Planning Our Wedding

March 14th, 2014

Every so often people will ask me how we did our wedding or for advice on how they might plan theirs. After five years (as of today!) I suspect I'll start forgetting details, and so figured writing this down would be useful.

We're being married in the manner of Friends (Quakers). This means the wedding format will be similar to a Friends Meeting for Worship, and so very different from the typical form of an American wedding. The structure is quite minimal; there are no clergy, bridesmaids, or other similar special figures, just the group of us sitting together in silence.

Out of the silence, we will rise and exchange vows, then sign our wedding certificate. Since our branch of Friends has no clergy, there is no one person to marry us; our vows in your presence are sufficient. At this point, all are invited to share messages with the gathered meeting as they feel led. After the silence, everyone will sign the wedding certificate. At this point the wedding part ends and the reception begins.
   —Text read at the beginning of our wedding.

We started planning in earnest about seven months before the wedding, early August for a mid March date. The question of money came up pretty early on; while it seems kind of vulgar to talk about finances in this context, especially when you're just starting the planning, people can spend huge amounts on weddings and we wanted to avoid that. Practically, if you want to keep control of the costs you need to be keeping it in mind when considering alternatives throughout the process. This was back when we felt very strongly about spending as little money as possible [1], but of course we still wanted to plan something that would be fun, memorable, and special for everyone. Many sites will say things like "the best way to save money on your wedding is to control the number of guests" but I'd much rather figure out how do something simple for more people than leave people out.

Coming from a Quaker background, however, this was actually pretty natural. Our families were both happy to help out with setup and other practical logistics of the event; without their help this would have been much harder. It was also helpful that our friends and family were mostly looking forward to an event where they would get to talk, dance, and sing with each other, all pleasures that don't need much in the way of funding. In many ways keeping the event simple let us focus on what we really wanted.

We decided early on a basic format: the night before we would have a party at home with singing, music, dancing, and games. The next afternoon we would have a Quaker wedding service, a potluck dinner, and dancing. We asked various dance organizers we knew about halls, and one of them recommended Holliston Town Hall, 45 minutes west of our house. We went out to visit the hall and liked it a lot. It had tall ceilings, big windows, and a nice floor. It also included enough tables and chairs for the number of guests we had planned, which meant we didn't need to rent those separately. [2] One recommendation we heard for looking at halls was to avoid mentioning that we were planning a wedding, if possible, so as to not get charged more, but in this case they just had a fixed rate and it wasn't a problem. [3]

We also needed to find a band, caller, and person to run sound. We had worked at a dance and music camp the previous summer, cooking and washing dishes, and some of our crewmates had a band which we liked, so they were a clear choice. The dance organize who had suggested the hall to us was also a sound engineer, and we asked if they would run sound for us. For finding callers we knew various ones socially or by reputation and I remember asking a few until I found one who was free. [4] It was good that we ended up with someone who had done many weddings before because they could look at our plans for timing at let us know whether they were realistic. It's probably helpful to have at least one person who can give feedback on timing, though it doesn't have to be the caller.

With the hall and entertainment confirmed we were ok for the big things that needed advance planning but there were very many smaller things like invitations, cake, and decorations. We mostly did these ourselves, with help:

Julia bought some nice textured green paper and some cream printer-compatible paper, and printed the text of the invitations on the cream paper. With a papercutter she cut these down to size, then glued them together and painted leaves on the bottom of each invitation. Talking to her now she says this was too much work and she wouldn't do them like this again. Instead she recommends taking the approach my sister did and getting nice paper and printing the invitation text directly onto that. We also included a small printed card with a url for a small website that gave more detail on what the wedding would be like. I can't find the url looking now, but my guess is the site is no longer up anyway.
We planned to do a mixture of potluck and food we prepared. The idea was kind of to backstop the variety of the potluck with a larger quantity of something relatively simple to make. We chose lasagna for this, and Julia handled putting them together. We bought six large disposable aluminum pans, probably the 14.5"x10.5" size, and assembled them the afternoon before. We baked them at the hall so they would be warm, but only four could bake at a time. Two baked from 3-4pm before the wedding, and then four went in for the duration of the service, 4-5pm. While we set up tables for dinner we heated the first two up again some before putting them out. This required someone to be on lasagna duty to change things over at the right times, but it didn't mean missing any of the service.

We only wanted to ask people to bring food if they lived close by and it wouldn't be a hassle. This turned out to be somewhat tricky to communicate to people visiting from out of town, a few of which felt back for not bringing anything even though we told them they didn't need to.

We decided to make our wedding cake ourselves, as two-layer 9-inch chocolate cakes. We tried a few different recipes and picked out one we liked. Then over a few weeks we made about forty individual layers, wrapped them in plastic wrap, and froze them. Cake tends to freeze pretty well. We served them with whipped cream and berries [5], as well as raspberry jam between the layers. Twenty cakes was way too many for the ~105 people we had by something like ten cakes, partly because some people brought dessert to the potluck so there were lots of options, and partly because five people per cake was just a large overestimate of people's appetite for cake.
Wedding Certificate
At Quaker weddings it's traditional to have a wedding certificate that everyone signs as witness to the marriage. Julia made ours herself, with ink and paint. She learned calligraphy to do this, and if that wasn't something she was already interested in doing then it would have made more sense to hire someone else.
We didn't want to use disposable dishes, but renting dishes is pretty expensive. We looked on Craigslist and found another couple selling a set of dishes they had bought for their wedding, complete with napkins and cups. This didn't include silverware, so we bought some new online, a relatively light set that is made for commercial use. We've since used these dishes for various other events, including the wedding of a cousin in 2011, and they're used regularly by our Quaker meeting at the monthly potlucks.

For dessert there wasn't going to be time to wash everything before we needed it a second time, so we also borrowed a smaller set of dishes from the church next door.

Julia got a dress she liked as a hand-me-down from an older friend who was cleaning out her closet. She bought shoes for herself and a vest for me at the thrift store. Everything else we wore we already had.
This one we didn't do ourselves. We wanted to have someone taking pictures who had a nice camera and knew what they were doing. I had gone to college with Miles, and asked him if he would do the photography.
We didn't register anywhere, but we did pick a charity and ask people to donate if they wished. Many of them did.
The hall had a nice simple aesthetic the way it was, so most of our decorating went into the tables people ate at. We borrowed a large number of tablecloths and vases from our Quaker meeting, and planned to force paperwhite bulbs to be ready in time for the wedding. Unfortunately the timing didn't work out with the bulbs and they hadn't bloomed yet, but my grandfather brought daffodils from his house in Tennessee instead.

There was going to be enough to do the day of that we made up a list of what had to happen when, and enlisted family members to handle pieces of it:

To Do Start Finish Category Delegated to
Bring wedding certificate 1:00 1:45 early people to Holliston
Bring extra serving utensils 1:00 1:45 early people to Holliston
Bring cups, napkins, plates, forks, knives 1:00 1:45 early people to Holliston
Sweep floor and stage 2:15 2:40 setup 1 Stewart
Set up chairs in concentric circles 2:30 3:45 setup 1 Ricci
Put Quaker wedding descriptions on each chair 2:30 3:45 setup 1 Ricci
Set up special small table with certificate in front of where Julia and Jeff will sit (center ring facing door) 2:30 3:45 setup 1 Ricci
Set up round tables around the edge of the hall with tablecloth, flowers, forks and knives, glasses, napkins, full water pitcher. As many as will fit without getting in the way of the chairs 2:30 3:45 setup 1 Suzie
Assist with sound and band 2:30 3:30 band and liaison Danner
Preliminary full sound check 3:00 3:30 band and liaison Danner
See if a table laden with cakes could go through the storage room door without tipping 2:45 3:00 cake Allison
Help Gillian put together layers of cake and whipped cream 3:00 3:30 cake Allison
Store cakes as made 3:00 3:30 cake Allison
Make sure people's dishes and spoons are labeled 3:30 3:58 potluck Anne
Put the food somewhere organized 3:30 3:58 potluck Anne
See that each dish has a serving utensil -- we'll bring extras 3:30 3:58 potluck Anne
Set up tea table with urns, sugarbowl, stirrers, cups, saucers, teapot, teabags, bowl for used teabags 2:30 3:45 coffee and tea Cora
Pour milk into pitcher and put in fridge 2:30 3:45 coffee and tea Cora
Put the coffee in the coffee urn 2:30 3:45 coffee and tea Cora
Fill both urns with water 2:30 3:45 coffee and tea Cora
Plug in tea urn 2:30 3:00 coffee and tea Cora
Unplug tea urn — it's noisy 3:45 3:55 coffee and tea Cora
Sit down for meeting 4:00 4:10 all
Read aloud the paragraph explaining a wedding in the manner of Friends 4:05 4:07 explanation Ricci
Set up tables in middle of room for food 5:00 5:30 setup 2 Stevie
Move pre set tables to more useful locations 5:00 5:30 setup 2 Stevie
Put plates out next to the food 5:00 5:30 setup 2 Stevie
Set food on tables in center of hall 5:15 5:40 potluck Anne
Break silence of grace with farm blessing 'Earth Who Gives' 5:50 5:52 one who says grace Mary
Eat dinner 5:45 7:00 all
Move chairs to sides of hall 7:10 7:25 all
Clear and put away food tables 7:10 7:35 dinner cleanup Alice
Put cups and 6 full water pitchers on a table at side of hall 7:10 7:35 dinner cleanup Alice
Clean all forks to be ready for dessert 7:10 8:15 dinner cleanup Alice
Final sound check 7:25 7:40 band and liaison Danner
Play for dancing 7:40 8:15 band and liaison
Bring out cakes 8:20 8:25 cake Allison
Help slice and plate cake — Julia and Jeff will serve it 8:20 8:30 cake Allison
Eat dessert 8:20 8:50 all
Play for dancing 8:50 11:00 band and liaison
Put chairs and tables away 11:00 12:00 final cleanup Davy and Kathyrn
Wash church dishes 11:00 12:00 final cleanup Alice
Sweep floor and stage 11:30 12:00 Stewart

(This is the list from the day, and while I've fixed a few spelling errors I haven't fixed anything else, like things people did that were left off. One that jumps out is the work Gillian was doing in the kitchen, baking the lasagnas and assembling the cakes.)

We also asked my sister if she would run things the day of, taking this list and making sure everything started and ended when it should. This worked out well, especially because Julia and I were often too mobbed with people who wanted to catch up with us to be able to keep track of what needed doing.

Many of these tasks were much more "organize volunteers to do X" than "do X". For example, we had the wedding ceremony in the same room as first the food and then the dancing, and each time we needed to move a lot of tables and chairs. Lots of people were happy to help out, but needed some direction to know where things should be moved to.

Overall I think this went very well, and people had a good time.

Appendix: Summary of Costs

We keep track of the money we spend pretty thoroughly, and with the wedding we tracked all related spending in a googledoc. Which means I still have the details:

Band $600
Hall $300
Caller $200
Sound $200
Photography $200
Dishes, on CraigsList $170
Silverware, new online $110
Certificate Materials $65
Invitation Materials $63
Misc $40
Total $1948

[1] Since then we've still tried to keep our spending low but have focused more on (a) finding the most effective organizations to donate to and (b) earning more. Once you get your spending down to $X then the absolute most you can use careful spending to increase your donations by is $X, while charities and jobs vary over a wide range of effectiveness and income. Julia has written more about this.

[2] After we decided we liked the hall Julia wrote to them and got an email confirmation that it would be ours. When she called back several days later to confirm details she was told the hall was unavailable. This made for a very tense half hour sorting out priority between us and another event that had also asked for the hall, but it turned out we'd been confirmed first and all was well.

[3] Actually, when we told them we were having a wedding they told us that the hall wasn't suitable and we'd have to find another. After going back and forth a few times it turned out they meant that the hall was dry and we wouldn't be able to have alcohol, and they thought of alcohol as a requirement at weddings. We hadn't been planning on having alcohol, so this turned out not to be a problem.

[4] For finding a caller it's important to find someone who likes to do wedding-style dances and is good at leading them. The skills that make someone an excellent caller at a typical evening dance with experienced dancers have only partial overlap with the skills that work well for an event where most people haven't danced before. Our wedding was a little unusual this way in that a large fraction of the people we invited had done this kind of dancing before, but it was still a much lower fraction than you'd find at BIDA or the Concord Scout House.

[5] We had intended to use raspberries, but we defrosted them badly the day of, such that we got a goopy mess that would have looked weird on the cakes. A friend ran out an bought fresh strawberries instead, which cut into halves on top of the cakes looked much better and less gruesome.

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