Bride and groom sharing a kiss in the stunning Holy Name Cathedral with a grand organ and vaulted ceilings, during their Blackstone Hotel wedding, planned by Chicago wedding planner Savoir Fête.

How to Choose A Wedding Ceremony Time

“So have you set a date time?”

About five seconds after you get engaged, well-intentioned people will start to ask, “What time of year are you thinking of?’ “Have you chosen a date?” “When’s the wedding?” Setting a date is one of the most important steps in planning, as you’ll need to lock this in before you can start to put any other plans together. Careful consideration of seasons, other personal commitments, and venue availability can factor into this choice, but one thing can often get lost in the shuffle: what time does your wedding ceremony begin? Your wedding ceremony time is often as important as the date, in terms of the overall impact on your wedding day experience. Below are a few facets that are important to consider when setting a start time for your wedding ceremony.

One caveat: this is assuming that you are hosting a secular ceremony, or in a religious tradition that gives you some control over your start time. In certain traditions the couple has very little control over their ceremony’s start time: the thoughts on how we manage that situation together from a planning perspective could take up an entirely separate post!

Sunrise, Sunset

When considering a time of year in a specific location, the very first thing you should do is look up what time the sun will set. Here in Chicago, that can be quite early, depending on where you fall in the Daylight Savings calendar. Consider what atmosphere you envision for your ceremony, and chat with your photographer about those implications. If the ceremony is after dark, are you okay with a brightly lit room, or possibly with flash going off during the ceremony? The sunset time also can affect your photography timeline as a whole: bottom line, we haven’t met a couple yet who decided to forgo portraits in natural light, before sunset. Choosing to do a first look with portraits before the ceremony can make the most of the natural light, if that’s an option for you.

Dress Code & Event Formality

According to Emily Post, black tie is only acceptable in the evening, which begins at 6:00 PM. Now, we’re not going to write her a letter if you don’t kick off exactly at 6:00, but the general etiquette about “eveningwear” holds: it’s not appropriate to mandate ballgowns and tuxedos at 11:00 AM. Not to say you can’t hold a black tie wedding with an early ceremony, but there should be a planned “gap” between the ceremony and black tie reception when guests will often change into their evening attire. For other dress codes, there is more flexibility with an event start time.

Transportation Factors

Considering your guests’ experience of the entire day will go a long way to providing thoughtful hospitality. If you are asking them to attend events in multiple locations on one day, consider the travel time and transportation methods available between the two. You don’t want them to feel like they are rushing through traffic to make it to cocktail hour, or miss part of the evening if parking is difficult. (We’ll often look into providing guest transportation or valet services in these situations, as well.)

If you are doing portraits after the ceremony, transportation will also play a huge factor. A free planning tip for couples in major cities: for a wedding day, look up the travel time estimate between two locations, and plan for it to take double that amount of time. Subtract your (doubled!) necessary transportation times from the time between your ceremony and reception, subtract another 30 minutes (for freshening up on arrival at the reception), and that is a realistic amount of time to plan for portraits. As planners, this is the math we’re doing before the event times are locked in: too often, things are set in stone before transportation and portrait times are fully thought through, which can lead to disappointment or a more hectic day than originally envisioned.

Don’t Mind The Gap

Potential hot take here: a gap between your ceremony and reception is not the end of the world. Very often, well-intentioned couples will choose ceremony timing with the sole purpose of minimizing the “gap”, typically at the detriment to their own experience of the day. Where we sit in a major city, there are so many ways for guests to entertain themselves for a few hours: imagine you’re traveling to a new place to reunite with old friends: does a few hours to hang out together on your own terms really sound like a bad idea? Other guests will have time to rest at their hotel, move at their own pace, and generally refresh themselves before the night ahead. Go ahead and message me if you have counterarguments, but from this planner’s perspective: as long as there is something to do (and in Chicago, there definitely is), an event gap should not be a primary factor in the choice of your ceremony time.

Locking In Your Time

While the absolute deadline for a ceremony time is going to be when your invitations go to print (which can be 4-6 months before your wedding date), we recommend setting a final time for the ceremony as early as practical. For houses of worship, you will typically lock in a date and time quite early in the planning process, in the same window that you’d book your venue. For onsite ceremonies, as we’ve discussed above, there is just too much about your entire day that depends on the ceremony timeline for it to remain a “TBD” too far into planning. With our clients, we are typically putting together a working timeline for the day the minute the (virtual) ink is dry on the venue contract, including a ceremony start time. It’s also helpful to share this information with guests on a wedding website, to help them plan for travel, childcare, or other accommodations they need to make to celebrate with you.

We hope this was a helpful peek into how a planner thinks through these types of decisions. As with many elements of planning, the choice can seem simple on the surface. But it’s rarely that simple in practice: by bringing in someone who knows how to ask the right questions and gives you a holistic preview as to how the entire day will be experienced, you’ll be set up for success. We’d love to chat more if this approach is something you would be interested in!

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