Wedding Reception Etiquette

Is it just me or do these intense wedding reception setups make you feel kind of nervous and claustrophobic? [via Wikimedia Commons]

Receptions are the really fun part of weddings but they can also be the most complicated and fraught with etiquette conundrums. Etiquette doesn’t care about what your decorations are, your colors, how many people you invite, whether you have a band, a DJ, or an iPod, or which of the zillions of traditions you want to include. There are a million websites and books out there to help you decide on the style of your reception. But there are a few etiquette points that are important to keep in mind.

Reception Timing and Meals:

Often, your ceremony venue will have specific times that you are allowed to be there, this is especially true for churches. What do you do when your ceremony has to be at 2pm and you want to have an evening dinner reception?

Typically, you should do your best to avoid a gap, but they can be unavoidable. If you must have a gap and your wedding site is too far away for most guests to return to their homes/hotels, you need to have something for them to do in the meantime- many couples will have a longer cocktail hour at the reception venue to fill the time. Gaps are especially rude if you use them as a way to avoid paying for a meal for your guests- for example, having a wedding at 3pm and then having a “cocktail reception” starting at 8pm.

This leads me to my next point, you need to provide a proper meal if your wedding takes place over a mealtime, or be ready to expect some grumpy and hungry guests who order pizza and eat it in a parking lot (it happened on an episode of Four Weddings). If your ceremony starts at 4 or 5pm and is immediately followed by a reception that goes until 9, 10, or later, you need to provide a full meal of some kind. It is very poor hospitality to expect people to be spending 5, 6, or more hours on your wedding and not eat a real meal in that time. Now, very very heavy finger foods and appetizers can certainly count, but only if it is truly enough to fill up hungry bellies.

If you can’t afford to provide a full dinner for your drinking and dancing late into the night reception, then you need to consider other options:

  • A ceremony followed by a simple 2 hour cake and punch reception is a perfectly proper celebration for a wedding on a budget. Have the wedding at 2 and everyone is gone by 5 and you have no etiquette faux pas.
  • A morning wedding followed by a brunch or lunch reception gives you the ability to provide a nice meal which is usually much cheaper than a full dinner.
  • A very late evening wedding with the ceremony starting at 8 and followed by snacks, cake, drinking, and dancing late into the night.
  • A dinner reception with more casual foods- you don’t need to serve a choice between plated rubber chicken and filet mignon. Why not try a big pasta buffet, catered barbeque, takeout Chinese, food trucks, or big sandwich platters? Think outside the box and you will find something that will suit your budget and satisfy your hosting requirements!

It is smart to include a hint of what your reception will be like on your invitation so guests know what to expect ie cocktail reception to follow, dinner and dancing to follow, join us for cake and punch after, etc.


Traditionally, the Best Man and Maid of Honor give toasts at the wedding. Please ask them well in advance if they feel comfortable giving a toast at all. Check out Jaya’s post on toasting etiquette for more!


If you are serving a meal, you need to provide seats for all your guests.

You don’t have to have a seating chart or assigned tables, but it can take the pressure off your guests and prevent the “school cafeteria” feeling of “where do I sit?” It also prevents the problem of large groups pulling in chairs to overfill one table and leaving another table with only two chairs for a couple of guests to sit awkwardly.

If you have assigned tables but not assigned seats, you can either have a list posted somewhere or “escort cards,” these are little cards (or something else more creative!) that have the guests’ names on them. They pick them up before going in to dinner and see what table they are at. If you have assigned seats, just use normal placecards at each person’s seat.

Receiving Lines:

You don’t often see receiving lines anymore (or at least not in my circle!). Most couples have opted to skip them in favor of going around to each table during the reception. Whichever you choose, you must do something to ensure that you speak to each guest for at least a moment during the wedding. Even though it seems like it would take a long time, the receiving line might actually be faster and allow you to enjoy more of the reception than trying to greet each person while they eat and reduces the risk that you will miss someone.

For the logistics: you either have the receiving line immediately after the ceremony and guests go through it as they exit the ceremony and go to the reception or you have it at the reception as everyone goes into dinner. Obviously, the couple needs to be in the line, but usually their parents and often the attendants will stand in it as well.

You needn’t do more than greet each guest and thank them for coming. After that, move them right along to the next person to keep the line moving.

Cash Bars:

I am going to take a very strong stance here and say that at American weddings, cash bars are always against general etiquette. Think about it: a wedding reception is essentially a thank you gift for your guests for taking part in your Important Life Event, and you shouldn’t ask anyone to pay for part of a gift. Also, it has always seemed strange to me that alcohol is the one area people feel comfortable asking others to chip in for. If you wouldn’t ask someone to pay for their dinner or their share of the cake, you shouldn’t have a cash bar. You are the host; you have to pay for everything associated with your event.

That being said, you are not required to serve alcohol at your wedding. You are also not required to have a full open bar; beer, wine, and soft drinks are a perfectly acceptable and cheaper option. Anyone who complains about your hospitality is being rude.

Another problem with cash bars is that it creates a situation in which some guests have something that the other guests do not because they can afford to pay for it. All of your guests should receive exactly equal food and drink and it is extremely rude to flash differences in their faces.

If you even THINK of having a cash bar for ALL drinks including soft drinks, then, I don’t even know what to do with you. (I have never seen this in real life, but it happened once on another episode of Four Weddings. That show is a mess.)

Of course, you are welcome to do what works in your community and if every single wedding you have every attended has had a cash bar, then you are probably okay.

Money Dances/Wishing Wells:

In a few cultures, money dances are traditional and therefore acceptable. General American culture is not one of them. In traditional American culture, your guests have already purchased a present or given you a check, so why are you asking them to give you even more?

Reception Activities:

Weddings have many fun traditions such as special dances, cake cutting, and bouquet and garter tossing. You can choose to have these as you wish, and don’t let anyone pressure you either way. However, some thoughts:

  • If you decide to do a garter throw/bouquet toss, do NOT force people to participate and don’t let anyone drag all the single people out onto the floor. Personally, I would also recommend keeping the retrieval of the garter tasteful, but you should do what works for you. And if you want your groom crawling up under your skirt to porno music in front of your grandma, that’s your business.
  • I have seen the first dance/father daughter dance occur between the cocktail hour and dinner, but traditionally they happened immediately after the dinner and toasts and opened up the floor to dancing. I have also been to weddings where there was dancing between each course of the dinner, so in those cases, you don’t really need to open the dance floor. Just be thoughtful about how you are scheduling activities and how they will help your event flow.
  • Some modern couples are opting to do a “marriage dance” where all the couples dance and the DJ has them sit down in order of how recently they have been married and then the couple who has been married the longest gets the bouquet. This can be a nice alternative to a bouquet toss which makes single people feel put on display, but at the same time, it excludes single people entirely. Basically you can’t win, so go with what works for you. Or start a new tradition where the whole reception has to try to catch the bouquet? Or you hide the bouquet and there is a search for it? So many possibilities.
  • If you are Jewish, you might want to dance the Hora. Presumably, you already know how to do this, but if you are having a lot of people at your wedding who have never done it before there are a couple things you might want to remember:
    • Everyone is allowed to join in! But your gentile friends might not know what to do, so make sure there are enough people around to show them the ropes.
    • Only the bride and groom go up in the chairs (though we’ve been to Jewish weddings where the parents went up too). Make sure the people lifting you know to keep you close enough together that you can both hold onto the napkin (“schmatta”).
    • Don’t use folding chairs for this activity unless you want to lose a finger!
    • (H/T to my good friend Rachel at whose wedding I had my first Hora experience and who was kind enough to answer my questions.)
  • Cutting the cake: this is pretty simple- the couple goes over to the cake, hold the knife together and cut a small slice. Then they feed it to each other and pose for pictures. Smashing the cake into each others faces is a thing in some places, and it’s totally at your discretion, but definitely don’t do it if one half of the happy couple doesn’t want to! Icing on that $4,000 dress!!
  • Reception activities should happen fairly quickly after dinner and end with the cake cutting. If you are having a “sending off” you can do the bouquet toss/garter throw immediately before you leave. (This is actually more traditional than having the bouquet toss randomly in the middle of your dance- originally it was more of a “just toss the bouquet in the direction of your girlfriends as you head out the door” type of thing than an event that everyone gathered around to watch.)
  • Have your MC announce when these activities are taking place as people will want to watch.

Ending the Reception:

Back in the day when parents hosted the wedding and the couple was the guest of honor, the couple would be expected to leave the reception before it was completely over. They might even change into “going away clothes” and there would be a big sending off as they left on their honeymoon. Then the guests would know that they could leave and everyone would start clearing out.

Now, often, the couple has paid good money for this party and they want to enjoy it until the bitter end. This can create a conflict with some older and more traditional guests who feel like they absolutely have to stay until the bride and groom leave. Nowadays, most people know that the cake cutting signifies the end of official reception activities and that people are free to leave anytime after that, so you might consider making sure that it is the end of official activities or even having your DJ or band leader announce that it is “the last activity but to please enjoy the music and dancing until [end time].” You might also want to consider having it (and your other “official” activities) fairly early during the reception in consideration of guests who might need to leave.

Other Things:

  • Apparently it is a tradition for guests to take home the centerpieces? If this doesn’t bother you, that’s great. If you have plans for your centerpieces, warn your caterer/wedding coordinator/family members/etc or maybe put a note under them saying not to take them.
  • Tip your vendors! Make sure either someone is assigned to handle this or you’ve prearranged the tips.

8 thoughts on “Wedding Reception Etiquette

  1. Now that you say it, I totally understand why it’s rude to have a cash bar. But this had never occurred to me, because every wedding I’ve been to (except for 1) had a cash bar! I also used to work in a banquet hall, where about 99% of weddings had one.

    HOWEVER, usually when there’s a cash bar, there is at least 1 hour of open bar, and wine is served with dinner. So, guests can enjoy cocktails before the reception and wine with dinner, but the rest is up to them.

    FWIW, I grew up in New Hampshire, so maybe this is a region-specific thing?

    • It is a very region-specific thing! For instance, most of the weddings I’ve been to are in the Northeast of America, and no one has ever had a cash bar (though I have been to beer-and-wine-only weddings). However, I know in some other countries cash bars are totally normal. So yes, if everyone in your family has had cash bars at their wedding, you’re probably ok. Just know that some people may be surprised by it.

    • The funny thing is, that yes, it is regional, but more in the sense of a social circle (at least in the US. From what I understand, cash bars are the accepted practice in England.) If you say that it is region to [REGION] you will get people chiming in that they’ve lived in [REGION] their whole lives and have NEVER seen it happen. This goes for most wedding traditions.

  2. I went to a cash bar for everything wedding! It was awful. The only free drink option was a stack of plastic cups and a water fountain. We left before food was served, but that may have cost money too. Ugh.

  3. Just a friendly note on cash bars – quite a lot of couples (and/or their parents) do not drink. By offering a cash bar, you are able to be considerate of your guests who would like to enjoy a drink with dinner without asking parents to pay for something that may go against personal convictions, etc.

    If given the choice, most guests would prefer a cash bar option over a dry wedding. This way they are able to decide if their evening will include a drink as opposed to having the hosts remove that option for them entirely. Perhaps this is a regional mindset, but I’ve been to dry, open bar, cash bar, and beer and wine only bars at weddings. Of course an open bar is great, but I’d prefer the option of a cash bar over a dry wedding any day.

    • I am not sure where a lot of couples that don’t drink are unless they don’t drink for religious reasons, are recovered alcoholics or pregnant, etc. because almost everyone at weddings loves to drink. How the person throwing the party feels about it is irrelevant. Unless for example, an extremely large number of guests don’t drink, I can see not having a typical open bar, but it is extremely rude and tacky not to provide some alcohol if the venue allows it. If it would be a waste to provide an open bar on a per person basis then a la carte drinks should be covered.

  4. If you don’t mind someone thinking you are being cheap, then go ahead and have a cash bar. Not everyone will think this, but NO ONE will think it if you have an open bar. I agree with the writer… This is a party you are throwing. Don’t ask people to pay for part of it. If you want to have just wine and beer served, that’s fine. If you want to have a dry party, then at least you are not asking for people to pay. If alcohol is being served, count on some people not drinking, and that’s okay. That happens with any group of people. If you ask the venue, sometimes they will allow an the “underage” bar price for certain people. This happened for us with a deacon whom we knew would be abstaining. Be generous with your guests, and cut back in other areas if you need to (i.e., smaller party, different venue, etc.)

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