The typical wedding reception lasts four hours — plenty of time to celebrate in traditional fashion. Here's a quick look at the usual timetable, complete with don't miss rituals:
Hour One: Bride and groom, attendants and family pose for wedding pictures (unless they were taken before the ceremony). Receiving line is formed as the bridal party arrives. Cocktails and hors d'oeuvres are served. The receiving line is the first element of the wedding reception (unless you already had one after your ceremony). It allows the bride and groom a chance to greet all their guests — an opportunity they might not otherwise have during a large reception. The line is usually formed with the mother of the bride first, then the father, followed by the groom's mother and father, bride and groom, and then the maid or matron of honor and bridesmaids (the attendants are often left off in order to speed guests" passage through the line). Divorced parents should not stand together in the receiving line. For example, if the bride's parents are divorced and the groom's are not, the groom's parents may stand between the bride's. To avoid making the receiving line a time-consuming process, exchange brief but warm wishes with everyone as they pass by. It is also courteous for those in the receiving line to introduce the next person: "Mrs. Jones, you look beautiful today! Have you met my husband yet, John Smith?" Help pass the time for guests who are waiting in the line by asking waiters to circulate with drinks and hors d'oeuvres for them. After the receiving line has been completed and the cocktail hour is finished, it will be time for guests to be seated. After all the guests have found their seats, a master of ceremonies (often the band leader or maitre d') should introduce the bridal party. Instruct the master of ceremonies or whoever will be making the announcements beforehand on how you want the names read (check pronunciations with attendants). The bride's parents should be the first to enter, followed by the groom's parents, flower girl and ring bearer, bridesmaids and ushers, best man and maid of honor, then the bride and groom. The first dance often takes place either right after the wedding party has been announced or after the meal is completed. This dance traditionally belongs to the bride and groom, with all guests gathering around to watch. Toward the end of the song, the master of ceremonies or announcer should instruct the rest of the bridal party to join in with their respective partners. The guests may also be asked to join in at the end of the first dance. At some time during the course of the celebration (but always after the first dance as husband and wife), the bride traditionally has a farewell dance with her father, followed by the groom and her mother. In both cases, a nostalgic, sentimental song is often chosen. If your father will not be there or is deceased, you may choose another important male to share in this special dance with you (a brother, uncle or grandfather). If you are not close to your father and feel more comfortable with your stepfather, you may share the dance with him. The same options apply for your new husband as well. And be sure that both of you dance with your new in-laws and spouse's honor attendants. Just before the main meal is served, or immediately after, the best man is introduced and asks everyone to stand. You and your groom should remain seated. His toast may be brief and sentimental ("Here's to the happiness of a couple close to us all, Kathy and John") or it can be more detailed and personal, often amusing and anecdotal. Whatever the case, it should reflect the hope and happiness the two of you have for the future. The best man then raises his glass and invites the other guests to do the same in a well-wishing toast. The bride and groom may then get up and say a few words of thanks and toast each other. It is also customary at religious weddings to have the officiant say a blessing before everyone begins eating. Be sure to let your officiant know ahead of time if you would like to include this, so that he or she is prepared. The bridal party and wedding guests should remain quiet and attentive during the blessing, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Hour Two: Guests take their seats for the first course, kicked off by a champagne toast, usually offered by the best man. Others, such as the bride's father or the maid of honor, may also say a few words. Some couples prefer to have their first dance, followed by father-daughter and mother-son dances, now. The only two requirements for a wedding reception are cake and champagne, and menus for marriage celebrations run the gamut from a light breakfast to an elaborate dinner. Obviously, the time of your wedding reception should dictate what is served. An early-morning wedding calls for a breakfast or brunch; afternoon ceremonies may be accompanied by hors d'oeuvres or a light meal. Evening weddings generally call for a full dinner (which may be served by waiters or buffet style), unless they are held at 8 p.m. or later, at which time you may choose to offer only cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Your caterer or banquet manager can help you select an appropriate menu. In many parts of the country, the word "reception" has come to denote a full meal. If you don't plan to do so, use the wording "cake and champagne" or "cocktails and hors d'oeuvres" on your invitations so that they will know what to expect.
Hour Three: Bride and groom may enjoy their first dance, and other noteworthy dances, if they haven't already. The main course is served, and guests mingle and dance.
Hour Four: The cake is cut and served. The time-honored cake-cutting ceremony illustrates the bond that is shared between husband and wife. The master of ceremonies should announce that this event is taking place and direct guests to the location. The bride tosses her bouquet, and the groom tosses her garter (both are optional). Guests begin to leave. Toward the end of the reception, the master of ceremonies may ask all eligible ladies to gather in the middle of the floor for the bouquet toss — the lucky recipient of which is said to be the next woman to marry. The bride should turn her back to the crowd and lightly toss the bouquet over her head to the female guests and bridesmaids. (Or you may want to face everyone and take aim for a particular friend or relative!) Another way to throw the bouquet is to toss it out the window of your car or limousine to the waiting crowd as you leave for your honeymoon (or first night accommodations). Many brides now have two bouquets — one being a smaller, less expensive version called a tossing bouquet or nosegay, specifically made for tossing so that the bridal bouquet can be preserved as a wedding momento. In the garter ceremony, the groom removes the garter from the bride's leg and tosses it in a similar fashion to the eligible men. According to legend, the man who catches it is the next to marry. The man then puts it on the leg of the woman who caught the bouquet. Both of these ceremonies are optional, and many couples today choose not to include them. If yours is a group you know will want to party on, inquire with your reception site when you book about paying for extra time. This will require either a set fee (to cover the staff) or a per-person fee to keep the bar open, or both. You'll also have to pay your band or DJ extra, naturally. Another option: Designate a nearby club or bar and let everyone know they can head there to continue the fun. It was once customary for the bride and groom to make a getaway during the reception to begin their honeymoon, and that was also the signal that the guests could start to leave. Today, however, many couples choose to spend extra time with their out-of-town guests and stay at the reception until the very end. You may still change into going-away clothes (check with your reception site about changing rooms) and then come back to bid your guests a final farewell. Guests may throw rice, birdseed or potpourri, or blow bubbles, as you and your new husband make your exit.