Receiving Lines 101

The receiving line has gotten a lot of bad press over the past couple of decades. Many consider it outdated or impossibly stuffy. Alas, many of these same people consider doing the money dance and claim they ‘have to’ because it’s the only way to make sure they see all of their guests. Never mind that I can absolutely guarantee they won’t get a chance to see me that way…and I am far from alone.

In fact, the receiving line has fallen so far out of favor that when the mother of regular reader and all-around awesome lady Fabrisse took on the job of wedding coordinator at her church recently, the outgoing coordinator had never even heard of receiving lines! He had no clue what Fabrisse’s mother was talking about.

As resident etiquette mavin (and as someone who had a lovely and really quite enjoyable receiving line at her own wedding), I feel it falls upon me to discuss the whys and wherefores as well as the hows of this time-honored tradition.

So what is this receiving line all about, anyway? Why is it held? How is it done? And what about that cocktail I want to be drinking while it’s going on??? Read on, my dears, and learn.

The reason for holding a receiving line is simple: it’s an absolute guarantee that every guest who has taken time out of his/her busy life to celebrate with you gets the opportunity to offer their congratulations and good wishes, and to be recognized as a participant in the day’s events. Unless you’re having less than fifty people at your wedding (at which point even Dame Etiquette agrees it’s time to ditch the receiving line as a bit of a waste of time and a complete over-snobbification of the event), it’s easy to miss talking to somebody at the reception. At this point, a lot of people feel as though you wanted them there for ‘the honor of their presents’ rather than ‘the honor of their presence.’ If you make absolutely certain that you take the time to greet Great Auntie Agatha, she won’t be cutting you out of her will for being a mannerless twit…and if you have a formal way of greeting all your guests, you won’t accidentally miss that moment you wanted with your college roommate who flew all the way across the country to be with you for one day.

In these days of sweetheart tables, couples retiring to another room to have dinner, and pairs who can’t bear to be parted for one dance, it’s more – not less – important to create a space in which to make your guests feel valued.

So why not simply circulate during dinner instead of lining everyone up? Because while circulating to all the tables sounds like a much more relaxed and charming version of the same idea (and it does have a real charm, I’ll admit), there are a couple of factors that make it less practical. It makes it entirely too easy for the bride and groom to miss their entire wedding meal whilst flitting from table to table. And it makes it too easy to miss people. If you’re having a buffet and someone is in line for food when you get to their table, or even if someone has gotten up to avail themselves of the restroom facilities or check in with the babysitter, you could well be off to the next table by the time they get back. If you have a receiving line, it’s up to each guest to participate or not. They won’t simply get lost in other activities going on at the same time. Besides, you paid a lot of money for that dinner. You really should get the chance to eat some of it.

Circulating the tables can also actually take more time. If there’s a line of people waiting, folks are apt to say something nice and move on fairly quickly. If you’ve come to their table, they’ll expect a chance to chat a bit. Try to save the more random chatting until you’ve at least said hello to everyone there.

So now that you know why it’s a good idea to have a receiving line, how do you go about doing it? It’s really quite simple.

The receiving line is held at the reception. This is particularly important to note if you’re having your ceremony in a church. After all, the church is God’s house, and He’s the host…not you. Leave greetings at the church proper to the priest, minister, or other duly appointed representative of the deity involved. Once you get to the ballroom, church hall, garden, clubhouse, or other reception site, that’s when you want to receive your guests.

If your wedding and reception are being held in the same site, it’s very simple to just line up those involved and start the guests through the line. In fact, when Mr. Twistie and I were married, the site had a little amphitheater on a hillside for the ceremony and a picnic area at the bottom of a short path down the hill. As we left the ceremony, Mr. Twistie and I led the wedding party and guests down the hill, those in the wedding party who were not in the receiving line peeled off to start the party, and the guests just flowed into a line. It was as simple as could be. And since we had less than a hundred guests, it didn’t take terribly long for them to get through the line and on to the food.

Of course, our site had the perfect set up for painless receiving line organization and we’d had all our formal photos taken before the ceremony(yes, even the ones with both of us, a plan I highly recommend to anyone open to the idea). Most people are going to have to plan around travel time and photo shoots and an announcement that the bridal party has arrived.

That announcement is the perfect time to set up your receiving line. As the bridal party is introduced, those not in the line should go and start circulating among the guests. Those who are in the line (we’ll get to who’s who in a moment) should line up in order and wait for guests to start coming over. That way there are representatives of the happy couple already seeing to the comfort and entertainment of your friends and family while you’re doing the formal meet and greet.

So who should stay in the receiving line? Well, obviously the bride and groom. After all, those are the people everyone is there to see. It’s traditional to have the bride’s parents as the hosts of the event, as well as the groom’s parents. The MOH and Best Man and the bridesmaids are optional. Nobody ever includes the groomsmen, and frankly I’m inclined to let the bridesmaids off the hook. In our case, we let the Best Man out as well, since he had a severe knee injury that made standing for that long extremely painful. As for order, the guests should start with the bridesmaids/honor attendants, then the groom’s parents, the happy couple, and finally the bride’s parents.

While I’m very much in favor of receiving lines, I’m also in favor of keeping them to the bare minimum number of people. The more bridesmaids guests have to greet, the longer you’re not a part of your own party. It’s not that big a deal if you’re greeting eighty or a hundred people and have two bridesmaids, but it really adds up if you’ve got a couple hundred guests and seven bridesmaids. Send one of those bridesmaids or groomsmen to get some bubbly for everyone in the receiving line, then have them interact with guests who have already been through the line.

And what should you say to these people? Well, chances are they’ll start the ball rolling with something like ‘congratulations’ or ‘that was a lovely ceremony’ or ‘so you finally took the plunge.’ All you need to do is respond with something like ‘thank you for coming’ or ‘it’s wonderful to see you’ and a handshake. Then you introduce that person (if an introduction is needed) to the next person in the line. Once in a while you’ll probably hug or kiss someone you’re particularly close to. Just remember to keep the line moving. None of you wants to stand there for hours.

A proper receiving line can do wonders for making your guests feel welcomed and appreciated. It’s a gracious act of hospitality. Really, it’s a great way to start married life.

7 Responses to “Receiving Lines 101”

  1. Amy says:

    We’re going to be doing an alternative receiving line. Because we are inviting several elderly guests that won’t be able to make it to our reception site (and standing for several minutes in a receiving line would be impossible for them), we will be releasing guests from the ceremony.

    The way this works: Immediately after the wedding party exists, the bride and groom return into the chapel (I am assuming church weddings) and greet everyone in a row of chairs (starting with the parents of the bride and alternating sides of the church, moving toward the back)before those guests exit down the center aisle. (Parents and other persons of interest stand in the foyer, just outside the chapel.)

    This way, everyone at the ceremony gets to see us long enough to distribute congratulations, and only one row has to stand at a time. This works best for under 200 guests, and only if you have music or some other form of background going on at the time.

  2. rabrab says:

    I’ve been to quite a few weddings where the receiving line was held on the church steps after the ceremony. It always went quite smoothly, and had the advantage of including those people who for whatever reason (usually health- or age-related) were not going to the reception.

  3. Julie says:

    Yeah, I’d have to disagree on the “no receiving line at the church” thing. Every church wedding I’ve ever been to either does the “dismissing rows” as Amy said or has the line in the foyer of the church. I think the line forms much more naturally there than at the reception site, since people have to line up to get out of the building anyway. Our coordinator at the church actually suggested it as the best way to get guests to leave and do their mingling at the reception site instead of the church so that we can start pictures in the church as soon as possible.

  4. Twistie says:

    Folks, just because it’s common doesn’t make it correct. No matter how often it’s done, the fact is that you are not the host at a church, so your receiving line should not happen until you reach a place where you can be the host. Miss Manners entirely backs me up on this point.

  5. Julie says:

    I guess my real point is that in my group of family and friends, it would be more awkward and strange for us to have the line at the reception. And if it feels more comfortable for me, my fiance, all of our guests, and the officials at the house of worship, then the etiquette doesn’t really matter. Isn’t the point of manners to show consideration and respect for the people around you?

    And I don’t think God will be offended by our decision to greet people outside the doors to His church.

  6. Margaret says:

    I think these things vary from place to place as well. In Ireland, the closest thing you get to a receiving line is at the church, which makes the whole thing very straightforward.

  7. JaneC says:

    We hadn’t planned on greeting our guests as they exited the church, but it just sort of happened that way. We intended to go quickly around the back of the church to wait for the photographer, but our parents came out and had to hug us right away, and then guests started trickling out, and they figured that since we were still standing by the doors of the church being hugged by our parents and grandparents, this must be the time for everyone to greet the happy couple. Oh, well. We did our dances out of order too, but no one seemed to notice or mind, and it was still a heck of a good party.