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A Traditional Wedding Reception Timeline

Find out what's supposed to happen—and when—during your reception.
Traditional wedding reception
Garrett Nudd Photography
allison micarelli the knot wedding planning expert
by Allison Micarelli
allison micarelli the knot wedding planning expert
Allison Micarelli
Wedding Planning Expert
  • Allison Micarelli-Sokoloff most recently worked as an Early Literacy Projects Manager for Reach Out and Read of Greater New York.
  • Allison is a media editor and project manager specializing in weddings, lifestyle, and parenting.
  • Allison worked as a Managing Editor for The Knot.
Updated Feb 08, 2021

Want your wedding reception to be both memorable and stress free, but don't know the first thing about throwing a good party? The crucial thing to hosting a fabulous wedding celebration is knowing what's supposed to happen when. Here's a handy wedding reception 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.

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' Grand Entrance

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  a married couple. This is not only one of the most special parts of your day as you are officially introduced as newlyweds, but adhering to this timeframe on your wedding reception timeline is especially important as it will help set the pace for the events that follow. 

01:10 | First Dance

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. Need some song inspiration? Don't miss our list of our favorite first dance songs!

Also, during this portion of the reception timeline, some couples like to switch partners and invite their parents on the dance floor for their parent dances, and others prefer to do so after dinner to help encourage guests out on the dance floor. 

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!

02:30 | Parent Dances 

If you didn't already take a spin on the dance floor with your parents, after dinner is the prime time to squeeze it into your wedding reception schedule. This special dance number will draw everyone's attention to the dance floor, and there's a good chance there won't be a dry eye in the room! Check out our suggestions for some of the best father daughter dance numbers and mother son dance tunes.   Once you and your partner have taken turns dancing with your respective partners, invite your guests to join you on the dance floor. You can time this portion of your wedding reception timeline just right to get everyone grooving post dinner seamlessly.  

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, and you have had your partner dances, you should stay 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 in your wedding reception schedule.  

03:30 | Bouquet and Garter Toss 

Once everyone has had sufficient time to let loose on the dance floor, the bouquet and garter toss can be the next events in your reception timeline if you choose to do them. These activities are steeped in tradition. Keep in mind that they aren't mandatory. You can always skip them if they don't suit the style of your reception. 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 and be sure to choose the perfect bouquet toss song.  

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 Don't just cut the music when it's time for everyone to leave. Schedule a last dance into your wedding reception timeline to signal to guests it's time to go home (or head to the after party!). 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. 

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