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Ceremony Etiquette 101

Let's face it: for some, attending a wedding ceremony can be a source of anxiety. It is a solemn occasion, requiring one's best behavior. If you're attending a ceremony with religious or cultural practices that are unfamiliar to you, it can be even more intimidating. Fear not, dear wedding guest: we've got the essentials of wedding ceremony etiquette, so you can play your part with aplomb.

Be on time!

Although few weddings ceremonies begin at the exact hour indicated on the invitation, that's no reason for you to show up late.

If you arrive after the appointed hour, approach carefully. If the ceremony is beginning, the processional may be underway, and you don't want to be strolling down the aisle at the same time as the wedding party. If the processional is underway, wait in an area outside and/or out of the way until the processional has been completed. Ideally, there will be someone to direct you when you may enter and take a seat. Use a side aisle if possible, rather than the center aisle. Exercise discretion: you may prefer to be up front, but this time, you should sit in the back to avoid drawing attention away from the ceremony underway. Enter and seat yourself as quickly and quietly as you can.

If you arrive after the ceremony is underway and can't find an open door: tough luck! Don't you dare knock! You may feel badly that you're missing the ceremony, but don't make matters worse by interrupting the proceedings.

Don't be a shutterbug

As much as you might wish to capture a snapshot of the couple exchanging their vows, they may find your camera's flash to be a nuisance. Even if they have a professional photographer snapping away, refrain from photographing the couple during the ceremony.

Religious rites and practices

If you are attending a religious ceremony, especially of a faith or denomination other than your own, you may be nervous about the various religious rites that might be included in the ceremony and how you might be expected or not expected to participate. Here are some pointers:

  • Be respectful. If there is a rite or practice that you don't choose to participate in, be discreet in your non-participation. This is not the event for making a political statement.
  • Don't be afraid to (quietly) ask questions. If there is something you don't understand, if you don't know what to do, look for a friendly face who seems to understand what's going on and ask for assistance or an explanation.
  • Go with the crowd. Watch what others are doing and do you best to follow along or blend in.

With regard to the practices of specific faiths and denominations:

Roman Catholic weddings:

A wedding in a Roman Catholic church might include the Sacrament of Holy Communion. In the Catholic church, receiving Communion is for any Catholic who has received the sacrament of Eucharist (known as First Holy Communion). Typically, the ushers will indicate, row by row, for guests to come forward to receive communion. Simply remain in your seat if you are not Catholic and will not be participating. (Note: In most other Christian denominations, communion is not included in the wedding ceremony; but if it is, all are usually welcome to participate, regardless of their religious affiliation or status.) Catholics may kneel to pray. You are not required to kneel, and may opt to remain seated during prayer. If the ceremony is a Nuptial Mass, it may include the priest calling for the "Sign Of Peace", during which the guests turn to those near them, shake hands and say "Peace be with you" or some similar greeting.

Jewish weddings:

Jewish men traditionally wear a yarmulke, a skull cap, when in synagogue, for prayer, religious celebrations; in some sects, it is worn daily. Typically, at a Jewish wedding, yarmulkes are set out on a table outside of the synagogue, and all the male guests attending the wedding are expected to wear one, regardless of their faith.

If it is an Orthodox ceremony, the men and the women will be seated in separate areas, so if you are attending with someone of the opposite sex, expect to be seated separately during the ceremony.

Mormon weddings:

There are two primary types of Mormon weddings: the temple ceremony, and the chapel ceremony. Little is known to the general public about temple ceremonies; they take place only in Mormon Temples, and only members of the Mormon faith in highest standing may attend. The ceremony is considered very sacred and is not discussed with outsiders. If you are not a Mormon in the highest standing, you will not be invited to the temple ceremony. If a Mormon couple has a temple ceremony, the guests are usually invited only to the reception. Occasionally, couples choose to have a chapel ceremony and "seal" their marriage at a later point with a temple ceremony.

Hindu weddings:

Hindu weddings in North America are typically much shorter than those in India, where they can last several days. Hindu weddings in North America do typically last a few hours, so plan accordingly.

Muslim weddings:

In Muslim tradition, the wedding ceremony and the public celebration of that ceremony are separate events. A Muslim wedding is actually a brief affair that lasts only minutes and usually occurs in an office. To some, it might seem more like the signing of a legal agreement than our Western conception of a wedding. The party usually occurs a week or two later. If you've been invited to a Muslim wedding, the official ceremony itself will probably have already taken place days before.

Sikh weddings:

Sikh weddings occur in the morning -- the happy time of day -- and typically last about an hour and a half. After the ceremony concludes, the guests greet the newlyweds by adorning them with flowers, throwing petals and placing a hand on their heads. The couple traditionally hold a pink sash that has been placed on them during the ceremony, and guests may put token gifts of money into the cloth.

Other practices:

In many weddings of Western religions, the congregation stands as the bride enters. Follow the crowd. The bride and groom's families will undoubtedly stand if that is the couple's desire, and the guests can follow suit. Remain standing until the officiant instructs the congregation to be seated. Observe this rule also for any other circumstance during the ceremony where you are called upon to stand. Remain standing until you are instructed to be seated. If you are physically unable to stand, remain seated -- no one will insist you stand.

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