Yes, your wedding reception is supposed to be a time to let loose and celebrate with your family and friends. And while yes, you should absolutely relax and enjoy yourself, there's also a wedding reception order of events that you'll want to follow. Keeping to a wedding reception timeline will ensure that your guests have time to eat, drink, dance, and mingle, as well as enjoy special dances and traditions that people expect at a celebration. Your wedding planner or venue coordinator will likely help you draft a reception timeline—make sure you share it with all of your vendors (particularly your caterer and DJ or bandleader), and your VIPs (wedding party and close family members). Here's a suggested wedding reception order of events to help you get started:
How long is a wedding reception?
One quick thing before we move into the timeline—how long should a wedding reception last? Including cocktail hour, a wedding reception typically lasts between four and seven hours. Again, this all depends on your venue contract, as different venues offer different wedding packages that include a certain number of hours, and there may be noise restrictions at your chosen location. Be sure to discuss the timing of your reception with your venue before creating your wedding reception order of events.
Wedding Reception Order of Events
Note that this timeline begins after the ceremony has already taken place.
1. Receiving Line
This tradition may seem a bit outdated to some (particularly during COVID times), but if you're planning on having a receiving line (when guests form a line to greet the newly-married couple one by one), it would take place before the reception, either at the ceremony venue or as guests are entering the reception site.
2. Cocktail Hour
The cocktail hour is a time for guests to enjoy a beverage or two, some hors d'oeuvres, and conversation, but it also serves as a buffer between the wedding ceremony and reception. This is particularly important if your ceremony and reception are taking place at different locations, as it allows some time for your guests to travel between venues (you may want to bump your cocktail hour time up to 90 minutes if the two venues are some distance apart). And, if the ceremony and reception are taking place in the same room, the cocktail hour allows the venue staff time to restage the space. Many newlyweds opt to take their portraits during cocktail hour, but you can also take photos before the ceremony if you're okay doing your "first look" then.
3. Guests Enter the Reception
As cocktail hour comes to a close, the doors to the reception space are opened and guests are encouraged to enter the space and find their tables. Hopefully, your guests will have retrieved their escort cards or looked at a seating chart sign during cocktail hour to make the process quick and seamless.
4. Wedding Party Entrance
While guests are filing into the reception room, the wedding party (bridesmaids, groomsmen, bridesmen, groomsladies, flower girls, and ring bearers) and immediate family members are lining up to make their grand entrance. The DJ or band will play some upbeat music and introduce the couple's parents and wedding party members as the VIPs dance into the reception. They may either form a line around the dance floor to watch the first dance, or take their seats. Note that a wedding party entrance is not mandatory—if desired, you can skip it and go straight to the next step...
5. Newlyweds' Grand Entrance
Guests are asked to stand up and cheer as the newlyweds are introduced and enter the reception to a celebratory tune. The couple may then take their place on the dance floor for the first time as a married couple.
6. First Dance
According to a recent WeddingWire study, 90 percent of couples performed a first dance during their wedding reception, making it the most popular wedding tradition. At some weddings, couples perform their first dance immediately after entering the reception—at others, they'll wait until after dinner. At Jewish weddings, the hora (a lively circle dance) usually takes place after the first dance and before dinner.
7. Welcome Speech
This is a nice opportunity for the newlyweds and/or their parents (the hosts of the event) to briefly thank all of their guests for attending the big day. Any blessings or prayers to be said before the reception meal will also be offered at this time.
8. Reception Meal/Dinner
Time to eat! Whether you're serving your reception meal as a plated dinner, family style, or buffet style, it's best to let guests eat shortly after entering the party. This way, they'll be able to fuel up for dancing—no one wants a group of hangry revelers!
9. Toasts and Speeches
Speeches and toasts are typically given as guests are enjoying the reception meal—they're already sitting down and are more likely to be attentive during this time. Usually, the order of wedding reception speeches goes as follows: The best man goes first, followed by the maid of honor, and parents of either spouse (traditionally, this spot is reserved for the father of the bride, but any parent/host can speak). Each speech should be brief, between one and two minutes, with three minutes being the max. The couple may also give a thank-you speech at this time, or if desired, the shoe game or other fun activity can take place at this point in the wedding reception timeline.
10. Special Dances
After the toasts, the couple and their parents hit the dance floor. Parent dances may include the father-daughter dance and/or the mother-son dance. According to the WeddingWire study, 59 percent of couples include parent dances as part of their wedding reception.
11. Party Time!
The moment all of your guests have been waiting for—time to dance the night away! The DJ or band will create a playlist featuring both upbeat songs and romantic ballads to draw all of your guests to the dance floor.
12. Cake Cutting
After your guests have had a chance to cut loose, the wedding cake will be brought to the dance floor for the cake cutting. The newlyweds will cut the first slice of wedding cake together and feed it to each other. Dancing will then continue as the cake is served to guests.
13. Bouquet and Garter Toss
If you're planning on doing a garter and/or bouquet toss, it will require another break in the dancing. While some couples and their guests enjoy this tradition, others find it a bit gendered and dated. It's up to you whether or not you'd like to include these as part of your wedding day.
14. Last Dance
It's almost time for the reception to come to a close. Your DJ or bandleader will announce the last dance so you and your guests can gather on the dance floor. Whether you choose a slow song or an upbeat tune, this moment's sure to be a memorable one.
15. Grand Exit
Whether you're opting for a sparkler send off or a more low-key goodbye, it's time for you and your new spouse to depart the reception. This is a great photo op, so make sure your photographer has time to set up the perfect shot!
If you're hosting an after-party, it will take place immediately after the reception (obvs). Make sure your guests know when and where the party will be by listing the details on your wedding website and via signage at your reception.