Outdoor Wedding Ceremony by Merrari Photography
Photo: Merari Photography

Make sure getting hitched goes off without a hitch with these solutions to common ceremony conundrums. From officiants and readings to seating and the processional, we know just what to do, how to do it, and who to involve. Your ceremony should be special for you and your guests, which is why we, along with our favorite industry experts, are here to help ensure that everything runs smoothly. Here's a pro tip to get you going: whenever possible, keep your guests informed as you plan the ceremony—be sure to communicate need-to-know information on your wedding website, so that on the big day, your attendees will understand the nature of your nuptials. Read on to ensure that your wedding day is etiquette-approved in every way.

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We're taking photos after the ceremony but don't want to miss the cocktail hour. How can we time it right?

The term "cocktail hour" can be misleading. The actual length is up to you—but bear in mind that after 90 minutes, your guests will be craving something heartier than canapés. Enlist your planner or photographer to pace the portrait session. After 30 to 45 minutes, it's time to join the party. "There may be an opportunity to sneak away for additional pictures later in the evening, as the light changes," suggests Amanda Gray of Ashley Baber Weddings in Charlottesville, Virginia. If your heart is set on taking part in cocktails from start to finish, then consider building in a break between your nuptials and reception, an increasingly common practice. Guests can entertain themselves while you pose; then you'll all join together for that first glass of bubbly. 

Is it rude to ban guests from the bridal suite?

No, it would not be rude at all. In fact, it is perfectly understandable to restrict people from coming in and out of the bridal room. Your best bet for keeping the bridal suite from turning into a pre-ceremony receiving line is to place a bridesmaid or usher on door duty. Have her politely but firmly tell guests you're getting ready, and that you can't wait to greet them after the ceremony. Or, post a sign on the door that states, "Mother of the bride and bridal party only." Once you've decided on a closed-door policy, don't make any exceptions.

How do I say no to a family member who wants to speak at the ceremony?

Chances are, you've allotted a certain amount of time for the "I dos." Explain this to your family member and tell him you'd prefer he showcase his razor-sharp wit with a toast at the rehearsal dinner. Customarily, that's when family and friends share more informal memories and well-wishes for the couple.

Do I need to include family I'm not so close with in my wedding party?

Many brides feel pressure to include more people than they want to in their wedding party when they're actually not required to ask anyone to participate. But just because you don't have to consider other people's desires when selecting attendants doesn’t mean you shouldn't. In a sticky situation, do a cost-benefit analysis. Weigh how bad the fallout of the hurt feelings will be versus how involving an extra person will affect your vision of your day. If saying no will create family tension, come up with a smaller-yet-integral job for them, like handing out programs or doing a reading.

Groom and groomsmen in black tuxedos
Photo: O'Malley Photographers

My dad passed when I was younger. Should I ask someone to walk me down the aisle or go it alone?

Whether it's been two years or 20 since a loved one's been gone, you always feel their absence during big moments—especially on your wedding day. One thing that can help is including him in some manner. Honor him by having the officiant say a few words, lighting a candle, or acknowledging him in your ceremony program or toast. As for who should be next to you as you enter, that's entirely your call. A bride no longer needs someone to "give her away." Walk down the aisle alone or with anyone who plays a very meaningful role in your life, like a brother or father-in-law.

We're hesitant to have our ring bearer hold the rings. What else could we have him do?

You may worry about entrusting a four-year-old with your platinum bands, but some careful management will ensure your rings get down the aisle safely. Have the maid of honor hold the bands and tie them to the pillow just before the procession begins; when your ring bearer gets to the front, he can hand the pillow directly to the best man, who will then transfer the rings to his pocket. Rings can also travel in a box or another container that will be more secure than a pillow. Still anxious? Let him carry a less valuable item down the aisle, like a unity candle, flowers for the mothers, or a book that the readers will use. Talk with your officiant to brainstorm other ideas.

How do you honor a stepparent at the ceremony, since there's no set role?

Have your stepparent do a reading or act as an usher. Some brides ask both their dad and step-dad to walk them down the aisle. You could also give stepparents a corsage, boutonniere, or standout tie to wear, and be sure to highlight them in the wedding program if you list family members.

Rustic indoor wedding ceremony in Colorado
Photo: Rachel Havel

I'd like to save seats for my closest family members at the ceremony. How can I do this discreetly and appropriately?

These days, most guests know not to sit in the first couple rows or pews. To ensure that's the case, brief your ushers about the most important people on your list, and ask them to seat only those guests in that section. If you want a larger section reserved, you will need to block it off. Draping a length of ribbon or garland across the opening of the rows in question will prevent other guest from sitting there.

Can we ask guests to stand during our ceremony?

It depends on how long your ceremony will be. A secular ceremony can be as short as ten minutes or as drawn out as 40. Remember that guests will also be on their feet as they wait for the ceremony to begin. It's a good idea to provide some seating for guests who arrive early, or those for whom any amount of standing is too much. The "no chairs" plan works best for a small guest list of about 50 people. Beyond that, you'll want to have some sort of organizational structure at the site, such as a focal point so guests know where to look, like a raised platform, a runner, or floral arrangements.

How can we ask people not to take pictures during the ceremony?

Use a double-pronged approach to let people know. First, insert a line in the program below the processional that says "No photographs during the ceremony, please." Second, have your ushers tell people as they're seated that you've requested no photographs until the end of the ceremony. During the recessional, pause at the top of the aisle to give people a chance to take a picture right before you walk out.

What does my friend need to do in order to officiate my wedding?

Generally speaking, every state allows ordained religious leaders, as well as judges, justices of the peace, and a few other government workers, to perform weddings. In recent years, some online organizations permit anyone to become a minister in a matter of minutes, no questions asked.

Bride and Groom at Wedding Ceremony - Lily & Lime
Photo: Lily & Lime

Do we need to invite our justice of the peace to the reception?

Probably not. But the authority they bring is what actually legitimizes the marriage, so it might feel abrupt to dismiss them immediately after the service. Consider inviting your officiant to the cocktail hour, especially if you spent much time working with him preparing the service. In a case where the justice of the peace has no additional responsibilities and is not previously known to you, you are not obligated to invite him—and he is most likely not expecting an invitation. If your officiant helps you rehearse, you may want to invite him to the rehearsal dinner. Justices of the peace who charge for their time at a rehearsal, however, needn't be included.

How long is too long between the ceremony and reception? The latest our church will marry us is 1:30 P.M., and we'd like dinner and dancing to start at 6.

This common conundrum can leave guests, particularly out-of-towners, wondering how to spend the hours in between "I do" and "Let’s party." In a perfect world, the ceremony would move right into the cocktail hour, then on to dinner and dancing. Kicking off the festivities earlier to follow that schedule is one option (and a smart one, wallet-wise; lunch parties are often more affordable than evening celebrations). But if your hearts are set on nighttime revelry, there are ways to deal with the time gap. "If your finances allow, arrange for a trolley tour of the city," suggests Martha Stewart Weddings special projects editor Anthony Luscia. Or, let guests choose their own adventures by slipping cards with a list of local attractions and a map into invites or programs. When most attendees are old friends who will want to hang out, designate a lounge or café near the venue as a gathering spot, or ask a relative to open up her home and provide nibbles and drinks (soft ones, if you don't want people staggering into the party later). It almost doesn't matter what you propose as long as it's something. "Nobody likes being all dressed up with nowhere to go," Luscia says. "But you can keep guests happy simply by presenting them with options that turn the downtime into a good time."

Classic wedding ceremony program
Photo: Lev Kuperman

What details should we include in the program for our secular ceremony?

Your program is the place to let your guests know what's what and to highlight moments in your nuptials. Usually the cover has your names or monogram, and the wedding date and location. The next bit of business, on the first page inside, is to list everyone involved in the service. Put bridesmaids first, followed by groomsmen, the officiant, ushers, and musicians. Then write up the events in the order they happen: the officiant's welcome, the titles of readings or songs, the ring exchange, and any cultural rituals. On the last page, you can get sentimental by thanking loved ones, remembering deceased relatives, or printing a quote or lyric that's special for you two. 

I'm officiating my friend's wedding. Are there things that I absolutely should, or should not, mention?

"You want the ceremony to be unique to the couple," says Jessie Blum, a civil celebrant in Rutherford, New Jersey. "Ask them to tell you their favorite relationship stories. Use those as a jumping-off point, and don't be afraid to offer advice that applies to them." At the ceremony, start by welcoming everyone. After that, you might describe how the couple met, and then talk about the meaning of marriage. As for what to leave out: "Past relationships, embarrassing stories, and anything that would make the event feel more like a roast," says Blum. That might fly at the rehearsal dinner (or not, depending on the couple), but a ceremony should be sweet and sacred.

This story originally appeared on Martha Stewart Weddings.