How to make this casual gathering of those closest to you a memorable evening -- plus tips for the actual rehearsal.

The decisions have all been made, and your loved ones are arriving in town. It's the eve of your wedding and time to relax before the excitement of the day dawns. The rehearsal dinner is a wonderful opportunity to savor this special moment with good friends and family in an intimate setting. Depending on the guest list and budget, and the wishes of the hosts, the event can be anything from a formal banquet to a casual outdoor picnic.

When to Have It

The rehearsal dinner is typically held the night before the wedding, directly after the ceremony run-through. Despite its name, however, it can be a lunch, or even a brunch, if you like; and its pace is often informal and leisurely. But if it is a dinner, keep in mind that the party should end somewhat early, to give everyone a chance to get plenty of rest before the big day.

Who Hosts It

Traditionally, the groom's parents are the hosts of the rehearsal dinner, since the bride's family customarily pays for the wedding. But given the more relaxed standards of modern times, other relatives, close friends, or even the couple themselves can plan and pay for the event. Whoever throws the party should definitely confer with the bride and groom to avoid any conflict with the theme, menu, or decorations of the wedding.

Whom to Invite

Only those who will actually take part in the rehearsal -- the bride and groom, their parents, the officiant, the wedding party (including any child attendants), and readers -- plus their spouses or dates, need to be invited to the rehearsal itself and the festivities that follow. But the guest list for the dinner may be longer. You might want to include other family members (such as grandparents) and close friends, for example. And many couples invite their out-of-town guests as well, making the dinner into a welcoming party. Written invitations are not required, but still it's a good idea to send them if more than just family will be attending; and the host should mail them right after the wedding invitations go out. The invitations are not as formal as those for a wedding but can reflect its tone.

What's the Right Tone?

The style of the rehearsal dinner can complement the wedding, but it should not copy or overshadow it. Some couples opt for a complete contrast. For their rehearsal dinner, Catherine and Jay Madrak, who were married in Portland, Connecticut, in July 2001, had a casual picnic in the backyard of Jay's parents' home, even though their wedding itself was quite formal. "My six nieces and nephews were all part of the wedding party," says Catherine. "We thought it would be more fun for them if they had an open lawn where they would have room to run around."

Many rehearsal dinners are held at restaurants -- perhaps a favorite date spot or someplace with a style of cuisine that has special meaning to the bride and groom. If Italy is the honeymoon destination, for example, an Italian restaurant would be fitting. A place that showcases local flavor, such as Kansas City barbecue, Chicago deep-dish pizza, or Maine lobster, is a good way to introduce guests to the area.

What Happens

Because it's typically the first time the bride and groom see most of their close friends and family together, the rehearsal dinner can feel like a reunion. For a more formal dinner, or one with a larger guest list, it helps to have a seating chart so people aren't at a loss about where to go when it's time for the meal to be served. Furthermore, some members of the two families may be meeting for the first time, and relatives may not be acquainted with everyone in the wedding party. Encourage conversation by seating these people together (if you're sure they'll be comfortable), or simply make a point of introducing them personally sometime during the evening.

Toasts are often a big part of the evening, and unlike those at the wedding reception, where the order may be well planned, rehearsal dinner toasts tend to be spontaneous. In this intimate and casual setting, guests will often feel comfortable sharing their memories of the couple and wishing them well. If the groom's parents are hosting, his father might begin by welcoming all the guests and offering a toast to the bride and groom. The father of the bride can stand next, followed by the attendants and any other guests who want to speak.

During the toasts, the bride and groom have a chance to say a few words of thanks to all of the people taking part in the wedding. This is also the traditional time for them to present gifts to the members of the wedding party (and perhaps the parents) to thank them for their support.

Finally, the event is a fitting occasion to remember the past as you look to the future. Displaying photo albums or framed pictures of the bride and groom is a charming way to do this. Elizabeth Fleming and James Worrell, whose May 2000 rehearsal dinner was held at the Sedgeley Club's boathouse on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, set up slide projectors and showed photos of themselves at the same age through the years. "It was so much fun to watch," says Elizabeth, "even the requisite awkward teenage photos."

The Rehearsal Itself

The wedding rehearsal is a practice of the ceremony from beginning to end, allowing everybody involved to feel more confident about what will happen the next day. Anyone who plays a role in the ceremony should attend. This includes the officiant, the wedding party, readers, and parents. Walk through the ceremony, establishing the pace and timing, in the order each element will occur, and make sure all of the participants know their responsibilities. Bring the unity candle or anything else you will want to have in place for the following day. It's also smart to have some programs and copies of any readings on hand for people to follow along.


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