As the celebration has grown larger, it has also gotten more casual. Think of the rehearsal dinner as the kick off to the wedding festivities, the event that gets the party started. Despite the name, the dinner itself doesn’t involve any rehearsing; but it is traditionally held following the wedding rehearsal, the evening before the wedding. First things first: don’t make the rehearsal dinner any more complicated than it needs to be. Restaurants, hotels, and clubs are the most popular places to hold rehearsal dinners because they’re the easiest to plan. The food, the staff, the furnishings, and most of the decor are already in place. It’s wonderfully personal if a relative wants to host the event in their home, but keep in mind that if there are more than a dozen guests, you’ll have to deal with catering, rentals, staffing, and cleaning.
Who pays for the rehearsal dinner? There’s a long-standing tradition of the groom’s parents’ paying for and hosting the rehearsal dinner. That’s still common, but as rehearsal dinners have grown larger and more expensive, other parties have come forward to pick up the tab or to pitch in. Unlike showers and engagement parties there is no etiquette surrounding who can and cannot host the rehearsal dinner, so the couple, the bride’s parents, or another relative may take the lead.
Who plans the rehearsal dinner? In the world of entertaining, that responsibility normally lies with the host. But with the rehearsal dinner, there’s no clear-cut answer. As with all things, it depends on family dynamics and logistics. If, for instance, one set of parents is footing the bill but is going through an acrimonious divorce, it’s far simpler all around if the planning is left in the hands of a third-party; that way, all they have to agree on is how to split the bills. If there’s a choice in the matter, it’s easiest if whoever’s planning the wedding – whether that be the couple, the bride’s mother, or a wedding planner – also arranges the rehearsal dinner. It permits the planner to coordinate resources coming in from various vendors and also allows for balance in the ambience and the menu.
Even if parents are hosting, the couple may be involved in the planning to varying degrees – if the parents aren’t familiar with the wedding location, they’re often appreciative when the couple chooses a site for the dinner. In some instances, parents have a very definite idea of the type of dinner they want to host. It may be more formal or traditional than you would like, or the opposite. This is a case where it’s definitely best to give over the reins. The rehearsal dinner is technically separate from the wedding, and if someone is hosting for you, you absolutely have to be gracious.
When and who sends the invitations? If travel plans aren’t part of the equation, you can send invitations to the rehearsal dinner one month before the wedding. Otherwise, give guest at least two or three months’ notice so they don’t book a flight that arrives too late for the dinner. For a destination wedding, where it’s likely that everyone will be invited to the rehearsal dinner, include the information on your save the date cards, and enclose a special card with the wedding invitation. If the groom’s family is hosting a rehearsal dinner, the traditional school of etiquette states that they send out a separate invitation. However, if all the guest are being invited to the rehearsal dinner, it’s less expensive and more efficient to include a small card in the invitation packet. If only select guests are invited, it’s too easy to make mistakes and mix up the invitations and to invite your friend Dan when you meant to invite uncle Dave, so I do recommend mailing a separate invitation.
Who do we invite? The rehearsal dinner was once a formal affair hosted by the groom’s parents and limited to the bridal party and the bride’s parents. You will invite everyone that attended the rehearsal, and nowadays, the guest list may include out-of-towners, who can easily account for half of the wedding guests. If this is the case, there’s no reason to host essentially two weddings if the guest lists are identical. A good rule-of-thumb on the dinner guest list, is if you can answer yes to either “we aren’t close of friends”, or “they can manage getting themselves dinner”, no need to invite them.
What type of food do we serve? The rehearsal dinner should feel like its own distinct event – if you turn it into a mini wedding, you risk taking away from the reception you so painstakingly planned. My favorite way to distinguish the rehearsal dinner from the wedding is to make it a casual evening. The convivial atmosphere makes it easier for everyone to get to know one another, paving the way for a really fun wedding. If your having a sit-down dinner for your reception, think about doing stations or family-style service at the rehearsal dinner. Try not to repeat the food, or the main ingredient in the specialty cocktail. One fail-safe way to inject the rehearsal dinner with personality is to bring the location into play. Invite guests to a clambake in New England, a fish boil in Wisconsin, a pig pickin’ in North Carolina, a Tex-Mex blowout in the Southwest, or a wine and cheese tasting in Northern California. If you’re set on a more formal dinner, choose a place with a dropdead view that lets everyone know where they are. If the bride’s or groom’s background is under represented at the reception, the rehearsal dinner provides an opportunity to even the score, and to show the other members the roots of their family.
What about the toasts? There will be a lot of toasting at the event, so look for a space that can hold everyone in a single room. And since even the rehearsal dinner typically kicks off with a cocktail hour, make sure there’s enough room for people to mill about, or a separate area or patio for gathering.
Toasts are an integral part of the rehearsal dinner – even more so, in some cases, than at the wedding reception. Though in my experience you’re more likely to be faced with an embarrassment of riches than a deathly silence, not everyone is aware of toasting etiquette or feels comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. If you’ve got a relatively shy family, you might speak to them ahead of time to make sure they know what they’re supposed to toast.
Get the toasts started during dinner. If everyone waits until the end of the meal, the evening will go on forever. Talk to likely candidates beforehand to let them know at what point in the evening you would like for them to toast.
Traditionally, the groom’s father leads off the toasts by welcoming the bride to the family. The father of the bride may respond in kind. Any number of toast from bridesmaids, groomsmen, or family members can follow. Other than the parents, who may understandably want to indulge in multiple toasts, try to discourage toast from anyone slated to make a toast at the wedding. One or both members of the couple usually closes the toasting by thanking their hosts, their parents, and everyone in the wedding party for attending.
Since the main event at the rehearsal dinner is generally the toasting, music plays a lesser role than at a wedding. Mostly, you want it to set the mood and stay in the background, so keep that in mind when you’re programming your playlist. If yours is the rare budget that allows for live music at the rehearsal dinner, think subtle – a pianist, jazz combo, or Latin guitars make great choices. If you can theme the music to the dinner or location by having mariachi players at your Mexican feast or calypso music at your Caribbean destination wedding, so much the better.
Do I have to supply favors? Although they’re not necessary or expected, rehearsal dinner favors can help build excitement for the rest of the weekend. They should be personal, fitting in with your story or location in someway. Giving away favors only at the rehearsal dinner, assuming it’s smaller than the wedding reception, can also be a way to accommodate a tight budget. And you’ll be giving a momento to the people who are most likely to appreciate it.
Itching to show a video documenting your love story or piecing your childhood photographs together? Great idea. A video can also be a wonderful way to pay tribute to the marriages that made yours possible – a montage of parents’ and grandparents’ wedding shots symbolically summons the weight of history to bless your union.
Instead of showing the video at the wedding, roll it at the more intimate rehearsal dinner. It will have more meaning for your closest friends and family, and it won’t break up the reception festivities. You can project the video on a screen near the entrance and have it rolling as guests come in; play it between dinner and dessert; or, for a low-tech approach, set it up on a TV somewhere off the beaten track - that way the guests can bump into it organically and spend some time with it, if they wish.