Full confession: I didn’t have a seating chart at my wedding reception. I only had 35 guests, and I let the affinities of the rehearsal cocktail party (in lieu of a dinner) linger. I let people choose with whom they wanted to sit. Was that a bad idea? I have no idea, it’s not as if anyone complains to the bride. There was a lot of mingling away from the table, a lot of movement around the room, so I didn’t worry. From where I sat, everyone had a wonderful time, and the photos of my sister’s husband with the napkin on his head indicated there was enough alcohol. But what if you have 200 people?
We aren’t going to name names, but there are wedding receptions in the past in which you, the infantophobe, were seated next to a couple with tiny triplets. Or the reception in which you, the Rachel Maddow addict were seated next to a Rush Limbaugh freak. So when you dream up your own wedding, the nightmares about the reception rank up there with nightmares about tripping and falling, drunken slights from the in-laws, brawling, the terrible toasts, overflowing clogged toilets or spoiled food. Luckily, there are ways to contain the chaos and set things straight, and it all begins with a good seating chart.
Deep breath. Step one is to take your guest list and group it. Who gets along with whom? What are the obvious conflicts? Does your cousin have a favorite aunt who lives far away? Do you have a sister who might prefer to sit with a group of younger people? Is there a divorced couple who should have separate corners? These are some good places to start. Even if you have general seating, you can control the seating chart a little by being creative — some creative ideas are seating people by eye color, astrological symbol or letters of last names. A general tip is that singles don’t necessarily want to be treated as a special group. There’s no need to treat your reception as speed-dating. Singles can be particularly tetchy around weddings, so you can always ask, “Hey, do you want to sit with Grandma Lizzy, the 6-month-old triplets or my hot college roommate?”
The first people on the chart are you and your future spouse. You’re the stars of the show, and everyone wants to watch you eat and drink. Either elevate you and your husband on a dais, or place yourselves at the center and try to cluster the tables around you, so that no one is shoved into a corner far away. The idea of a “bad table” comes from restaurant headwaiters — everyone at a wedding is special to the bride and groom. But let’s face it, it’s hard to enjoy the cake-cutting from the cheap seats. So make sure everyone has a goodview of you.
Unless you’re going for a multi-course plated meal, it’s perfectly acceptable to seat accordingto table and let the guests arrange themselves. You can use escort cards to assign the guests their table as they come in and arrange the place cards loosely as part of the centerpiece. Hand-lettered cards and pretty holders can be a lovely way to add a personal touch to the tables. If that feels too fiddly, you can create a big seating chart at the entryway. Just make sure it’s more letter press elegant than sticky notes and magic marker. A lot of wedding hosts use chalkboards, which are perfect for a cozy homey wedding or a country wedding.
Arranging the table
How you dress the table sets the tone and carries the theme of the whole wedding, so you’ll want to be thoughtful about the tablescapes.
Low arrangements can set a very intimate tone. We think it’s obvious you won’t want giant, towering centerpieces that cut guests off from each other, but there it is in print in case you need it. A way to create height without blocking guests from eachother is to use delicate blossom branches in clearvases or place small, bunched arrangements in stemware, above the guests’ eye-line.
Freeing yourself from a strict seating chart also frees you from the structure of having place cards at each setting, giving your creativity a real boost. Hand-lettered cards in your wedding’s color scheme can make for a lovely addition to the tablescape. Delicate silver stands, wine corks, small bouquets and small picture frames can be greatways to display your grouping of cards. Other imaginative ideas are a twine clothesline with little clothes pins holding each card, antique luggage tags on a piece of antique ironwork, seashells with the cards leaning against them in a small, tabletop sandbox and small cards tied to the lowest branches of a nearby blooming tree.
Electric candles are less smoky, require less maintenance and are safer than the wax alternative.There are lovely options that create the same ambiance without the need for flame retardant and fire extinguishers. Unlike regular candles, they can be safely nestled deep within bouquets and low centerpieces for a little extra glow at the table. Suspended paper lanterns at each table give off a flattering, soft glow without creating harsh shadows. Their unsightly cables can be another area for decoration, with vines or ribbons to create verticality in your decoration theme.
A little collection of nicely packaged favors can draw your table together, in addition to giving your guests a nice souvenir of your special day. Homemade preserves in little jars, personalized key chains, shot glasses, handmade soap, votive candles and any number of other trinkets can make excellent favors. Favors can be placed at each setting or grouped in the center of the table as part of your centerpiece. If you have time to individualize them, they can add a nice personal touch.
Your Table, Your Wedding
Sometimes wedding consultants come up with “musts” that they insist you follow. Know that whatever elements you choose in putting together your wedding table, no matter who is seated with whom, it’s always your decision. Don’t go with the towering rose sculpture or the dripping personalized ice sculptures at each placesetting just because your consultant wants to put it in a portfolio. Keep your touch personal, and you can’t go wrong. And as for those fighting relatives at Table 8? Remember in the words of Anonymous, “I always seat people next to each other who despise one another. Makes for a more interesting evening.”