Dear ESB: Can we split the guest list?

Categories   Wedding Advice

Yay! It’s ESB again. She’s so on it with her advice-giving, don’t you think?

Dear ESB,

My fiance and I are getting married in April. We’ve been wanting to have a smaller ceremony (in the park, before the party) with just immediate family and closest friends. I loved this idea but can’t help thinking that if we’re asking people to travel (to NY from all over) they sort of deserve to see us do The Thing. He would still really prefer just family, but I feel like we’d be cheating our extended family and friends. What do you think? Would you travel cross-country for a (fun, not-stuffy, casually-sophisticated) party? We’re making the guest list now (we just decided on the date so full speed ahead) and it looks like 130ish. This does seem like a lot to squeeze under a tree, but we could hold the ceremony at our reception place if need be. I want him to be happy and feel comfortable but also want to honor our guests.

What do you think?


If you asked me to fly across the country to attend your wedding reception but didn’t invite me to the ceremony, I’d probably skip it. I’d assume I didn’t make the people-who-are-really-important-to-you cut, so why should I shell out for plane fare?

The Thing is what the wedding’s all about. Yes, everyone deserves to see you do it. Yes, extended family and friends will feel cheated if they’re not included. But more importantly: It will be meaningful for you to have them there as witnesses.

And then the whole reception will be infused with this incredible joy that you all share. It won’t just be people drinking champagne and saying, “Congratulations! How was the ceremony?”

(Photo by Josh Goleman)

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Raphaelle on Nov 11, 2010

Hi, I can give you the advice of a French girl ! In France, most of the wedding take place in the city hall for administration and in the church. Everybody is invited to the church but sometimes only the closest relatives go to the city hall... That may be the solution : 2 ceremonies to have the one you whish and the one that everybody will enjoy ! :)

hk on Nov 11, 2010

what she said. also, squeeze them under the tree.

Jen on Nov 11, 2010

If you want an intimate ceremony, you're not going to be happy with 130 people. Tell everyone you're eloping, or just having an immediate- family ceremony. I'd come to a reception- only thing if I knew that almost no one was at the ceremony.

Annie on Nov 11, 2010

I don't entirely agree. Two good friends got married a few years ago and they had a private ceremony (just them, their families, and the best man/maid of honor). Their reception wasn't huge either--probably fifty or so--but it was still a lot of fun and we were all glad to see them. Plus, not having to go to the ceremony meant all of us out-of-towners spent the day having fun in DC and catching up with other friends.

Emily on Nov 11, 2010

I completely agree with Josh. I think it's wack to have a wedding ceremony and not invite the same people that you are inviting to the reception. Either have a really small ceremony and reception, or invite everyone to both events.

April on Nov 11, 2010

I got married in September of this year and did what you are proposing to do. We both wanted a very intimate ceremony then a larger reception. We did had several guests fly to attend our reception. We did a few things which seemed to help the situation. 1. We had two invitations, one for the ceremony and one for the reception, the guests knew from the beginning what to expect. 2. We got together with several of the out of people who traveled, and spent a little time together. 3. We had an awesome photographer who was able to put together a slide show of photos from the ceremony and had that playing for the guests to watch. They were able to see moments from our ceremony. There were a couple people (from the area) who made comments on our choice before our wedding day, but understood that this was our day, and should not be compromised by others pressuring us to have a huge wedding ceremony.

Kirsty on Nov 11, 2010

It's pretty common in the UK (among people I know, anyway) to invite a more "select" group to the ceremony and meal, and then have additional evening guests. Some people think this is totally fine. But I have to say, having been an evening guest, it's a bit rubbish. You don't feel all that included in the day and sometimes you don't even really get a chance to speak to the bride and groom, not to mention just generally feeling like a B list friend. So we just invited everyone to our wedding for the whole day (140 people - eek!) and it was the BEST decision ever. It gave us so much more opportunity to spend time with people who we hadn't seen in a long time who had travelled to the wedding, and nobody felt like they had to rush through the meal or the speeches because ogmygodtheeveningguestsarearrivinginfiveminutesandihaven'tevenhadmypuddingyet... So basically, what ESB said. As always.

melissa on Nov 11, 2010

I totally agree. My main bugbear are weddings where you're just invited to the party, but not the ceremony or dinner. To me this just says "We like you enough to want your gift, but not enough to pay for your meal." And that's just awful.

Lindsay on Nov 11, 2010

I got married over the summer and we had a private (immediate family only) ceremony and a reception with around 140 people. We had a videographer tape the ceremony and do a same-day edit so we could show the ceremony to all of our guests after dinner at the reception. Everyone loved seeing the ceremony and at least they didn't feel completely left out of that part of the celebration.

RuffRuby on Nov 11, 2010

A close high-school friend decided to split her guest list, with only very immediate family at the ceremony. It was their day, and I am very happy they had the day of their dreams. But you'll have to understand if people choose not to attend if you do this. My opinion is that her marriage was very important to me, but having dinner with a room full of people that I had never really met was not. In the end I chose to go, but it was bittersweet.

Tonia on Nov 11, 2010

I agree with ESB 100%. I would feel bad if I was expected to buy a plane ticket, a hotel room, and a gift for you but was only invited to the party and not the actual wedding. The ceremony is an intimate experience no matter how many guests are there. By inviting someone to attend it, you're asking them to witness your committment and to stand by the two of you throughout your marriage. It's an honor to be invited to a wedding, which is why people take it seriously enough to spend lots of money and time making sure they can be there for you. Don't cheapen that. And trust me, when you're up there saying your vows, there will only be two people in the world: you and your husband.

Tonia on Nov 11, 2010

P.S. I should add that when my husband and I were planning our wedding, we also THOUGHT we wanted a small wedding. But instead, we invited everyone {about 200 guests} for the entire wedding weekend to hang out, help decorate, etc. and WE'RE SO GLAD WE DID! We had time to visit with each of our guests and make memories together. It was AMAZING to look around and see ALLLLL these people we love so much. Don't miss out on getting to share this important event with all your family and's probably the only time in your life they'll all gather in one place!!

Naurnie on Nov 11, 2010

Oh, hello! I'm a long time reader of the ESB. However, I got married in April + we did THIS EXACT THING. Small, family only ceremony... reception immediately following w/ 150 people. It worked out JUST fine for us. (There was, however, a family debate about this very thing. But we weren't willing to give up our tiny ceremony... and it worked out JUST fine). We had people fly in from all over the country, and no one seemed offended or upset by it at ALL. We sent out our invites to the reception stating that we were having a private ceremony. We included an enclosure card to the family members who were invited to the ceremony. And I would say a good percentage of folks traveled. So it can work. And it will be fantastic!

Naurnie on Nov 11, 2010

Oh, and we had a LOT of events for our out of town guests to attend. We had a party the night before the wedding at our favorite honky-tonk, we had a bloody mary bar the morning of the wedding, etc. I think people felt included.

celia on Nov 11, 2010

here's the thing. you could probably get away with this if all or most of your guests were local. however, if you're asking many of them to travel, you kind of have to give them the whole shebang. i know 130 people seems like A LOT, but i bet if you looked at a group of a 130 people, you'd be surprised at how NOT a lot it really is. also, take into consideration that not all 130 people will be able to come. that, right there, will considerably shrink your guest list. we also had almost all of our guests travel for our wedding. we invited exactly 150, and ended up with 113 all day.

nicole b. on Nov 11, 2010

Similar to @Naurnie. We had a small private ceremony and reception (30 guests) in the afternoon then an after-party that night to which we invited our larger group of friends/family (100 guests) to our favorite dive bar for pizza and beer and live music. We sent out invitations to the 30 guests (with a little enclosure that invited them to the after-party). We sent out postcards to the 100 guests of the after-party. Some feelings got hurt (most likely), and YES some out-of-state friends didn't make the trip for the after-party, but we wouldn't have changed a thing! We stayed true to ourselves and what we really wanted for that day. We also kept it real when it came to what we could AFFORD to do. And we LOVED our wedding day - from beginning to end. Good luck! xoxo.

Lizzie [Ten Thou Bride] on Nov 11, 2010

Great advice, as usual, ESB.

Jess on Nov 11, 2010

I'm from California and have a small family, he's from Chicago and has a huge Irish Italian Catholic family, and we live in Chicago. So we're having a "destination ceremony" in California and inviting only immediate family and our best men (my best friend is a guy) for a total of about 20 people. Then the next week we are holding a large "wedding reception" in Chicago and inviting 150 people. A couple people were a little confused by our nontraditional wedding schedule but in my opinion it's the best way for both sides to participate without extensive travel costs.

Ashley on Nov 11, 2010

I think you should just do close friends and family for the WHOLE DAY. Small and intimate is better in my opinion. Limit it to like 40- do it at the park with only those people.

jamie on Nov 11, 2010

if you are worried about it being a problem maybe it needs to be two events. small private ceremony asap, then send out invites for a big reception to celebrate your wedding?

dday on Nov 11, 2010

I just went to a wedding this past weekend where they did basically this. They had the ceremony at city hall in DC (same sex marriage), with just their immediate family and best men and maybe a few others, and then had the big 100-ish person shebang in Baltimore the next night. I didn't think anything of it, but maybe it was because of the same-sex factor, they could not have held the legal ceremony in Baltimore, and the venue for the reception was special to them. They had best man speeches, their sisters made speeches, and the grooms made speeches to each other, we all had a blast and felt included even though we couldn't be at the ceremony. I think if you do it right, if you maybe add a few extra things to the reception, or if you do as others have suggested and have other events so people get to see more of you, it can work. You just definitely have to communicate to the big-party-only guests that they are not going to witness the ceremony. And then, yeah, you might have some people decide not to travel for it, and you just have to accept that. Having said all that - for myself, having everyone at both the ceremony and reception was really special for us, and I think it had a big impact on how much love was in the room for the reception. But it was never a priority for us to have a super-intimate ceremony, you need to figure out what's best for you guys.

Emma on Nov 11, 2010

We are getting married in February, and are doing almost the exact opposite of this. We are having a small reception of about 42 people (and the venue only takes 47, so that curbs the temptation to keep adding people) and we have invited our closest friends and family to that. However we are pretty much saying to everyone we know that we would love them to come to the ceremony to see us get married. The ceremony is at a church, and I think completely separate venues helps, and we are planning to do the cake cutting and afternoon tea there to make it special for those that attend. We feel that this works well for colleagues and more casual aquaintances, and are making it known that we are keeping the reception small

Olivia Leigh on Nov 11, 2010

A couple of my clients this year elected to do "private vows" as part of their "first look" (this all before the ceremony obviously). It was just them, and me, and while not in a formal ceremony setup, they said personal and private vows to each other that were incredibly emotional and touching, and retained the intimate feel that I think the couples hoped to have. This allowed for almost three parts of the day -- a private "ceremony" between them with more personal vows and touches, the formality ceremony for guests and family to partake in and witness, as well as the reception. I think it has really worked so nicely for the couples that I have seen do it (and it always yields very emotional images in often much better-lit locations!).

Becca on Nov 11, 2010

My best friend did this... and I was hurt. I understood entirely, but it really hurt to not be a part of her immediate family-only ceremony. And they were very strict about immediate family only - no exceptions for best friends since age 5 - because one exception meant that the non-exceptions felt even *more* B-List-ish. But disappointment aside, it was right for them as very private people. Also, they decided to have two parties, to mostly eliminate the "pay $800 to travel for a reception?!" issue: one on West Coast, where her family is and one on the East Coast, where they live/his family is. Everyone was invited to both receptions, and people decided which to attend based on location. They also had photos at both receptions and did a lot of mingling to try and spend time with everyone. Still, as much as I love her and I'm happy they got the wedding they wanted, attending the reception was entirely underwhelming. I'm generally a "get wrapped up in the wedding joy" person but this felt like a cocktail party. Despite their evident joy, I didn't feel like I was sharing in it or celebrating it. I felt like I was watching it. Just my two cents, from a guest perspective. They did it as well as they could have, under the circumstances and for them it was amazing.

Steph on Nov 11, 2010

Why don’t you have two different days? The ceremony on one day, with a small group of close family and friends, then another day, do the party. You guys can invite people to the “wedding bash” and no one will be offended waiting around all day to go to the party. They would totally understand it that way, rather than saying come out, but only hang out with us for half the day. That may be weird.

Brigitta Ryan {duo} on Nov 11, 2010

I would feel a bit left out. That said I also felt left out once when I found out I was invited to the ceremony only - thats right no reception invitation AND it included gift registry info too. The whole thing is the event. People want to be a part of it because they love you and like you. Let them be included.

Lindel on Nov 11, 2010

We split our guest list this way too. Family for ceremony and lunch, then friends for huge after party. It worked really well for us, but the only people who were flying in were close family so they came to everything. We also verbally made it known that people were welcome to attend the ceremony too. Some of our closest friends did that then went out for their own celebratory lunch (any excuse to get together) before joining us after.

Mel on Nov 11, 2010

We just got married in the UK and a lot of my family and friends came from Australia. We put those who had come that far onto the ceremony list first and then fit in as many more as we could from the England side. We figured if they've come that far then we couldn't possibly leave them out of the 'thing'. They made a huge gesture for us, we wanted to make it right back at them.

lmb on Nov 12, 2010

When my partner and I got engaged, we wanted an elopement. I was VERY uncomfortable with the idea of having a whole bunch of people watching such an intimate moment. Because my mother cried for three days at the thought of not attending our wedding, we decided to just go for it and have the ceremony open to all the guests. In the end, I didn't feel uncomfortable at all. I didn't even really notice the guests... I was only really paying attention to my partner and the wedding party - the people at the front. The scenarios I imagined of me feeling awkward and self-conscious at my wedding were totally non-issues. I wish I had known that ahead of time and saved myself some fretting.

Kamilah on Nov 12, 2010

I was just married in October (in NYC). Like your husband-to-be, I wanted to have the ceremony be intimate because, let's face it: this is kind of a private commitment you are making. I thought I would feel weird promising all of these things in front of all those people (68). So a few days before the public wedding, we had a civil ceremony at city hall--quick, cheap and easy. It was nice, but I have to say, it went by so fast, I wasn't even sure what had happened or what I had committed to! We were crying and happy and then we went to work. Four days later, we had a public ceremony (which was no less meaningful, in fact in may have been more so b/c our nearest and dearest were there to share it with and it lasted more than one minute). It is an amazing feeling to walk into a room/garden full of your loved ones and have them there to witness your exchange of marriage vows. I can't describe it, but the love. the can feel it and it's overwhelming. There was not a dry eye in the place!

Louise on Nov 14, 2010

My sister and husband had a small interlude after their official vows where they asked to be excused for a moment, moved away to a private part of the garden and made their private vows. They just played a piece of music during this part and invited us all to talk amongst ourselves. This gave them the private moments they wanted to keep just for themselves but didn't leave anyone feeling left out.

Style Maniac on Nov 16, 2010

Just met ESB and have a feeling we're going to be friends ... great response. Honestly, where do people come up with these ideas? If you want a small wedding, have a small wedding. If you want a large one, have a large one. Trying to make "everyone" happy by subdividing who goes where to what on your wedding day seems like a recipe for disaster and bad feelings all 'round. Not really what you want for your joyous day.

Kim on Nov 16, 2010

I feel like the people who say they went ahead and split the guest list and it "went fine and no one was upset" are blissfully ignorant, haha. I am quite confident that people indeed were hurt or annoyed, but just didn't share it with you. It's your wedding, so of course you can do what you want in the end, but you'd have to be comfortable with the fact that there is no way people won't be hurt by not being included in the most magical part of the day. If you just can't handle sharing that part with your friends, then maybe you should stick to having a small wedding and leave it be! I attended a wedding last summer where we weren't invited to the ceremony and it just did not feel complete and was a bummer. The party was still fun, but it definitely paled in comparison to other weddings I have been to when you are able to share the whole experience.

Heidy on Nov 19, 2010

We had our wedding ceremony at a church at 12:30 and our receptions started at 5:30. We invited everyone to both, and I would say only half (if that) came to the ceremony. Our Reception however was packed! I think in these cases, it just works itself out :) - Best Wishes!!!

kimberly m on Nov 23, 2010

but my question is what happens when you have people you DON"T want to include at all but due to family obligation you have to invite them? I really don't care to have them see the "thing". This is my idea... only people we truly want at the ceremony (like 12 people) and then a party after for all the other folks... keep the extended family somewhat happy instead of being disowned. Really, I'd be happier if they did not come at all. it is our day after all right?

Kristy on Nov 24, 2010

We really want to do an immediate family only ceremony next November. We are both very shy, quiet people. We've been planning an 11:30am private ceremony and a 1pm luncheon reception for all. But now everyone's comments are making me feel very guilty. Hmph. I can't imagine standing in front of the half of his family that are complete strangers to me, plus the out-of-state half of my family that I hardly know, having this very private moment with all eyes on both of us...*shudder* And I'm the extrovert between the two of us! A wonderful lunch with all the people who care about us....that, I can handle.

Lauren on Nov 27, 2010

Your wedding day is about YOU AND YOUR FIANCÉ. Your guests should be honored to have been invited to any part of your special day, because there may be some people who weren't invited to anything, and it costs a lot to host a party for 150 guests. If they don't see making the trip as worth it just for a reception, then they probably aren't a good friend. I don't think it's rude to have an intimate reception and invite more family and friends to the reception... I think it's rude to not attend the reception just because you think the bride should have dished out enough cash to host a larger ceremony or comprised her dream day for your comfort. The wedding industry is so ridiculous, putting all these crazy ideas in brides heads and forcing "what is expected" upon unique individuals. Makes me sick.

Kristy on Jan 16, 2011

I really, really appreciate your sentiments, Lauren.

Lisa on May 11, 2011

I totally agree with ESB. They're your family, why wouldn't you want to include them all in all parts of the celebration? Lauren, I have to kindly disagree with your comment. It sounds very self-centered and 'bridezillaish'.

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Jamie on Jan 3, 2012

To Lauren, thank you for your input. Your comment made me feel a lot better about my situation. My fiance has a very small family, and I have a huge family. He isn't too keen on a huge wedding ceremony, but is perfectly fine with everyone attending the reception after. On top of the issue of the size of the ceremony, we have to fund a large majority of the wedding. Since our ceremony is on an island, we have to pay per person to have them attend. I am so stressed as to not hurt anyone's feelings, especially my fiance. A small wedding is important to him, and so is being able to afford everything. So, thank you for reassuring me it is okay to have two separate guest lists.

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