but still would love a sparkler exit or glow sticks or bubbles or a snow throw, talk to us before we create your timeline. We have options that allow us to make this as part of your day and STILL let you get back into the party and have more fun.
Tear down can take anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes. Again, this is not something you are responsible for, or something that you should be doing.
This would be something your planner/coordinator would be responsible for making sure happens, or you can hire a tear down team to do it for you. Often, family and wedding party members assist. If you’ve rented items, please make sure someone is assigned to pack down & count out what needs to be returned.
That’s it! Is there any part of a wedding day that has you stumped? Let us know in the comments so we can add it to our post!