I am not exactly what you'd call a wedding expert, but I've seen some weddings in my day. I got married once — it's still sticking, so I haven't needed to re-up. I have been the officiant at three weddings, as a reverend of the Universal Life Church. (You too can be ordained! Takes about five minutes.) All the weddings I presided were well-reviewed, though you'll have to trust me on that, as I don't yet have a Yelp page.
Also, I've been to lots of weddings. And I have some thoughts and tips to share with those of you pondering a wedding in the future.
The key to a good wedding is the feeling
For all the disagreements prospective spouses have over location, size, duration, and decoration, everyone who gets married wants the same thing out of their wedding: a good feeling.
People getting married want to feel supported, loved, and celebrated at their wedding. They want a sense of moment, of significance, that reflects the depth of their commitment. They want people to cry and laugh and remember. They want a good feeling.
The problem is we feel weird and vulnerable talking about what we really want — "please come celebrate me and my spouse and make us feel special" — so we turn our anxiety toward trappings, toward larding the day with fanciness or cuteness. We hope it will translate into a good feeling.
Unfortunately, as anyone who has been to a few weddings surely knows, there is little correlation between trappings and feeling. I've been to extremely elaborate weddings that went by in a semiformal haze, with no chance to settle in and feel anything. And I've been to low-budget, homemade weddings that were incredibly meaningful.
It's not so much overdoing things — though that's a real problem, not only for the big traditional white weddings but for the artisanal Etsy-style weddings getting so popular these days — as failing to attend to the most important things, letting expectations or pressure shape the essence of the event.
Here's the thing: For those of us with no (or weak) religious affiliation, the only official part of getting married is getting a marriage certificate at the courthouse. It's just a change of tax status. Anything else you want to bring to it — exchanging engagement rings, bachelor(ette) parties, a ceremony, an officiant, a best (wo)man, vows, kisses, first dances — is voluntary.
It can be fun to tap into that stuff. Widely shared and understood rituals have a kind of preexisting weight behind them and can quickly create a sense of ceremony. But all of them can be tweaked, adapted, or abandoned at will.
There's nothing wrong with traditional weddings, for people who enjoy that sort of thing. I've been to some great ones. But I've also been to some weddings where the couple seemed to be going through a set of exercises, checking boxes, because they (or their families) thought they had to.
People are different, so there's not really much generic advice to give about weddings. The thing to remember is simply that you deserve to have that feeling, whatever that means for you and your spouse. Whether it's big and beautiful and awe-inspiring or low-key and genial, at the edge of a canyon or in a friend's living room, the social event of the season or a handful of friends and family — talk about what feeling you want and construct a day around that. Don't agree to anything that doesn't serve it.
Lots of people will have lots of ideas. And there's a whole industry devoted to hoovering money out you by subtly nudging you to compare your wedding with other people's. But only you know what feeling you want; make that your North Star.
I got the feeling I wanted at my wedding(s) more or less by accident, but I learned a couple of things along the way. So that this post isn't hopelessly vague, I have two pieces of semi-specific advice to share, which I'll illustrate by way of telling my own story.
Get people together as long before the ceremony as possible
I proposed to my wife in March 2001, one year to the day after we’d first gotten together. Improbably, she said yes.
Weeks later, as we were discussing the wedding, I noted that my biannual family reunion with my mom’s side of the family — something we’ve been doing every other year since 1974 — was coming up in July, some three months hence. "Why don’t we just get married there?" I asked. Even more improbably, my wife, who had never met most of the 40-some people expected to attend, said yes again. (Pro tip: Marry a cool person.)
The reunion is a week long, held in a somewhat rundown little state park in Tennessee. We all arrived on Monday; the wedding was on Friday. In between, some of my old college friends came down. Her family and a few friends flew out from Seattle. We all settled in, took some hikes, swam in some rivers, played some Password, and drank some cheap canned beer. Everyone got to know everyone else, had some laughs.
When the day came, so did an enormous, torrential thunderstorm. Our picture-perfect outdoor ceremony, slated for the giant patio next to the restaurant, got scuttled. Instead we crammed everyone into one of the cabins, which featured dirty floors and awful (literally not changed since 1974) faux-Native American drapes, which now feature in all our wedding photos.
It was the photographer who ended up starting the ceremony, since no one else knew what was going on. I found out things had started when I heard the wedding march and saw my lovely bride squeezing out of the hallway from the bedroom. I was drinking a Bud Light at the time. My pianist (and brother) was my best man and later had to crawl over several people to get me the ring.
But I got it, and we got married, in the corner by the terrible drapes. Later, we all went outside with our clinking whiskeys, into the crisp air that thunderstorms leave behind in the South, and waved sparklers against the darkening sky. It was great. It was us. (And I bet the whole thing, from cabin to dress to cake, didn’t run more than $2,000.)
As I’ve attended (and officiated) more weddings over the years, I’ve realized in retrospect that we did one big thing right. The key turned out to be that everyone involved in the wedding got to hang out for a good while before the event. Everyone got past the awkward introductory conversations and got comfortable.
There was some sense of buildup and anticipation, which we all got to experience together. When the event came, everyone was fully present for it. And the next day, we all got up and went paddleboating, enjoying the heady bliss of aftermath. The wedding ceremony turned out not to be the event, but the culmination of the event, and it felt that way.
The most jarring and least memorable weddings I’ve been to happen like this: You arrive, get out of your car, mill about for an awkward minute or two with a crowd of people you only vaguely know, get ushered to a seat, and a ceremony starts. Something something, thee I wed, kiss, clap, it’s over. Wait, what happened?
It’s only after the ceremony that people can wander around and chat. And it's usually only toward the end of the reception that people are drunk enough to actually relax. The ceremony itself comes to seem like a weird blur.
Not many people can manage a week-long wedding event, obviously. But two or three days isn't crazy, even if only for a core group of family and friends. It makes a big difference if people arrive to find a happy, relaxed vibe already established.
Even if a multi-day event is off the table, it's possible not to jam guests straight into the ceremony as they arrive. There’s no law that says ceremony first. Have some games and toasts and music and maybe even a meal before the ceremony. Let people settle in, so they can be present for the moment. It’s only going to happen once.
Actually, wait, that might not be true.
Break it up into multiple events
The one drawback to getting married in Tennessee is that it's a long way from Seattle, where my wife and I lived and had most of our social life.
We knew lots of Southern friends and family wouldn’t be able to make it out to Seattle. And we knew lots of our friends wouldn’t be able to make it down to Tennessee. A conundrum.
Lots of couples have this problem: more than one life, more than one set of people, more than one place. The great pressure of a wedding is that all those lives and people are supposed to cram into a single place on a single day. Sometimes it's not possible, because of money or geographical distance. Sometimes it's not advisable, because certain people should never be in the same room together (you know who I'm talking about). Either way, it seems like something has to be sacrificed.
Our solution was to get married twice, once in each place.
The first one, in Tennessee, was, I suppose, the "real wedding," with my childhood minister as officiant. That's the county stamped on my marriage certificate.
Nonetheless, a week after that wedding, in Seattle, we hauled our suit and dress out of our honeymoon luggage and put them back on. We did the whole thing over again: were wed by an officiant (this time a friend), exchanged vows and rings, were declared man and wife, and had another big party, this one with all our West Coast friends.
It turned out to be a great idea. The two lives, the two sets of people, meant two different feelings — roots on one end, branches on the other. If they'd had to share an event, neither would have been done justice. As it was, we were able to give each feeling our full attention, to really take it in. Splitting the event turned out to double the joy.
And by the end, we felt extremely married.
Obviously, two weddings is not for everyone. Indeed, the very notion may horrify people currently contemplating the stress and expense of just one wedding. The key for us was to keep them both cheap and low-key (though the booze alone in Seattle probably cost more than the Tennessee wedding).
Some people take the whole married-by-a-preacher (or priest, rabbi, etc.) thing more seriously than I do and find the idea of having two ceremonies weird, or tacky, or false. That's fine. It doesn't have to be two weddings.
The point is just to take some of the pressure off The Wedding, which already has to bear a ton of it. It can be crazy-making to have such a bundle of hopes, expectations, and anxieties wrapped up in one day. I've seen weddings where participants (including the people getting married) are so taut with nervous worry that they only relax when it's over. This thing they planned and thought about for so long ... and they were never fully present for it.
Splitting that singular event into multiple events can take some of the pressure off. It can be two ceremonies, like we had. It can be one "real" wedding for family and then some other sort of homemade ceremony/party for friends. It can be inviting one set of people to the rehearsal dinner the night before and another set of people to a post-wedding party the day after.
Getting married is a big deal. When you take someone on as a life partner, in some small way it remakes all your relationships, with friends and family alike. You return to them as part of a pair, a molecule where there was once two atoms. It's nice to be able to check in with all the people you care about, to share your joy and receive their blessings. That process can't always been squeezed into a single event. So remember that it doesn't have to be; you can spread it out.
Marriage is awesome. I'm a big fan. And a wedding, done right, can kick your marriage off with a jubilant blast. No one will remember the flowers you chose, the hors d'oeuvres you served, or that cute vintage typewriter you found for people to write wedding messages on. They will remember the feeling. Focus on that.
Last year, Matt Yglesias offered some great wedding tips that are much more practical (and concise) than mine.