Wedding Day Timings: A Rough Guide To What Happens When

Timings for Wedding Day Planner

The Running Order And Approximate Timings For A Traditional Western Wedding

In my roles as a Magical Emcee and Toastmaster, I must have attended over a thousand weddings.  So, when I’m helping couples to plan their big day, not only do they ask me about the running order of a traditional wedding day, but also the length of time that each section is likely to take.

So, to help you plan your day, I’ve detailed the breakdown of an entire wedding day, along with what to expect throughout. I’ve also added some approximate timings but, of course, these are just guidelines. You can work with your wedding co-ordinator to tweak these to suit your own day.

Weddings days vary, not only from couple to couple, but also across cultures.  I’ve detailed the running order of a traditional western-style wedding in the UK.  This is purely because it’s the style of wedding that I’m most familiar with.  I hope you find the article useful.

The Ceremony

What is it?

It’s the bit when you tie the knot!  After this, you will be officially married!

How long does it take?

Civil ceremonies usually take around 30 minutes but religious ceremonies may take longer.

What usually happens?

There’s quite a lot that goes on during a wedding ceremony. So, I’ve broken it down into a lot of detail.  That way, you’ll know exactly what to expect and when.

The Ceremony: Item 1 on your wedding day run sheet

The Wedding Ceremony: the focal point of your big day!

Throughout the ceremony there is surprisingly little that must happen by law.  So, I’ve tried to highlight the areas where you can and can’t make personal tweaks and adjustments.

The Processional

This is the bridal party’s entrance and walk down the aisle. The guests stand, but take their seats when the bride reaches the front. If there are bridesmaids, flower girls or page boys, they usually enter ahead of the bride, before taking their seats.  The Groom and Best Man usually wait for the bride at the alter.  This can be a very emotional moment.  It’s usually the first time that the groom will see the bride in her wedding dress.

Traditionally, the bride is accompanied by her father, but this is a personal preference.

For same-sex weddings, some couples enter together, while others prefer to have one partner waiting at the front.  As with all non-legal aspects of the ceremony, the choice is entirely down to the couple’s preference.

The Welcome

Once the couple is at the front, the officiant will welcome everyone to the proceedings. For religious ceremonies there may be a set introduction. However, there is often more flexibility with a civil service.  It’s worth speaking to your officiant beforehand to find out what your options are.

The Marriage Ceremony

The Charge: The ceremony begins with what is known as “the charge to the couple”.  This is where they are reminded of their responsibilities and the meaning of their vows.

At this point, everyone attending will be asked if they know of any legal reason why the couple shouldn’t marry. In the hundreds of ceremonies I’ve attended, I’ve never known anyone to object. But, it always seems a curiously tense moment!

Song or Reading: Often there is a song or hymn at the beginning of the ceremony but this can be replaced with a reading.  It’s worth remembering that, in the UK, it’s not permitted to sing religious hymns during a civil ceremony.  Additionally, some churches will ONLY allow religious music.  So, it’s a good idea to discuss this with you officiant in advance.

A bride holding a bouquet of beautiful roses

The majority of your ceremony can be of your personal choice.

The Vows: The couple will then exchange vows. To make the marriage legal, there are certain declarations that MUST be said. Many couples like to add to these by writing their own personal promises and declarations.

Bear in mind though that religious services in particular sometimes have strict rules about what can and can’t be said.  Your officiant will be able to guide you when planning your vows.

Exchanging Rings: Once the vows are exchanged, it’s traditional to exchange rings. It might surprise you to learn that this isn’t actually a legal requirement. However, most couples tend to stick with tradition. The officiant is handed the rings, usually by the best man, and the couple will each place a ring onto the other’s finger.

No doubt the phrase, “With this ring, I thee wed,” will have just sprung to mind, but you can request a bespoke declaration.  Speak to your officiant beforehand.

The Declaration: The officiant will then announce that you are officially married.  You will then be invited to take your first kiss as a married couple.   What a wonderful way to begin your married life together!

Optional Address, Prayers, Reading and Song: At religious ceremonies, the priest or vicar will often give a bible reading before finishing with a prayer of blessing.  In a civil ceremony, this is an opportunity to enjoy a reading or song.

Signing the Register: All that remains to make the marriage official is for you both to sign the marriage licence.  This must also be signed by the officiant and two witnesses.  The witnesses can be anyone but are often the maid of honour and best man.

Violin and roses placed on wedding day sheet music

Your wedding ceremony music will set a unique tone.

While signing the register, there is the opportunity to play some background music.  Your guests may be seated for a few minutes and some well-chosen music can create a beautiful ambiance.  Some couples hire a professional musician for the musical interludes.  Others invite a talented friend or family member.  This can add a beautiful personal touch to the ceremony.

Ending of the Service: Your officiant will speak some closing remarks. Usually, these are simply congratulations, good wishes and a few words of thanks.

Recessional and Exit: Here’s a very romantic moment.  You arrive individually, and now you leave together.  You and your spouse will walk back up the aisle, usually to music.

The wedding party will follow you, and then guests will follow them, usually starting from the front row and working backwards.

And that’s it!  You are officially married and you can then make your to…

The Afternoon Reception

What is it?

It’s your opportunity to meet and greet your guests for the first time as a married couple.

How long does it take?

The standard duration for an afternoon reception is 90 minutes.
(It’s really not advisable to exceed 120 minutes, as guests may start to become restless!)

What usually happens?

Mingling and Socialising: The afternoon reception is a chance for guests to mingle with each other and also to congratulate the bride and groom.  Guests are usually supplied with drinks and often some canapes or light snacks.

Pouring Champagne at a wedding reception

The Reception is your first social engagement as a married couple.

Photography: It will vary from photographer to photographer, but usually the group shots will be taken towards the beginning of the reception. The happy couple will then be whisked away for the “couple shots”, leaving guests to continue to socialise.

Optional Entertainment: It’s worth noting that, although your guests will all be known to you, many of them won’t know each other.  Some couples organise games such as Giant Jenga, or entertainment such as a Singer, Musician, Caricaturist or Magician.  This can be a great way to help break the ice between strangers.

At the end of the afternoon reception, guests are then invited to take their seats for…

The Wedding Breakfast

What is it?

It’s the big meal of the day.  A banquet where everyone can celebrate your union.

Erm…  Why is it called the Wedding BREAKFAST?

Even though it’s unlikely that there will be any bacon, eggs or cereal served, it’s called a “breakfast” because it’s your first meal together as a married couple.  Aaah, now it make sense!

How long does it take?

A three course meal is likely to take about two hours from when guests take their seats up until the beginning of the speeches.  (Traditionally, the speeches take place at the end of the meal along with tea or coffee.)

A beautiful table setting at a wedding breakfast, which is the main meal in your wedding day running order.

The Wedding Breakfast: your first meal as a married couple.

Optional Receiving Line

Sometimes, the bridal party will wish to greet each of their guests formally.  The two families line up in a “receiving line,” to meet and greet the guests, before each takes their seats for the wedding breakfast. This traditional custom can be a really nice touch, especially at more formal occasions.  However, it’s fair to say that it has become less prevalent at more relaxed, informal weddings.

As a guideline for timings, greeting 100 guests is likely to take about half an hour or so, but this will obviously vary depending on the number of guests attending.

The Couple’s Entrance

Once everyone is seated, the bride and groom will be announced into the room.  This is a great opportunity for cheers and applause and it can be great fun to have an experienced emcee to really warm up the crowd.

Here’s an often overlooked custom.  In a traditional same-sex wedding, the groom’s first official duty is to pull out the bride’s dining chair, so that she may take her seat easily in her wedding dress.  So, come on fellers!  Step up. It’s a lovely touch.

The Meal

Whether you opt for the splendour of a multi-course, silver service banquet or the informality of buffet-style barbecue, now is the time time to relax and enjoy the meal.

It’s customary to serve the top table first and then to move backward through the room.  Because of this, those at the top table are likely to finish their courses first.  Many couples take this opportunity to visit guests at their individual tables.  This can be a lovely and welcoming touch, especially at weddings where no official receiving line has taken place.

Socialising at a wedding breakfast

The wedding breakfast is a great time to catch up with guests.

The Speeches

It’s customary to perform the speeches at the end end of the wedding breakfast.  However, some couples choose to hold the speeches prior to the meal.  That way, those making the speeches can relax and enjoy their meal.  This sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? However, I’d encourage you to read my post on The Best Time For Wedding Speeches before making your final decision.

You can, of course, invite whomever you like to make a speech but, just for the record, the traditional line up is as follows:

  1. Father of The Bride
  2. Groom
  3. Best Man

And how long should they take?  A good rule of thumb is no more than eight minutes per speech.  It’s worth remembering that the “actual” speech is likely to take ten to fifteen percent longer than when you practice at home.  This is because, you won’t have pauses for audience reactions during rehearsals.

Microphone for Speeches

Eight minutes per speech is a good goal to work to.

The Evening Reception

What is it?

The ceremony is over, the speeches are done.  All the stressful parts of the day are over.  The evening reception is time for everyone to let their hair down and have fun.

How long does it take?

It will vary from wedding to wedding but the evening reception will last from the end of the wedding breakfast to the time that the venue closes.

What usually happens?

The evening reception is time to welcome any additional guests whom you were unable to accommodate during the day.

Also, you may have just a handful of remaining duties to undertake: Cutting The Cake, Tossing The Bouquet and, of course, starting off any dancing with The First Dance.

And, I’m sure that I don’t need to say it by now but, of course, these are all entirely optional.

Cutting The Cake

The cake cutting usually takes place early in the evening but I’ve also known some couples to cut the cake prior to the wedding breakfast. That way, the cake can be served as a pudding at the end of the meal.

That aside, why do we make such a big thing of cutting a cake?  Well it’s all about symbolism, and I think it’s rather lovely. Cutting a sumptuous wedding cake symbolises sharing richness and abundance with your family and the special people in your lives. Yeah, I thought you’d like it!

After the first cut, the rest of the cake is usually divided by the staff at the venue to share among the evening guests.  It can be a nice idea to have the pieces boxed up to take away.  If this suits your day, don’t forget to arrange some boxes with your venue.

Cutting The Wedding Cake

Cutting the cake: A beautiful and symbolic tradition.

Some couples keep the top tier of the cake to celebrate another milestone in their married life.  This could be a special anniversary or the birth of a first child.

The First Dance

If you are having dancing in the evening (and not everyone does), it’s customary for the newlyweds to be the first on the dancefloor and to kick of the evening with The First Dance.   Many couples will (as I did) simply perform the “walking around slowly dance” to their favourite romantic song.  There’s no pressure.

However, if you’ve always dreamt of being a “Strictly Star”, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really “own” the dancefloor.  There are some wonderful dance instructors to be found online and, with a just a little professional coaching you could really surprise and delight your wedding guests. But don’t forget that it’s just for fun.  Try not to put a partner with two left feet under too much pressure, eh?

Tossing The Bouquet

All the single ladies, all the single ladies!

If you’re not familiar with this tradition, the single, “eligible” ladies form a group behind the bride.  The bride then tosses her bouquet over her shoulder.  According to tradition, the lady who catches the bouquet, will become the next to marry.

There’s no strict rule for when to toss the bouquet, but it usually happens towards the end of the evening, after the dancing has come to a close. Although, on a few occasions, I have seen brides toss the bouquet after the cake has been cut.

Bride tossing a bouquet over her shoulder

Tossing the bouquet!

So That’s It!

Your amazing day is over and all that remains is for and your guests to make your ways sleepily and joyfully to your beds.

This article has gone into a lot of detail but even if you forget all of that, here are my three top tips for a wonderful wedding day.

1.There are only a very few things that you absolutely “must” do on your wedding day.  Apart from the few legal duties in the ceremony, the day is yours to do with as you please.  Don’t let anyone tell you that it should be done “like this” or “like that”.  You really do have the freedom to make your day as unique as you would like.
2. More than anything, make sure that YOU have fun! Not everything will go to plan.  But who cares?  Don’t allow small details impact on a wonderful day.
3. The one thing that I can guarantee is that the day will whizz by.  Make sure to take the time to step back and enjoy it.  It will be over before you know it.

In the words of the great Ferris Beuller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  And that goes for wedding days too!

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