There are as many variations to the wedding ceremony as there are weddings. However, some elements are typical of all or most ceremonies. Of course, not everyone gets married in a church. However, going through what may be expected when it comes to entering and leaving the church, and approaching and withdrawing from the altar will be helpful in thinking about arrangement in other circumstances.
At a traditional wedding, ushers escort guests to their seats, the bride's guests to the left and the groom's to the right. The mother of the bride is the last to be seated, and the wedding ceremony begins when she sits down. At small, informal weddings or ones that take place at home or outdoors, guests form a semicircle.
If no ushers are present, guests seat themselves, leaving the first few rows for the couple's families. There is no need to divide the ranks left and right in this case.
In a formal wedding, the bride walks down the aisle on the arm of the man giving her away, usually her father.
The bridesmaids lead the processional, followed by the maid or matron of honor, the flower girl or ring bearer, and the bride, in that order. The bride meets the groom, best man, and officiant at the altar. Generally, these three enter from a side door at the front.
After seating the guests, the ushers take their places in the processional, either walking down the aisle in pairs or accompanying the bridesmaids. After the ceremony, the ushers join the recessional, again walking in pairs or as escorts for the bridesmaids.
In many weddings, the officiant asks, “Who gives this bride in marriage?” and the father says, “I do,” or “Her mother and I do.” However, if the bride objects to such sexist language, she may leave her father at the end of the aisle and walk the last few steps to the altar on her own. Or, sometimes, the bride and groom walk up the aisle together holding hands, particularly if they have been together for some time.
Traditionally, the bride takes the groom's right arm and walks away from the altar, followed by the flower girl and the maid of honor on the arm of the best man. If both a maid of honor and matron of honor are in attendance, one will be accompanied by an usher. (The matron of honor outranks the maid of honor in the wedding party hierarchy.) Next come the bridesmaids, usually accompanied by ushers. If not, they precede the ushers, walking single file from the altar.
At a small wedding with no recessional, the wedding ends with the groom kissing the bride. The officiant congratulates the couple, and then the immediate family does so. At this point an informal receiving line usually forms and guests give their good wishes to the couple.
The Receiving Line
This receiving line can form in the church vestibule or at the start of the reception. The receiving line always includes the bride and groom, the two mothers, and the matron or maid of honor. If there are both, the maid of honor can choose to be part of the line or not, since the matron of honor outranks her. Fathers and bridesmaids are optional.
Guests going through the receiving line shake hands with its members, wishing the couple every happiness, congratulating the groom, and telling the bride she is beautiful. Don't tarry for a chat. Give your name, state your relationship with the couple (if necessary), say what a wonderful wedding it was, and move along. Never go through a receiving line with a drink in your hand.