Who Stands on What Side of the Altar? An Expert Guide
A wedding ceremony may look effortless, but it's actually a pretty carefully choreographed dance, from the processional to the recessional and everything in between. One of the most important parts of the wedding ceremony is figuring out who stands on which side of the altar. When it comes to what side of the ceremony space a bride stands on, and what side a groom stands on (and in effect, where their respective families will sit), there are certain traditions, but it's really up to a couple and their officiant to decide. And in fact, for many cultures, there really is no "right" answer and couples can stand wherever they'd like.
"The truth is that what we think of as traditional is often through the lens of a heterosexual Christian wedding," says Laura Cannon of Ceremony Officiants in Ellicott City, Maryland. "Every religion and culture has different traditions, and most of them don't even have 'sides'. That division seems to be primarily characteristic of Christian ceremonies taking place in a church."
We'll go through the answer to the "who stands on what side at the ceremony" question for religions and cultures where there are traditions. But keep in mind that it's your day and you can personalize your ceremony however you like—including deciding where to stand.
In this article:
The Traditions Behind Who Stands on What Side of the Altar
Certain religions and cultures have designated "sides", which we'll outline below, but in many situations you can pick your own. If you're having a religious ceremony, check with your officiant and make sure that changing your positions at the altar won't go against the beliefs of your house of worship.
Christian Wedding Ceremony
From the guests' POV, it's customary for the bride to stand on the left side in a Christian wedding ceremony, and the groom on the right—and in turn, the couple's families will sit on their respective sides. This tradition dates back many centuries, and you might not love the reasons.
"This tradition has roots in ancient European customs," says Jordan Yuppa of Here to Hitch Wedding Officiants in Nutley, New Jersey. "In medieval times, the groom would often keep his sword arm free to protect his bride from any potential attackers or hostile suitors who might try to steal her away during the ceremony."
While that origin story might feel a little icky, there may be more romantic reasons to the "bride on the left, groom on the right" tradition.
"The groom traditionally stood with the bride to his left because that's the side his heart is on," says Cannon.
Jewish Wedding Ceremony
At Jewish weddings, the positions of bride and groom in the wedding ceremony are reversed from the Christian tradition, with the bride on the right and the groom on the left while they stand under the chuppah. In turn, the bride's parents will stand on the right side of the chuppah with her, and the groom's parents on the left. This tradition may stem from a biblical verse, which reads "at thy right hand doth stand the queen."
Hindu Wedding Ceremony
During a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, the bride actually switches sides during different rituals, moving from the groom's right side to his left once the marriage is official. The reason for this? The left side is closest to the groom's heart (aww!).
Military Wedding Ceremony
At military weddings where one of the marriers is carrying a sword or saber, the other person may opt to stand on the opposite side of the sharp blade (typically the right). Makes sense!
LGBTQ+ Wedding Ceremony
"I've done many ceremonies for LGBTQ+ couples, and the only rule is that there are no rules," says Cannon, who has been performing weddings for 20 years. "There are no specific sides for the couple or the guests, but there are often a number of considerations that need to be worked through when we plan where people are going to stand or be seated. This is one of the many reasons why hiring an experienced professional officiant is so helpful—we are able to work with each couple to make sure their ceremony is a reflection of their values and their relationship, and also make sure that it 'works' logistically."
How to Decide Who Stands on What Side of the Altar
If you have flexibility in choosing what side you'll stand on, there are several factors that may come into play:
The Sun's Positioning
The sun can make or break your wedding day. Sure, sunny skies mean you can host your ceremony outdoors, but getting the sun in your eyes can ruin the experience. As your wedding day approaches, visit your ceremony site at the time of your event to determine where the sun will be positioned. Your venue coordinator and planner can also be helpful here.
Your Wedding-Day Style
Let your wedding-day look be your guide when determining sides. For example, if your dress has ruffles down one side that you'd like your guests to see, make sure you're standing so it's visible. And if you must stand on a specific side due to religious or cultural traditions, make sure your hair stylist is aware so your face will be visible from that side.
Your wedding photographer also has an important role to play here. There may be certain angles or sides that will look best in photos, so be sure to ask your photographer if they have any ideas or preferences in terms of where you'll stand.
Your Parents' View
While it may be traditional for a couple's parents to sit on the same side of the aisle as their child is standing, there are certain benefits to switching it up. "I often encourage my couples to switch where their parents are seated to the 'opposite' side of the aisle from where they are standing, so they can see their own child's face during the ceremony," says Cannon. "It's a small change, but then the parents get a much better experience."
Does It Really Matter Who Stands Where?
In a word, no. You and your future spouse can stand on whichever side of the altar you want and, in turn, your loved ones can sit wherever they want (hello, "pick a seat, not a side"). "Unless the couple really values conforming to tradition or are getting married in a religious ceremony with specific rules, I don't personally think it matters anymore," says Cannon. "It's more important to make sure that everything works logistically depending on the space and what is happening during the ceremony. No matter where people stand or sit, the couple will be married at the end of the ceremony!"