Tips for Small Weddings

(A part of The Destination and Specialty Wedding Page)

I've been searching in vain for pages with tips for smaller weddings. Books and articles seem to be in short supply, too. Instead, what I have to offer are several ideas and tips that have been passed on to me from friends, relatives, people on newsgroups, and other souls who deserve much thanks!

What's a "small" wedding?

For some people, "small" refers to the number of guests. That may mean, for some, under 200 people (though I think I'd disagree!!!). For others, 100 people is the cut-off mark. But some people want less than 50 guests, or are just including family and their closest friends. In my case, we had less than 30 people present!

For others, "small" may refer to the bridal party, where only a few attendants (or no attendants) are included.

At any rate, in some way or another your "small" wedding is going to be different from the usual wedding you attend or read about. This may mean that some of the aspects of the ceremony and reception that occur in more typical weddings are not as appropriate. But it also means that you may be able to do some special things that other brides & grooms cannot do.

Since what constitutes a "small" wedding varies, and the formality may vary as well, some of the tips below may be more or less appropriate for the wedding you have in mind.

Topics on planning a smaller wedding

Just scroll down, or click below....

Go to: Reactions to Your Plans
Go to: Ideas on Where to Hold a Small Wedding
Go to: Ideas for the Ceremony & Reception
Go to: Wisdom from Others Who've Been A Part of Small Weddings

Reactions to Your Plans

You're likely to get some strong reactions to your plans. Some of the reactions will be supportive and sympathetic. Relish these. These are from people who had a small wedding themselves, or were guests at one. Or they are people who have been through wedding planning hell and are envious of your wisdom.

But what you might get more of are the negative reactions. Some of these people are charmed by your plans but think you are naive. You'll get the patronizing smile with "We thought we'd have a small wedding too, everyone does. But it never works that way."

You may also get strong reactions from family and friends. Your parents and friends may be supportive, especially if they know you well enough to think that a smaller wedding is a great choice. But they also may have mixed feelings. Small weddings aren't that common, so they don't know what to expect. Friends may feel left out and upset that your plans will not include them. Family may be disappointed that they cannot invite colleagues or more distant relatives. Or they may worry that outsiders will think that your plans reflect their inability to spend money on the wedding.

All couples seem to get SOME flak about their plans, and so you'll read over and over in wedding advice books that you should ignore it all because it is your wedding. This is a good thing to keep in mind. However, it is also true that weddings are traditionally community events. They typically involve family and friends, and are crowed over, celebrated with, and supported by the larger society. So it's only natural that people close to you may feel some ownership in your wedding, and bring their own expectations to bear. That doesn't mean that you can't have a small wedding, it just means that you may need to try to understand why they might object.

One final thing: You will be surprised how many times people will say "But you won't get all those great gifts!" Try not to guffaw too loudly at this. I have pointed out "with the money we're saving, we can buy them all ourselves...and then some...." but that probably lacks class. *grin*

Ideas on Where to have the Ceremony & Rehearsal

Consider Different Places
Where to have the ceremony and the reception for a smaller wedding? The standard answer of a church or synagogue ceremony, followed by a banquet hall reception, isn't necessarily the answer. For one thing, those settings may be too large for your smaller gathering and you'd look and feel lost in such a large venue. Also, you might find that commercial reception venues, such as hotels, will not agree to host receptions with fewer than 120 people! But don't think of this as a problem--take advantage of the opportunities that come with having a smaller crowd.

Smaller weddings have been successfully carried off in restaurants, gardens, bed & breakfasts, historic inns, wedding chapels, meditation chapels, museums, historic homes, and on trains and boats. Some of these places may not advertise an availability for weddings, but that's because they don't want inquiries from people holding 250-person events. You can always ask. Consider yourself lucky--you have some unique options that the average bride doesn't have!!

A note about at-home weddings & receptions
One note: A small wedding may make it easy for you to consider having the wedding, the reception, or both in your own or a relative's home. This is wonderfully intimate, but I add one note of caution: do not make the assumption that an "at-home" gathering will be significantly cheaper than having elsewhere. Other locales have the chairs, tables, and other trappings you need for a gathering. Your private home doesn't. Depending on the size of your wedding, you may need to rent chairs, tables, tablecloths, port-a-johns, dinnerware, and other items. This may add up more quickly than anticipated. Just keep it in mind!

Getting away altogether: the "destination" wedding
If your wedding is small enough, you might consider making your wedding one special part of a mini-vacation for you and your guests. It isn't feasible for a large number of people to join you at a vacation spot, but a small number may be willing and able to--particularly if you make the destination someplace that people would love to go to anyway! Sante Fe, Martha's Vineyard, Charleston, Mexico, and the Carribbean are all examples. You can honeymoon at the same spot after your guests depart, or move on to yet another place. We had a destination wedding, and found it was a great way to help us rationalize our tiny guest list. On the other hand, nearly everyone we invited said yes, so we had more guests than expected! We loved having a destination wedding--I highly recommend it! Go back to the main page for tips on destination weddings.

Ideas for the Ceremony & Reception

The Ceremony

Having a smaller wedding may cause you to look for some different things to incorporate into your service. Some suggestions given to me by people on newsgroups and other friends:

  • Instead of a processional, allow guests to mix and mingle before the service over wine and cheese. Give a toast to start the event, and then have everyone proceed to their places.

  • Give each member of your families a flower, and have them line the aisle. As the bride proceeds towards the altar, she takes each one and assembles her bouquet as she goes, symbolizing the contributions the family makes to this union.

  • Consider having your families & guests stand up for the entire service, at your side just as attendants would be in a larger wedding.

  • Have members of your family do the readings

  • Ask each of the guests to say a few words about the couple, or ask them to write a few things down ahead of time, and assemble them into a document for one person to read aloud.

  • Incorporate ethnic or family traditions that may have fallen by the wayside through the years. Contact older family members, or research wedding traditions via the web or the library.

  • Make your wedding program more substantial, more of a booklet and keepsake. Include messages to each of the guests and explanations of why you chose your flowers, readings, colors, music, etc. If your wedding is held in a unique place, give some information about it, too.

  • Be your own "ushers" when it comes to dismissing people after the service. Greet each guest as they leave the pew.

  • Encourage each guest to use an entire page of your guestbook to share comments, advice, or other messages. You'll have many more lines of space than you'll have guests, so put it to good use and get a nicer keepsake of your guests!

  • The Reception

    Some of the more traditional reception activities may be less desirable with a smaller number of of guests, especially if they tend to do better with a "critical mass"of people (for example, dancing). Here are some ideas you might want to consider for your reception:

  • Instead of having a typical reception, have a "wedding supper" at a restaurant--as simple or as lavish as you prefer. Some restaurants will even print a special menu just for your event.

  • Consider renting a trolley or carriage or other interesting transportation for your guests.

  • Have your photographer take photos of all your guests, either in one large group photo or as couples, families, or other logical groups.

  • If the reception is in a historic home or museum, have a tour guide there to show guests the facility.

  • Instead of a band or dj, hire a string quartet, a harpist, or other unique musical performer. Have you ever heard dulcimer music? Lovely!

  • Prepare a slide show of photos of each of you from childhood, adolescence, and on up through meeting one another. Include photos of each of you with your families and other special guests.. Photo shops and copy centers can make slides out of standard photographs (this can be expensive, so shop around for the best price). Renting or borrowing the equipment (projector and screen) is possible. Then show the slides during the reception, either with music (you can created a mixed tape beforehand) or with some clever narration. Some videography companies offer a similar service for creating videos from your still photos.

  • Whatever you do, take advantage of the smaller size to do some serious mixing and mingling. Too many couples say that they didn't get to spend enough time with their guests on their wedding day. You won't have this problem!

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    The Wisdom of Others Who Have Been There Before

    Finally, here are some comments from people who have written me about small weddings they have seen or taken part in. Here you will find the where I got some of the tips I listed above, as well as some encouragement for having such a special wedding! I highly recommend perusing this section, even if it seems long!

    From Allen G:
    "I am an expert, sort of, on SMALL weddings. I have an unofficial vendorship at a city hall taking wedding photos of people getting married by the Marriage Commissioner's office. The average wedding is a bride and groom and a friend or relative or two. Often *I'm* the witness.

    Typically, the officiant and you stand in the center of your selected spot, (if it at a location other than the office.) and the the friends and family gather around, the other people with cameras dart here and there. There is rarely a procession, and those that attempt it seems sorta awkward unless there are lots of people and chairs and an actual aisle to walk down. There just seems to be this dramatic pause when the couple or the officiant mutters, 'well, I guess we are all here." and then the officiant intones dramatically, "We are gathered here in front of witnesses, to join in marriage..."

    What makes it special, just you, just that moment. All the flowers and limo don't mean a thing. Heck, half my clients dress causal, even t-shirts and jeans. There is still a tremble in the voice.

    Afterwards, your witnesses sign the papers, your officiant mutters some instructions, you hug and kiss everyone, then, after you have placed most of your lipstick on your husband's lips and everyone else's cheeks and collars, you take some pictures. Then go to brunch, lunch, or pop open the champagne.

    You know, weddings with hundreds are merely big productions, and distractions. All big weddings have at the core, moms and sisters, grooms and dads, kids, (yours or your relatives) and a couple friends. Everything else is background noise, even the other bridesmaids.

    So with a small wedding, you have most everything a big wedding has, only more time to spend with the ones that matter most."

    From Anna S:
    "At some small weddings, the entire congregation has been invited to stand at the side of the bride and groom during the exchange of vows. Another thing that personalizes a wedding would be to ask each member of the congregation to say a few words about the couple - wishing them well, or telling a sweet story about them.

    You can include anything in your wedding that you would include in a larger wedding - depending on what you want. You can certainly still have the garter toss, the bouquet toss, etc., or you can opt to hand your bouquet to someone special (maybe someone newly engaged, someone celebrating an anniversary, or to a grandma). You can really be very intimate with a small wedding. Everyone feels more a part of the wedding rather than a "guest". Another thing that would get your guests involved, in addition to having them stand with you, would be to have them create your wedding bouquet. The guests are handed a flower of your choice as they arrive for the ceremony. As you enter the room, each member of the party hands you the flower, so that when you have arrived at the place where your groom is standing, you have already symbolically joined your families with your bouquet. I have seen this done with just one type of flower (roses, tulips, lillies), and also with wild flowers.

    Even though the wedding will be small, I would strongly suggest that you do some type of program, or commemorative booklet. This is another way in which you can make your wedding more personal and intimate. You can name every person who will attend the wedding individually in the program, commenting about them something that is special to you. For example:
    "To Uncle Joe and Aunt Thelma, we thank you so much for the enthusiasm you brought to this day. We hope to capture the passion for life that you have shared in your 35 years together."

    Even a two page booklet, done on nice paper, will be a lovely keepsake for your guests."

    From Evelyn B.:
    "I believe some of the most beautiful weddings I've attended are the smaller ones. The one I find most memorable was the one who had twelve people attending including friends and family. We all went to city hall for the ceremony and then we all went to the reception and sat around one long table. Everyone got to speak to everyone else. Since most of us knew the groom from work we all took the day off to go to the wedding (it was in the middle of the week). After the luncheon we took a walk along the Scarborough Bluffs and it was spring so all the trilliums were in bloom. It was beautiful. Instead of throwing the bouquet the bride gave all the single women a flower from her bouquet. This wedding was about ten years ago and it still stands out in my mind. There is certainly something to be said about keeping it small."

    From Kara W.:
    "My sister had a small wedding for her second marriage (which was her husband's first). They were married at a winery in a banquet room that the winery had in the back of their facilities. The room had floor to ceiling windows all around the outside walls. Since they though a simple ceremony was in order, they hired a justice of the peace to perform the ceremony, which included a part where a family necklace was giving to my nephew by his new stepdad. My sister carried flowers and wore a very simple white dress (just past the knees in length). There was one attendant on each side. Both the best man and the groom wore simple grey suits that they owned and I, as maid of honor, wore a pink dress that my mom made for the occasion. I also carried a simple bouquet. They had a photographer, but no videographer.

    Once the ceremony was done, they walked back down the aisle, to the back of the room, and had a receiving line. People came down the aisle to congratulate them and to head to the "refreshments" - wine, beer, and soda. After everyone left their chairs, the room was rearranged to have about 12 tables of 6 people. They served food in stations, where they had a meat station, a fruit/vegie station, and a pasta station. People milled around, sat a different tables, went outside to look at the vineyards, etc. There was no assigned seating. The vineyard had a sound system hooked up in the room and my brother-in-law brought some tapes for them to play in the background. They had a small cake decorated with fresh flowers. The ceremony was at 11:30am and the reception was done by 3pm. Since they didn't invite all of their friends to the ceremony, they had a party at their house later that night - a cookout, very informal.

    So, basically, they left out the following components of the "usual" wedding: dancing, throwing of the boquet and garter, tuxedos, formal bride's and bridesmaids' dresses, DJ, and ceremony music. I must say, though, that it was one of the nicest weddings I've ever been to. The location really made the wedding nice! "

    From Rachel P:
    "You might check out the Martha Stewart Entertaining book for some ideas. While the book is kind of dated (1980s), it will give you some idea as to how to have a non-traditional wedding & reception.

    Also, you might want to look at the Emily Post Guide to Weddings. You may choose not to follow the "rules" as they are presented in the book, but I do believe the book also talks about small weddings."

    From Josie:
    "We had one of those "intimate, family only" weddings. The site was a historic home in our city that was available to the community for special events. [Our rental fee *did* include tables, chairs, linens, punch bowls, flatware, candlebras, tea service, fresh (simple) decorations, etc -- all for $75.]

    We did have a religious service; while we did not marry in a church, we very much wanted God's blessing of this union! Our officiant is my BIL's cousin and had performed the services of Mark's two siblings, so it was a neat tradition to continue. We used the standard Presbyterian service with readings and prayers.

    I had a wonderful green evening gown picked out, but Mark wanted a "bride" so I ended up wearing a Jessica McClintock gown -- nice and bridal yet still without a train. Mark wore a suit. To avoid singling out any of our family as "more special" than the others, we had no attendants and operated on the premise that they were all our witnesses. (State laws are different here; you don't sign the license to make it official; the officiant submits it after the fact.)

    Logistics of the ceremony itself? The family members gathered in the "Ladies Parlor" of the home. I traipsed happily down the staircase to be met by my groom at the foot. We walked into the room together and stood before the fireplace for the vows. (In hindsight: Usually the B&G have their backs to the witnesses because they stand before the altar of God, right? In this house, we should have turned to face our families, but just didn't think of it.) The room had long sofas on either side for the grandparents and others who choose to sit. The ceremony was relatively short (20 minutes?) so everyone else stood.

    We had a photographer for photos and then had a dinner in the dining room of the home. One of the most special moments was the prayer given by my FIL before dinner.

    With a small wedding, you can more easily evaluate what traditions mean to you and whether you want to include them. Since you're already "breaking the mold" it seems like people are more accepting of decisions to not do things "the way everyone else has done it!" We were married on a Thursday night. This also helped break down preconceived ideas ;-) and was great for making sure vendors were available. (We married 3 months after getting engaged and our family is local. Thursday worked for us.)

    For *me* the small wedding was a way to keep the focus on the vows and the marriage without getting sidetracked and overwhelmed with details that, for the most part (again, to *me*), were superficial to the meaning of the day. I never grew up dreaming of my wedding day, so you can probably guess I didn't have a color scheme. ;-) The words "cozy and intimate" guided most of our decisions. While the dress+veil weren't important to me, they were to Mark, so we included those. I did carry a bouquet, but I didn't get corsages for the mothers/grandmothers/ great-aunts. Instead, I bought heavy crystal rose bowls for the table centerpieces and sent the arrangements home with them so they would be able to enjoy them a bit longer. Rather than individual favors, I planned the other floral arrangements so that every family could take home a part of the wedding. With 200 guests, I couldn't have done this, but it meant a lot to me to thank everyone for supporting our relationship over the years.

    My MIL does wedding cakes, so we had both the chocolate groom's cake and a three-tiered wedding cake. (Quite a bit for only 22 people!) My MIL took the extra layers to a local nursing home. Although it was well within our ability to do it ourselves, I did have the meal catered. I didn't want the family members to do any work ... just sit and share in our day.

    In hindsight, I would have asked my best friend to go ahead and make the trip rather than limit it to only family. I was afraid if we lifted the strict rule of family only it would have snowballed into those long discussions we read about here ("Who is 'family' and where do you draw the line?")

    No one gave me away. We didn't do a bouquet/garter toss. We didn't run through rice. I didn't do the "old, new, borrowed, blue". We did have flowers, cake, photography, and a wonderful time sharing the day with our families. My FILs blessing and prayer was one of the most touching tributes of the day. ...For us, a smaller wedding was the right choice and I have very few things I would have changed."

    From Dennis J, a planner:
    "We get about three or four of these types of weddings a year, and they really can be wonderful. Partly due to the "lack" of formality and"wedding correctness", the couple's stress level drop to almost non-existent levels, and that accordingly passes on to everyone else, and...whammy! A WONDERFUL time!

    Here are a few of the ones we've done in the past. Depending on the time of year and location you're in, maybe they will give you some ideas...

    Beach Wedding...with NO beach! Happened in the San Joaquin Valley, between San Francisco and Tahoe. No sand or water, but the "strict" dress code was shorts and a hawaiian print shirt for the men, and anything "springy" with a similar print for the women.

    It was held (both the wedding and reception) in the groom's parent's sprawling backyard and among other things featured single elimination volleyball tournament, great music, and enough food to stuff a LARGE horse. The reception started at Noon, and we stopped the party at 2:00 for the ceremony (about 10 minutes, and both of their previous children stood up for them), which was held on the Volleyball court in the middle of everyone standing (or sitting) in a large semi-circle, and then we resumed the party. One of the most enjoyable, fun weddings I've ever been to.

    Bay Cruise...We chartered a Bayliner for a combined wedding / reception on the bay. Family and friends...shoved off around 4p.m., had appetizers and cocktails, followed by dinner at 6, the ceremony at about 7:15, and the reception until 11 or so. If you're near a large body of water, you might look into this. Not terribly expensive, but unique and very enjoyable!

    We also do 10 to 12 Garden Weddings a year. Most (if not all) are relaxed affairs, with the level of formality at the discretion of the couple. Some are about as formal as a Garden Wedding can be, while others are laid back, and typically fabulous family and friend parties. There is really no limit to the type or style of wedding you and your intended would like to have. "

    From ME: *grin*
    We had a 30 people at our wedding, which was held in the parlor of an historic bed & breakfast. We got married in front of the fireplace. We decided that guests could just stand, instead of bringing chairs in. After the ceremony, we stayed in place as people clapped and then rushed us for hugs. In the meantime, friends were pouring champagne and passing it around (something we'd set up ahead of time). When everyone had a glass, my father-in-law gave a toast.

    It was hard for me to envision, ahead of time, how the guests would gather and mingle and how we'd make them create an "aisle" for me and other nitpicky details . As it happened, I just didn't worry about it. In retrospect, however, I wished I had asked a friend to ask as "hostess." She could have greeted everyone, pointed them to our guestbook, made introductions amongst strangers (even at a small wedding, many people didn't know each other), and encouraged our guests to relax and mingle and just stand wherever until the minister began. I say this because our guests didn't really know what was expected or where to stand as they arrived. They ended up huddled over in one part of the room speaking in hushed tones as they waited for us. They were charmed by the ambience, and happy and expectant, but I realized that they should have been given some guidance.

    Besides that concern, I remain thrilled that we had our wedding the way we had it. Small was perfect for us, and allowed us to have an elegant wedding without a lot of fuss!

    Want more details? Just e-mail me and ask!

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