Here are some of the biggest differences about English weddings that I learned in the process of planning our transatlantic wedding:
1. The Meal
Wedding breakfast = the wedding meal. I’ve heard it’s called breakfast because it’s the first meal the married couple has together after their ceremony. Before I was enlightened, I kept reading venue brochures and wondering what time in the morning couples would be getting married to have an English breakfast reception.
2. The Rehearsal Dinner
There’s no such thing as rehearsal dinner in the UK. At least I figured it out before the wedding. A former American colleague of mine married a Brit in the States and was hurt her husband’s family never offered to host a rehearsal dinner. She felt relieved when she learned her in-laws weren’t snubbing her; they probably didn’t even realize it was a tradition. In fact, the wedding rehearsal itself isn’t much of a big deal either. Our priest teased us about the fact that we wanted to have one at all. He told us, “Oh you Americans think rehearsals are so important.”
3. The Reception Venue
An American wedding planner in London had warned me English wedding venues are steeped in traditions and can be very resistant to change. Sort of understandable when you realize a venue has been around for hundreds of years, I suppose. I admired the English commitment to traditions until I had a few wild and crazy American ideas for our wedding – such as a dessert buffet. Sounds fairly simple, right? A table with a variety of amazing English puddings Americans would never get back home – rhubarb crumble, sticky toffee pudding etc. — but the venue wouldn’t have it. They didn’t want the desserts sitting out and potentially getting cold.
It took dozens of emails and phone calls to work out this simple idea and it still didn’t really happen the way we discussed, but c’est la vie. When you get married in a country house built in the 1500s, it doesn’t really pay to be that crazy American bride trying to mess with tradition. When you just step back and let them do their thing, it’s really lovely. Although they refused to let us photograph all our guests with our rented Routemaster bus in front of the hotel (too undignified!), the manager did surprise us by meeting our car at the hotel entrance with a silver tray holding two glasses of champagne to toast us after the ceremony.
4. The Wedding Party
To generalize, the wedding industry in the UK is smaller and less blown out than in the US, which I found refreshing (although it is catching up for better or for worse.) Weddings are more toned down and less of a big to-do (unless you’re Kate Middleton of course.) In turn, bridal parties are generally smaller in the UK. Whereas it’s not uncommon for bridal parties in the States to hit double digits (Hello Texas!), in the UK, the bride and groom usually have a couple of friends each in the bridal party.
5. The Titles of the Wedding Party
Groomsmen is an American term. In the UK, they are called ushers and they serve the duties of groomsmen as well as seating the guests and passing out programs. I didn’t realize this until our rehearsal and had asked two girlfriends to be our ushers (American-style ushers who pass out programs and seat guests.) This greatly confused our priest who had just learned the term groomsman that night and began referring to my girlfriends as “groomsgirls” and “lady ushers.”
6. The Procession
Traditionally in the UK, the bride enters first followed by her bridesmaids to carry the train of her dress, but the UK is slowly adopting the American procession where the bride makes her big entrance last.
7. The Reception
In the UK, it’s common to have the ceremony, the wedding breakfast and then a break before the evening portion of the night. And it’s totally acceptable to invite only your closest family and friends to the wedding breakfast and then invite a larger group to the evening portion of the night. It’s certainly a budget-friendly concept and I’m impressed if you could pull this off without hurting guests’ feelings. (We didn’t attempt it and had everyone invited to all portions of the night.)
8. The Open Bar
And once your guests arrive at the reception, they don’t even necessarily expect to have an open bar. I suppose because it’s England where an open bar bill could topple any wedding budget, it’s not unheard of to have a cash bar after the dinner. We elected to have an open bar and because it’s uncommon to do so, we were charged by the drink and not a flat fee by the hour like many venues in the US. We originally joked we’d have an open bar for the Americans and a cash bar for the English so everyone should bring their passports.
9. The Speeches
Traditionally only the bride’s father, best man and groom give speeches in the UK. The speeches themselves in true English fashion are much less sentimental and more teasing – especially the best man’s speech which is a roast. It can get quite raucous and embarrassing for the groom. The groom’s speech concludes with giving presents to the bride’s family to thank them for hosting the wedding, which I thought was a nice touch.
In the end, our wedding did feel like the perfect American/English hybrid and the cross-cultural differences that popped up during the process felt symbolic of all the little bumps and surprises we’ve encountered in our own cross-cultural relationship and our subsequent move to the UK.
And my family and friends were right, they did look fantastic in their big English hats.
Valerie Denny worked in New York as a web editor for NBC and Hearst in New York before making the leap to London. She now writes travel, health and lifestyle pieces for various publications and works as a digital editorial consultant. You can read more of her work at valeriedenny.com.