Don't Plan Your Rehearsal Dinner Without Reading This First
What It Is
The rehearsal dinner is traditionally held the night before the wedding, often on a Friday, and usually starts at about 7 p.m. This leaves time for attendants to get there from work. For a Sunday or holiday wedding, you have more options. Since the rehearsal dinner has become more of a celebration in its own right than just a formality, some couples choose to hold the event two nights before the wedding. This way, there's more time to relax, recuperate and get ready for the main event. If most attendants won't be arriving until late on the eve of your wedding, a breakfast celebration the morning of the wedding can be a fabulous alternative. And, of course, skipping the rehearsal meal altogether is perfectly acceptable (sometimes there's just no way to fit it all in).
What It's For
The rehearsal dinner is a great opportunity for your two families to spend time together before the wedding day in a not-so-hectic setting. Take advantage of the relaxed environment, full of happy anticipation—come wedding night, you'll most likely be pulled in too many directions to put in quality time with anyone. The ultimate goal is to relieve some prewedding tension and make everyone feel comfortable with the upcoming nuptials, while not upstaging the main event.
Traditionally, the groom's family organizes and pays for this fete, but you two can definitely take matters into your own hands—or both sets of parents may choose to share responsibility. While you as the honored couple may have input on the overall direction, if your future in-laws host, you should hand over the title of creative directors to them as much as you can. On the other hand, if you're hosting, you get to make the decisions. So you'll want to give yourselves enough time to scout venues in order to book one four to six months in advance.
Whom to Invite
At the very least, the rehearsal dinner guest list includes your immediate families , wedding party members and their spouses or significant others, and the parents of any child attendants (inviting the children themselves is up to you). You should also invite the officiant and his or her spouse to the dinner—they may not come, but it's a polite and generous gesture to offer.
What It Looks Like
The great news? You can opt for an event that's formal (banquet or garden party) or casual (outdoor picnic or barbecue). If your wedding is the climax of the weekend, don't let your rehearsal dinner overshadow it—this get-together should be the sneak peek. Since the rehearsal dinner is often more informal than the wedding reception, the food and atmosphere can reflect that. Ultimately, the setting of the rehearsal dinner depends on the budget, how many guests there'll be and what kind of party the host envisions.
Where to Have It
A sit-down dinner at a hotel ballroom or fine restaurant are often go-tos, but there's no reason to feel limited to that. Couples are hosting their rehearsal dinners anywhere from backyards to art galleries and even on the beach. And feel free to use the term "dinner" loosely—cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, a buffet and a barbecue are all great options. Be sure to specify on your invites so guests know what to expect and how to dress.
Who Else to Consider
Turn the dinner into a fabulous welcome party. If you have family or friends that traveled far to be at your wedding, extend the invitation to them as a thank-you for their extra effort. If you're throwing a destination wedding or a party where at least half of the guests are from out of town, show your appreciation by inviting everyone to some kind of night-before festivity. If you're working with a limited budget, stick to a more exclusive group for the rehearsal dinner and consider having an informal welcome cocktail or dessert party for out-of-towners later in the evening.
How to Invite
If your rehearsal dinner will be a fancy affair with lots of out-of-town guests, you should send formal invitations. You'll also want people to RSVP so you have a head count for the caterer. If, on the other hand, your rehearsal dinner will be fairly low-key or small (think: a party at a restaurant or an intimate gathering at your future in-laws' home) then you don't need to be as "official" with your invitations. You can send e-vites, use DIY invites or personally call to ask people to join you. Just make sure it's clear to your guests where they need to be and when.
When to Send Invites
If you're sending out invitations, get them out with or shortly after your wedding invitations. This will help everyone keep their schedules straight, book their travel plans and ensure timely RSVPs. Give far-flung attendants the basic plans way in advance so they can book flights with the proper arrival time.
A few elements are generally incorporated into the festivities—here's what to expect:
Meet and Greet
The rehearsal dinner is your chance to welcome everyone. Walk around and catch up with loved ones and meet more of your in-laws throughout the evening, because the wedding night is often a bit of a blur.
You may hand out the bridal party gifts at this occasion, but do it subtly. No matter what, take a moment to stand and thank your bridal party for their support. Parent gifts can also be presented at the rehearsal dinner (but we prefer a more private time, if you can find it, just in case it gets emotional). The gift exchange can be a nice last moment for you to connect with them before the festivities. Some brides and grooms also use the occasion to present each other with special wedding gifts or surprises.
Traditionally, once dessert comes to a close, the toasts begin. As host of the party, the groom's father (sometimes along with the groom's mother) typically goes first, toasting his soon-to-be daughter-in-law and her family. Next up: The groom also toasts his new wife, the guests and the hosts, but there's no reason both of you can't stand up to thank everyone together.
While everyone is still seated and you have their attention, it's also your chance to slip in a few last-minute refreshers about the next day. Before calling it a night, double-check that everyone in the wedding party knows exactly where to go the next day, what they're supposed to bring, and when and where they're expected to arrive to get ready. If you have a broader audience, remind guests about any activities for them the next day, as well as pickup times and locations for transportation to and from the ceremony.