I’ve officiated a few surprise weddings over the years and I’ve seen many different reactions to the news and event itself. Some guests have reacted with joy. Some show no reaction at all. For others, it can be downright upsetting (having felt left out of the loop or for other reasons) or too shocking, leaving them no time to absorb the news and enjoy the moment. While a Humanist wedding ceremony is fundamentally about a couple, weddings and other life cycle events are also about the coming together of families and communities — and not everyone likes a surprise! So, if there is one major piece of information I have come away with and would share with couples thinking about it, it’s this: Know your politics beforehand and act accordingly. Here are some tips to ensure a smoother surprise wedding:
1) Consider your guests and your relationship with your guests. Will there be some guests who will be upset, feel left out, feel overwhelmed? Try to understand their position. This is a huge, transformational event! If you think this might be an issue, particularly for certain family members, consider sharing your secret with some of them out of courtesy and consideration. I have seen big cheers and I have seen jaws drop (though that is not always a bad sign). You don’t want them spending the whole ceremony trying to just absorb the information.
2) Plan for how you will respond (or have the officiant respond) if someone reacts badly either physically or verbally to the news. There are stories out there of this happening and it’s best to be prepared. Chances are you will never have to carry out your response plan but having one will alleviate some anxiety. For one wedding, I spoke with the couple at length about possible scenarios. We agreed that we would take the “go slow” approach and allow for extra time if the couple needed to take time to tend to guests after the big announcement on the front end of the ceremony.
3) Consider having the officiant tee up the event to warm up guests. At one surprise wedding at a restaurant, I introduced myself by name to the small wedding party (who thought they were there for a celebratory dinner for a couple planning to elope). I told them the couple was running behind but that they had a very special surprise for them. I then warmed them up further by calling up the only family member in on the secret to read a love poem dedicated to the couple. Then I returned and said that the couple had had a change of plans and wanted to be here with all of them for this special event. The room still went into a shocked silence until one family member timidly started clapping after I made the announcement. While the couple warned me their families were more reserved, the others then followed. It’s fair to say the family did recover though there were some confused faces during the actual ceremony. Another couple, who told their closest friends and family members, posted their announcement on a big sign as guests entered the venue. Guests had a good 30 minutes or more to get used to the idea and chat about it. In this case the couple had told guests it was an engagement party so a wedding wasn’t too much of a stretch.
3) Consider what you DO tell guests when you invite them. It is after all a wedding and you don’t want guest feeling like they are under-dressed (if the venue calls for dressing up) or have the liberty of arriving whenever they want. Best to tell guests to arrive at least 15 – 30 minutes ahead of the ceremony (that goes for any wedding). This applies especially to those notorious for arriving late to events. Best to also tell them they are invited to a “special event”. This is a cue that they need to be dressed in something other than casual jeans or gym wear!
While these considerations may seem stressful to think about, they will actually offer some protection against the kind of stress that can come with a surprise wedding. Take care of your politics and ensure a smoother ride on your surprise wedding day.