How to Make Your Reception the Best Party of Your Life

Four important ways to ensure your post-ceremony soirée is a success.

Etiquette expert Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, shares her advice for ensuring your wedding reception is ultimately a successful event.

Photo: Bob & Dawn Davis Photography

I loved my wedding reception – outdoors, between storms, on a cool August day by Lake Champlain – not just for the beautiful dahlia and snapdragon flower arrangements, Lillet cocktails, and local Vermont cheese plates, but for the joy of having all of my favorite people in the world celebrating with me. It is, simply put, the best party of your life.

As you think about the flow of the reception, there are a few points of etiquette to observe. These are easy to incorporate with a little forethought, and will keep you focused on enjoying time with your guests.

Here is my one regret: my absence throughout most of the cocktail hour. And I don’t drink much, so it wasn’t the beverages that I regret missing. Right after saying my vows, I was ready to greet my guests. However, despite planning to take as many photos before the ceremony as possible, we still needed more time than anticipated.

I followed all of my own advice, and scheduled a "first look" (which was terrific), wrote a smart photo-list order that required less wrangling of family, and assigned relatives to find any stragglers for group portraits. In the end, the photos still took a bigger portion of the timeline than expected. So, an additional bit of advice is to allot plenty of extra time for photo sessions!

Receiving Lines vs. Table Visits
The receiving line can be held as guests depart the ceremony site, though more often it is held as they enter the reception area. While it may feel slow or old-fashioned, it serves a very important purpose: It gives you (the couple) and any other hosts the opportunity to greet and thank guests. This is the single most important duty you have at the wedding. If the official cake cutting gets cut or the bouquet toss is tossed, it’s no big deal. But saying “hello and thank you for coming” to every single person in attendance is an ironclad must. The receiving line serves as a catchall for this purpose.

Many couples have opted to skip receiving lines in recent years in favor of greeting attendees via table visits. Either way you say “hello” to all of your guests is fine; but think about the timing. Table visits take at least a few – if not five or more – minutes each. Multiply that by 20 tables, and your loved ones may be done with dinner before you’re finished approaching them all. Plus, you may miss your own meal! Generally speaking, it’s a very good idea to have a receiving line if you have from 75 to 100+ guests. Fewer than that and circumstances are in your favor to find and thank every individual present.

While Champagne may be replaced with any beverage, no reception is complete without at least a few words from your hosts to congratulate the newlyweds and thank guests for coming. When the couple hosts, one or both might take a moment to express appreciation to family and friends for coming and to toast his or her new spouse. Typically done early or late during the meal, the main host will (gently!) tap a glass or take the microphone to give a toast. Usually this will be the bride’s father, followed immediately or shortly thereafter by the groom’s father. The couple, best man, and maid/matron of honor might also say a few words. Mothers and stepparents can speak as well. Any combination of these may happen. It’s a good idea to have a sense of who is on deck and in what order to avoid hurt feelings should the best man take the microphone before the father of the bride has a chance to go first. If you don’t want an open mic, give the DJ or whoever is in charge of the microphone a list of those who will give toasts, and ask him or her to politely decline the request of others who may ask.

It’s okay to use notes for toasts, and to keep them short if you’re nervous. Toasts don’t need to be lengthy – have you ever sat and timed five minutes? It’s a long time. A minute or two at most is adequate, especially if several people plan to speak. (Rehearsal dinners are a great time for lots of speeches, and for long speeches.) At the end of each toast, the speaker will ask everyone to join in raising their glasses, or simply turn to you two and raise their glass. Technically, when you are being toasted, you don’t drink – just smile and enjoy. After guests have drunk you might raise your glass to them in return and have a sip.

Cutting the Cake
While first dances, bouquet tosses, and big send-offs can be fun, there isn’t much etiquette to them; not so for the cake cutting. Cutting the cake is a sign to attendees that it’s acceptable to leave the reception without being thought rude. This is often an important cue for elderly guests, or those with small children to put to bed. If you weren’t planning to cut the cake and feed one another bites in front of loved ones, or opted for an alternative dessert such as cupcakes or cookies that don’t lend themselves to cutting, simply serving dessert will suffice as a signal. Plan to cut the cake (or have dessert served) within an hour of dinner ending. The party will still go on, and family and friends who would like to depart will end on a sweet note.