The wedding industry, that beast of a machine, is built around selling you lots of PRETTY. Pick up any wedding magazine, and you’ll see page after page of dresses, centerpieces, favors, personalized everything (did you know that wedding toilet paper is an actual product you can buy?), and other things designed to “wow” your guests, but, oddly, very little information about how to make sure your guests have fun at your wedding. Which is odd, because when planning any other party, the main question on most people’s minds is, “Hey, how can I make this fun? (And what are we going to feed these people?)” But that doesn’t mean that people don’t want their weddings to be fun. One of the questions on my intake form for new clients is, “What are your top priorities for your wedding?” The most common answers (because my clients are rad) are:
1. That our guests are comfortable
2. That the wedding is a ton of fun (for everyone, including us)
So how exactly does one have a fun wedding? That, my friends, is the million-dollar question. If the wedding industry at large were to offer an answer, it would end up looking like some kind of fancy version of Burning Man, with a cigar roller! And a belly dancer! And a brass band! And a gospel choir! And a face-painting station! And a fortune-teller! And a photo booth! And while a wedding with all those things would probably be really fun (if a little manic), it’s very possible to create fun without a three-ring circus.
Make sure people know what to expect
Making sure your guests know what to expect is the key element in having a wedding that people enjoy. Are both the ceremony and reception on grass or rocky ground? Let people know so that they can choose their footwear appropriately. This is also true when it comes to temperature. For example, in coastal Northern California it gets cold almost every night, even if it’s ninety-degrees during the day. So if you have a lot of guests coming from out of state, they’ll need to be informed ahead of time to bring a jacket (because unlike the more touristy parts of San Francisco, I doubt there will be overpriced Golden Gate Bridge-branded fleece jackets for sale at your wedding). Formality level comes into play here too. While you shouldn’t dictate exactly what your guests wear, very few people like showing up either extremely over- or under-dressed for an event, so giving a heads up on the general dress code is appreciated, whether that’s black tie or county-park casual (and maybe especially important if you’re doing black tie in a county park).
Beyond weather and what to wear, it’s nice for guests to know what you’re going to want them to do. Need help breaking down tables at the end of the night? My experience is that if you tell people ahead of time, they will be there with bells (or stocking feet) on. But spring this on them right before they grab their bags to get on the shuttle home? They’ll probably still help, because they love you, but some grumbling is also pretty guaranteed. I mean, I can break down chairs until the cows come home, but if I find out I have to do it after I’ve already started preparing myself to go home to take a bubble bath? The enthusiasm level is going to be on the waning side. This goes doubly for your family and your wedding party—the more you let them know in advance what your expectations are, whether that’s, “We really want you to just be guests and enjoy yourselves,” or “We’re going to have a ton of things we’ll need help with and would appreciate all hands on deck,” the more people are going to be in the right mood and mindset to both act and enjoy themselves accordingly.
Feed people. Feed them on time.
One of my first rules for any party is this: do not let your guests be hungry. Because hungry quickly turns into hangry, and well, it’s pretty hard to enjoy yourself when you’re hangry. Does this mean you have to serve a full meal? Nope! You just need to serve one if you’ve set guests up to expect one. So, if your reception is, say, from 2–5 p.m., most people will infer that there won’t be a meal served and will eat before and/or plan on eating after. The same would go with a 9 p.m.–midnight reception. You can also hold a reception at another time and advertise that it’s not going to involve a full meal. “Please join us for appetizers and drinks from 5 p.m.–8 p.m.,” or “Dessert reception to follow,” or “Cake and punch after the ceremony,” or any other wording describing the fact that people should not expect to eat a meal. The opposite side of this is, of course, that if you’re having a 4 p.m. ceremony “with reception to follow” and are planning on the reception going until 10 p.m., you very, very definitely need to feed people dinner. It doesn’t have to be fancy (who doesn’t love tacos or burgers? Not anyone I want at a party) but it does have to be filling. See: hangry.
Okay, got it, but what do we do to make sure it’s fun?
The problem with this question is that everyone has a different definition of what fun is. Because while a booze-and-drug-fueled, dance-till-the-sun-comes-up party defines it for some people, for others that’s some kind of nightmare and an intimate dinner party with board games sounds way more fun, thankyouverymuch. If forced to name the ten most fun weddings I’ve encountered, you’d see both of those, and a bunch of weddings that were somewhere in the great space in between. But what all of them had in common were that they were incredibly authentic to the couple, and to the largest part of their social circle, and hence, largest chunk of their guests. Not the giant dance party types? It’s highly unlikely that you’ve ended up with a group of friends who are, so please feel free to go ahead and skip the loud music. Totally the giant dance party types? Bring. It. On. (And leave the board games at home.) As with most things in life—knowing your crowd is key.
But what if you don’t have a particular group of friends, and your family runs the gamut, and you can barely think of two people coming to the wedding who like the same kinds of parties? Then…
Get people emotionally invested
This is one of the big secrets of weddings: people enjoy them the most when they’re emotionally invested in the reason they’re there—that two people they love are publicly joining their lives together. Often this means a meaningful ceremony that puts the guests into an emotional group high of holy shit, I am so happy for them. But I’ve also seen it happen at receptions after a private ceremony; the key is that a wedding reception isn’t just another party. It’s a party celebrating a very, very specific thing—your marriage. This doesn’t mean you need a tiered cake, or a white dress, or a sit down dinner—it just means that the focus should be on your marriage. If you skip the public ceremony, toasts can help a lot with this—I’ve seen many toasts that were equally, if not more, emotionally touching as any ceremony. It also has to do a lot with the attitude and emotions of the couple. It’s hard not to be on an emotional high when the people you’re there to see are on one.
At the end of the day, the people who aren’t going to have fun at your wedding aren’t going to have fun no matter what you do. You could have three live bands, a quiet board game room, and a lounge area for chatting, and there would probably still be one person who went home early. That’s okay, because this is the truth: you cannot please everyone. Once you have a group of more than about six people, someone is going to think that any given idea is probably not the best one. Your painfully shy cousin? Socially forward college roommate? High-energy sister? Easily overwhelmed and kind of awkward best friend? Party animal high school friends? Let’s just be real, there’s probably not a single party in the world that all of these people are going to love equally. What they do love, however, is you, and so even if they don’t go home saying, “That was, no question, one of the best parties I’ve ever been to,” hopefully they’ll go home saying, “I am so, so happy to have been able to be there to celebrate when this couple I love was married.”