How to decide who to invite to the wedding

In Weddings by Joni

Who makes the wedding guest list?

This title is intentionally ambivalent.

So let me talk about the first meaning.

Who draws up the wedding guest list?

That depends on who the hosts are.

Back in the day, the parents of the bride were the hosts.  They put on a big party to mark the most significant contractual change in their family since the birth of their children.

They wanted to show their extended family, their colleagues and their friends that they were doing well financially so they ‘put on a good show’.  Lucky bride and groom. After all they were probably just starting out in their careers and couldn’t envisage paying for such an event.  Credit cards had yet to be their new best friend.

So the planning went a bit like this:

Bride: We want to invite 30 friends.

Father: Well we’ve got a top number of 100 and there’s 40 close family on our side plus 6 colleagues from work I have to invite.  So if your fiancé has the same you can invite say 8 guests.

Bride: But they’re our friends.

Father: So invite them to your shower/hen do/the dancing afterwards.  This is a family occasion.  And that’s final.

And Dad went to the bank and talked to the manager about getting a loan to cover the costs.

Today the conversation is very different.

Dad may well be retired by the time his daughter gets married.  His chances of getting a loan are slim to non-existant.  His daughter and her fiancé may be earning more money than he has ever earned.  So it seems only right that they pay a substantial amount of the wedding costs.  And he (or she) who pays the piper calls the tune.  So today you and the father of the bride might be the ones negotiating to get guests on the list.  If the couple is hosting the event then the reception is more about a celebration of their love and commitment to plan a life together than about a monumental change in family relationships.

The rule of thirds or a strict percentage?

Anyone helping to pay for the wedding deserves to have a voice in who gets invited.  If everyone is putting in and on good terms then one way families organise this is to work with the rule of thirds.  The couple, the parents of the bride and the parents of the groom each get the right to invite one third of the guests.  The mix will then be very much family.  If the couple want more of a party atmosphere then they may have to get their parents to agree to another method of allotting invitations.

Otherwise everyone can be given a percentage of the total number of guest places to fill depending on the percentage of the costs they have shouldered.  This way may mean that parents have very few invitations to send.  And the reception may have a very different vibe – much more of a party to acknowledge a life-stage than a celebration of two families knitting their futures together.

Who must you invite?

So now let’s look at the second meaning of the title.

Who gets onto the guest list and who does not?

Everyone will need to make compromises.  Everyone will have too many people they feel they need to invite.  Guilt will be rife.  But don’t let that spoil things.

So here are the big compromises that need to be agreed immediately.

  • Children 

Whether to invite them or not very much depends on the atmosphere of the wedding and the reception.  Some couples love to have lots of children racing around well into the evening, having fun and adding a distinctly family vibe to the proceedings.  If the couple already have children this is likely to be the case.  A rural or rustic wedding is often ideal for children too.  No need to fret over things getting knocked over or kids getting bored in a formal dining room.  But inviting children changes the ambience.  And some couples are planning a very grown-up or glamorous affair.

And children add massively to the costs.  Whilst the caterer might be willing to put on special children’s meals even these are expensive.

My daughter is the youngest of her cousins.  They all have several children.  Many of her best friends also have more than one child.  When she did the math, it became clear that she would have to exclude children if she was to come in on budget for the reception.

So be prepared to ask your invitees to come without their youngsters.  Give everyone plenty of time to make preparations.  And be aware that some people might be offended or might not be able to accept the invitation under these conditions.

If your daughter intends to have some children but not others she needs to explain to you exactly how this decision has been reached so that you can in turn let your personal guests know.  It might be that the couple, or one of them, has children and they are inviting a couple of their friends along.  Or one or more of the bridesmaids or flower girls might be chosen from among the daughters of the couple’s friends or relatives.  You will need to explain things beforehand in case guests turn up and feel they have been discriminated against when they see other people’s children at the event.

  • Significant and insignificant others

You have a friend who has often met your daughter, who has a male companion.  They go most places together.  But you don’t have many invitations.  Do you invite just your long-time pal or her friend as well?

You have to decide how significant her other is.  If they are long term partners, he needs to be included.  If not, then not.  Just make sure you explain why to her.  She’ll likely totally understand.  And make sure she has you, or other friends there, so she is not isolated and thinking ‘if only he was here’.

Married and co-habiting couples must be invited as couples.  This will cut into your numbers.  So because of this your friend might not even make the list.  But that’s the etiquette.

  • They invited you, do you have to invite them back?

Another difficult decision.  Will they be offended if you came to their son’s wedding but you don’t invite them to your daughter’s?  Honestly, people know all about the difficulties in drawing up a guest list.  After all they have had to do that themselves not so long ago.  A telephone call with the happy news of the forthcoming nuptials and a regret that the venue cannot accommodate everyone you’d like to have there should do the trick.  Don’t spend too much time worrying.  Treat them to lunch some time and show them the photos then turn the conversation swiftly towards their family and how they are getting on.  Look beyond the event and swap wisdoms about the future.

  • They gushed and sent a present

Work colleagues or your yoga group, they’ve known you for years.  They’ve sympathized with your worries about your daughter, they’ve followed the ups and downs of her romances.  Then one day you announce, yes, it’s happening this time.  She’s engaged to be married.  They fling their arms round you.  They tell you they always knew she’d find the one.  They ask you all about her fiancé.  Then – they ask you what the date of the wedding is.

It seems unfair not to let them celebrate with you.  They’d so love to meet the groom.  They want the full details of the dress, your hat, the venue.  They’ve shown more interest than all your relatives.  And to cap it all they clubbed together and have bought your daughter a beautiful present.

But they are probably parents with married children too.  They know exactly the compromises you are being asked to make over guest numbers.  They might even be embarrassed to be invited. ‘We didn’t buy the present to get you to invite us all.  We just wanted to buy it’.  So get rid of the guilt.  Make sure you have plenty of photos to show them – the dress, the groom, your hat, the venue.  Then let normal life take over again.  You won’t lose friends through this.

  • His family are huge and they see each other all the time

This is where absolute percentages get tricky.  My daughter is an only child.  Her fiancé is one of four.  I live a thousand miles away and her father several thousand miles away.  His parents live round the corner.  And his brothers and their families get together all the time.  In such a situation it would be unfair, I think, to expect to have the same number of guests on each side of the aisle.  Close families should be highlighted at a wedding.  They are what you hope for the couple – that their children will live close by when they’ve grown and keep in close touch.  He may feel cousins are vitally important at his big day.  Your daughter may not.  You can’t apply a percentage to these family values.  Time to put back into the pot some of your invites perhaps so that he can invite more of his family members. 

  • Don’t isolate singles

In terms of numbers, single friends and relatives may be a godsend.  They count as one not two.  But it’s not much fun going to a wedding as a single.  This is an event glorifying togetherness. It can be miserable to be placed between people who all know each other or next to couples who chatter between themselves during an interminable wedding breakfast.   And for guests who are single through death or divorce of a partner, this feeling can be much worse.

There should be no question.  Anyone who might feel isolated should be encouraged to bring a friend – significant or not.

Years ago I was invited to a wedding in Italy.  My husband wasn’t able to be there.  I spent the longest day and night of my life sitting among Italians all from the same village.  I speak Italian but they all spoke in dialect together.  There was a never ending stream of courses over many hours.  I loved the idea of going to the wedding but the reality was not much fun.  Yet I was deeply grateful to the couple inviting me and I’m sure they had had to make compromises with other friends in order to get me on their list.  The moral of my story is – don’t overestimate how much joy you will be bringing into the life of that lonesome guest!

So it’s a single plus one or don’t invite the single at all.

  • Don’t let guilt be your guide

If you are struggling with the idea of not including all your friends and family in the celebrations then there are three ways to go.

First off, you could do what people here in France – or at least in small villages in France – do. Here they have two rather distinct occasions.  There’s the actual marriage which has to take place in front of the Mayor at his headquarters in the local Mairie (Town Hall).  Then there’s the reception, held in the local village hall or a swanky chateau or hotel venue.  There might also be a religious service.  The marriage itself is usually a quiet affair with close family only.  The reception has two parts.  First there’s the Vin d’Honeur – the champagne and nibbles.  This is when everyone toasts the couple and celebrates the legal marriage.  Most of the village will be invited to that.

Later comes the reception proper with a huge meal and many wines then dancing into the night.  This is the getting together of families and the partying.

This is expensive and so the couple have a similar dilemma over who to include.  Obviously you can’t invite relatives who have travelled a long way just to share a glass of champagne, so these tend to get straight on the guest list.  But after that there’s just not the space or the budget to invite everyone.  But nobody minds.  They all love to go to the champagne do so nobody feels hard done by or guilty.

The second solution is to invite family and friends from afar to the main celebrations.  Suggest to colleagues and less close friends that they join the couple for the church service, if there is one. And/or come on to the dancing and drinking after the meal is over.  Give them a time.

Finally, why not invite your yoga group, book club, work colleagues and assorted walking partners to  a party at your home.  Do it after the wedding when you can enthuse about everything, pass round the photos and share a good meal together.  You will finish the evening feeling unburdened of any lingering guilt, your friends will have met new people and you will all feel bonded into a very special set of friends.  Invite the husbands and boyfriends too.  This is your own celebration, within your own community, of the new life your daughter has embarked upon.  You are the host.  You make the decisions. 

The nest may now be finally empty but you know you have people around you for the next stage of your life.