At some point in the wedding planning process, a lot of people look up from their spreadsheets and think “Crap. There’s a whole other event I have to plan that I haven’t even thought about yet.” The good news is this: no matter what your mother/cousin/step-godfather says, you don’t have to have a rehearsal dinner. If your resources (a combination of money, time, and energy) are stretched so thin by the wedding itself that another event makes you want to cry, go ahead and skip it. Perhaps even better news is if you want to have one, it doesn’t have to look like “a rehearsal dinner” unless you want it to. Possibly even more so than with weddings, there are a million ways out there to throw a pre-wedding event. I’ve planned rehearsal dinners ranging from $500 to $14k in price, and from 10 to 110 guests in size. So suffice it to say, there are plenty of options out there, and most of them are pretty fun.
What is the point?
The point of a rehearsal dinner is simple—your people are all in the same place, for maybe one of the only times in your life. You want to spend time with them more than once while this is happening. Also, everyone needs to eat. Hey, rehearsal dinner! The key point to focus on is your people are in town and want to spend time with you and you want to spend time with them. Rehearsal dinners, when done well, can be a bright spot in the craziness that the pre-wedding week often turns into—a few hours of time you don’t have to be juggling logistics, where you’re less the center of attention than you will be at the wedding, and there’s less pressure for things to stick to a strict timeline (because there are fewer things that need to happen). Most of the activities that take place at a wedding, like cake cutting, first dances, and cocktail hour are eschewed at the rehearsal dinner (I mean, let’s be clear, you don’t need them at a wedding either, but you definitely don’t need them at a rehearsal dinner), but the one activity you may want to think about carrying over is toasts. Toasts are a nice way to a) have people give toasts who you don’t have space for at the wedding itself b) hear toasts in a more intimate, low pressure setting, which can in turn make for more intimate toasts, which, let me tell you, can be incredibly lovely. Let your rehearsal dinner be the official start of wedding festivities. I generally tell my clients that they shouldn’t do any wedding prep after the rehearsal starts—if it’s not done at that point it doesn’t need to be done, and it’s a good time to start relaxing and enjoying the fact that you and your partner are doing a monumental thing and are surrounded by your community.
Matching the wedding, or not?
While rehearsal dinners are generally less formal than the weddings they precede, there are definitely cases where the reverse can work—if you dreamed about an intimate, multi-course sit-down dinner party and then realized you really wanted 150 people at your wedding and the two of those factors plus your budget didn’t match up, maybe an intimate, four-course rehearsal dinner at a restaurant the night before your big daytime picnic is the perfect solution. A big, daytime picnic the day before your black tie sit-down reception is also a totally awesome option. In other words, you can use the rehearsal dinner to fulfill your alternative wedding fantasy. You can also just use it to get people together and introduce them to each other (see above.) There are many, many ways to make one of those things happen, but I’ll start with:
The “traditional” rehearsal dinner
The most traditional format of the rehearsal dinner looks like this: all of the people who were present at the rehearsal (so, wedding party, officiant, immediate family, and all partners of these people) at a restaurant for an intimate meal directly after the rehearsal. Occasionally the guest list is expanded to include extended family or out of town guests, although with so many people getting married somewhere away from where they grew up, “out of town guests” can often mean the majority of your guest list. This format is generally on the more formal side, although it can obviously be casual if that’s more your speed.
One of my favorite rehearsal dinners I’ve been a part of was pizza, salad, and beer at a family friend’s house for about forty people. The total cost was in the $500 range, and it was relaxed, fun, and not a ton of work for anyone. More importantly, it served the purpose the couple wanted, which was allowing the key players (family, wedding party, inner circle friends) to hang out and get to know each other better before the wedding. Other affordable ways to do at-home (or at-someone-else’s-home) rehearsal dinners that I’ve done have included taco trucks, barbecues, and deli-catered party trays. How would you normally feed a large group of people? That’s probably a totally great option for a pre-wedding dinner at home.
The “this is where we’ll be, come and grab a beer”
Probably the easiest, and definitely the cheapest, way to do a pre-wedding event, which can also be easily paired with a smaller rehearsal dinner, is to simply pick a convenient bar (if you have a room block at a hotel, the hotel bar can work just as well) and let people know either via your invitation or website that the happy couple will be there from, say, 7–9 the night before the wedding, and that if they want to stop by for a drink you’d love to see them. You can make it clear that it’s not hosted, or pick somewhere with affordable pitchers and cover those and then let people pick up the tab if they’d like to drink something else.
I’ve had clients host field days, wine tastings, pool parties, softball games, bonfires—really, any group activity is up for grabs as a good pre-wedding group activity. Feel free to break out of the mold and share your favorite activities with your guests.
Wedding planning (and, well, the WIC) have a way of making things seem and feel more complicated and stressful than they need to be, and the (capitalized) Rehearsal Dinner is certainly not immune to that. But take the capitalization out of it, and believe me when I say that it doesn’t have to be (as I mentioned above, it’s not even necessary). If you can reframe it to be “a party we’re having for some of our favorite people in the world” and then proceed to plan from there? You end up with a lovely event that neither breaks the bank nor overwhelms you.