A Traditional Wedding Reception Timeline

Find out what's supposed to happen—and when—during your reception.
Traditional wedding reception
Photo by Garrett Nudd Photography

So you want your wedding reception to be the most talked about of the century, but don't know the first thing about throwing a good party? The crucial thing to scoring a fabulous wedding celebration is knowing what's supposed to happen when. So we've strung together a timeline, based on a traditional cocktail hour and a four-hour reception, to give you an hour-by-hour guide to the day's postceremonial events. Get your stopwatches ready—the wedding reception countdown is about to begin.

00:00 | The Cocktail Hour

After being pronounced husband and wife, you're often the first to leave the wedding ceremony, heading off (with photographer in tow) for pictures together before the partying gets under way. Your guests will head to the reception site for cocktails. Depending on the logistics of the event, your cocktail hour will begin immediately (if the ceremony and reception are held at the same venue), or it might start more than half an hour later (if there's travel involved). Cocktails will kick off your reception and will last for at least an hour. During this time the staff will serve stationary or passed appetizers and drinks, which will get people mingling and in the mood.

01:00 | Newlyweds' Arrival/First Dance

Here's the part where you make your grand entrance. The coordinator will usually make sure guests are seated before the emcee alerts them to your imminent arrival. Generally, both sets of parents and the wedding party are introduced, followed by the announcement of you both for the first time as husband and wife. In many cases, your newlywed first dance will begin as you step out onto the floor and into the spotlight after being announced. Alternately, you can wait until after the first course of the meal is served, but since everyone is already cheering you as you enter the reception, use the applause as encouragement enough to skim away any shyness and step on out.

01:20 | Cheers & Toasts

Following your first dance, you might want to take the opportunity—while all eyes are still on you, since hopefully no one yet has had too much to drink—to thank everyone en masse for taking part in your wedding. A family member, often a parent of the bride, will say a blessing (depending on the families' faiths). Then, since toasting signifies a transition in the course of an event, the mother and father of the bride will thank guests for attending and invite everyone to enjoy the celebratory meal. Keep in mind that the toasts given by the best man and the maid of honor should occur between courses, to spread out all the high-emotion, much-anticipated moments and keep guests in their seats.

01:30 | Mangia, Mangia

Time to dig into the main course. If you're having a seated meal, the band or DJ will play subdued, conversation-friendly background music as the waitstaff makes the rounds. If you're having a buffet, your coordinator, DJ, or bandleader will dictate how the rotation will work by calling each table when it's time to head to the front of the line. Just remember: You need to do everything possible to take their seats and eat!

02:45 | Party Time

Monkey-see, monkey-do is how this game is played. Guests are going to follow your lead. Once dinner dishes are cleared, you should be the first ones on the dance floor so people know it's time to start partying. Throughout the dancing, the music will stop for any extracurricular activities you've planned (also known as the bouquet toss, the garter toss and whatever else you've dreamed up). If you do choose to toss the bouquet, make sure to get a tossing bouquet from the florist so you can keep your original one as a memento.

04:00 | Cake Cutting

About one hour before the conclusion of the reception, when the party starts getting a little rowdy, your waitstaff should start preparing tables for coffee and dessert. Since the cake cutting generally signals guests that it's okay to leave soon thereafter, don't do it too early or things could start wrapping up before you're ready.

04:15 | Shake a Leg

Once the cake is cut, the band or DJ should jump right back in to more music for those wanting to trade in their slices for another turn on the dance floor.

04:45 | Last Dance

End your wedding on a high note and choose a dance song that will leave a lasting impression. You'll want everyone to have a chance for one last twirl, so select something fast and festive.

05:00 | Final Farewell

Now it's time to say goodbye. Your coordinator will usher everyone into the foyer or onto the steps outdoors so that as you make your grand exit from the reception, friends and family can blow bubbles, light sparklers, or toss rose petals—and cheer to your successful celebration and future together.