Attending an American wedding

Weddings are universally considered occasions of great celebration. However, expectations can vary greatly, depending on culture, tradition and environment. If you receive an invitation to a wedding during your time in the U.S., the following general information should help you know what to expect.

Most wedding invitations include an R.S.V.P. This simply means that the couple would like you to confirm whether or not you will attend. They will have many details to keep track of, so help them with their planning by letting them know promptly whether you will join the festivities. Sometimes the invitation will include a card to send back, or perhaps they simply provide a phone number or email address you can respond to.

Since weddings these days can take place anywhere from the beach to a cathedral, you will need to know how to dress appropriately for this particular occasion. If the invitation does not include a dress code, you can pick up some clues from the invitation itself, the location of the ceremony and the season and time of day.

If the invitation comes on thick, creamy paper with flowing script, and will take place during the evening at a large church, you can anticipate the wedding will likely follow the same formality and dress up accordingly. If the invitation seems more casual and the location is a backyard, during the summer in the middle of the afternoon, perhaps you will not need to dress as formally. Do not ever consider jeans appropriate wedding attire unless the invitation specifically indicates a theme-type wedding, like a hoe-down or cowboy wedding, etc. You can always ask someone associated with the wedding what would be deemed appropriate.

Do not arrive late to a wedding. If the invitation says the ceremony will begin at 5:00, arrive with enough time to park, enter and be seated before 5:00. Do not take photographs during the ceremony. Not only does it distract other guests, you might accidentally get in the way of the photographer hired by the wedding party. You should turn your phone off before you get seated, and do not text.

You do not generally just go in and sit down in an empty seat at a wedding. The groomsmen/ushers will seat you based on whatever seating arrangement has been made by the bride and groom. Family generally sits in the first few rows. Some weddings still seat guests according to who they have come to the wedding on behalf of. For example, if you attend as a friend of the groom, they will seat you on the side of the church that includes the groom’s colleagues and family. However, if no one asks you, then it doesn’t matter and they will seat you wherever the space allows.

If you bring a gift to the wedding, someone from the wedding party will take it from you and put it with the gifts gathered from other guests. More and more couples tell people where they have registered in order to help people know what kinds of gifts they need or want. If the invitation indicates that the couple is registered at Target and Macy’s, you can go to the Gift Registry at either of those stores and look up the last names of either the bride or the groom, and a list of gifts they would like to receive will appear. If you choose to purchase one of those items, you will need to mark it as purchased on the registry so that they will not receive a duplicate of that gift from someone else. This system helps the new couple receive items they actually want and need, but it also eliminates duplicates from well-intentioned guests.

You will usually sign a guest book before entering the ceremony. Since the bride and groom have so many things happening on this big day, it is a practical way for them to know exactly who attended the wedding and have a keepsake too.

Depending on the wedding, the service itself might include music, prayer, a word from the pastor or clergy conducting the ceremony, an exchange of vows and rings, a ritual signifying unification, etc. Some wedding ceremonies last only 15 minutes, while others could take up to an hour.

At many weddings in the U.S., the wedding party has specific roles to fulfill during the ceremony. Usually, at the beginning, the groom (the man getting married) and his “groomsmen” stand in a line at the front, and the bride (the woman getting married) and her bridesmaids come down the aisle while music plays. Most American weddings still expect all the guests to stand from the time the bride enters the aisle, often on her father’s arm, and until she has joined the groom at the front. If you do not feel certain about your role in the ceremony, watch the other guests and take your cues from them.

After the actual wedding ceremony, the bride and groom, now husband and wife usually walk down the aisle together to exit the sanctuary or room, followed by the wedding party of bridesmaids and grooms. They often form a greeting or reception line for the guests to move along as they exit, providing an opportunity to greet and congratulate the couple and their families and friends.

Many times a reception will follow the wedding ceremony, either at the same location, or somewhere else indicated on the invitation. This is like a party to celebrate the wedding. It may or may not include a meal, but generally always features the wedding cake and drinks. If located at the same venue as the wedding, you can proceed immediately to that area after going through the reception line. If it will take place at another location, you will need to drive there separately to continue the celebration. Some receptions include dancing while others do not.

Some long time traditions in American weddings include the bride throwing the bouquet, photographs, the cutting of the cake, dancing, throwing rice, and the bride and groom driving away in the “just married” car. Not all weddings include any or all of these rituals; it depends on the couple’s wishes and family traditions.

You should never drink too much if the wedding or reception includes alcohol. Although a wedding represents a celebration, your behavior should reflect moderation and politeness.

Many couples leave immediately for a “honeymoon” after the ceremony. Traditionally, this time period allows the newly married couple to spend several days or weeks on their own mini-vacation as they begin their lives together.