I became engaged at Easter, and, as I’ve started planning our wedding with my fiancé, I’ve noticed a suspicious lacuna in the wedding how-to's I’ve picked up. I would have thought, after one magazine’s handbook covered strategies for getting your pet turtle to join your wedding procession (they won’t walk down the aisle quickly enough, so you must tow its tank in a tulle-swathed wagon), that there was nothing the wedding-industrial complex was going to leave undiscussed.
Except the wedding night.
It’s not that the books and magazines and websites draw a modest veil over the occasion or that their remit stops when the ceremony ends (there are plenty of discussions of honeymoon planning). As I read through The Knot Book of Wedding Lists, it was clear that the wedding night wasn’t simply being ignored but actively treated as an afterthought.
The book encouraged readers to remember that the festival spirit of a wedding wasn’t limited to the ceremony and reception.
There’s not just the one (huge) celebration to think about—kick off your engagement with a cocktail party; throw a rehearsal dinner to remember; extend the wedding-night celebrations with an after-party; and send your guests off with a post-wedding brunch.
It’s those last two that cause the problem. The book recommends planning (and planning to attend) a second party after the reception winds down, telling spouses-to-be: “An after-party is more than just an extension of your wedding day—it’s a great way to show off more of your wedding style with surprising details and personal touches.”
How late will that party go? Well, the planning guide notes that it’s up to you, but that most venues will close by two or three in the morning. “A good rule of thumb is two to four hours, depending on the time your reception ends.”
After that, the newlyweds go home, get into bed, and, just before they pass out from exhaustion, they set the alarm for the recommended farewell brunch, now just a couple hours away.
It can’t be that the book’s authors didn’t notice that they’d squeezed the wedding night down to nothing (this is a book that reminds you that if you’re only booking one hairstylist for you and your bridesmaids, someone will need to volunteer for the early morning slot).
It’s simply that this is a plan that assumes there will be nothing particularly special about the first night that a couple spends together. It’s a to-do list for engaged couples who have already been sexually intimate before marriage and don’t need to reserve any time or energy for consummation. In all the hustle and bustle of a wedding weekend, there’s no time for non-essentials, and one more night together doesn’t manage to make the schedule.
But the editors of The Knot and the brides and grooms that listen to them aren’t simply not choosing the wedding night, they’re neglecting it in favor of something that does deserve a little more respect than processional turtles. The reason they recommend a wedding brunch (when many run-ragged spouses might prefer to sleep in) is that it’s a “chance to thank your guests and spend a bit more time with loved ones who’ve travelled far to partake in the celebration.”
If the bride and groom have already lived as man and wife, then it may be their friends that seem to offer the rarest, most urgent opportunity to give and receive love. It might be the one time this year you see the friend who moved out to California, or the very busy former roommate whose job keeps her traveling, or the cousin with a lot of small children who isn’t making a lot of trips until the youngest can fly. So why not pack in all the time with your guests that you can, since the bridegroom you will always have with you, but everyone else will be gone by Monday?
This is a kinder sort of error than the conventional forms of wedding excess. It is rooted in a love for others and a desire to make as great a self-gift as is possible. But it’s still a form of profligacy. Party after party robs the newlyweds of the chance to give themselves to each other.
Far better, even for a couple who has been sexually active before marriage, to set aside their night as their own, and to recognize that, as much as they love their friends, that they are no longer only their own, their time not only their own to spend.
Instead of recommending wedding schedules that erase the bride and groom’s obligation to (and delight in) each other, the Knot and other wedding guides might do well to carve more time out of the reception for the couple to spend together. They could borrow the tradition of the Yichud Room from Jewish weddings. After they are wed, a Jewish bride and groom head into a separate, locked room for a private interlude. It may be brief (eight minutes is the minimum required) but it allows them to not be hosts, but simply to be two people, a little awed by what they’ve offered to each other.
Leah Libresco is a blogger for Patheos and works as a statistician in Washington, DC. Her first, recently published book is called Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.