Help, I Keep Having Fantasies Of An Alternate Wedding

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
In 25 days, 8 hours, 34 minutes and 10...9...8 seconds, give-or-take 146 people (based on my statistical analysis of RSVPs so far) will attend a sit-down dinner at a historic mansion in Washington, D.C., hosted by my fiancé, myself, and our parents. There are three entrée choices, printed menus in vintage frames, a live band, and a Champagne toast because my mother says it's not a wedding without a Champagne toast.
When we were just starting the whole wedding-planning process, my best friend said something that has stuck with me all these months: "I had always imagined that you'd get married barefoot on the beach somewhere." I keep going back to that carefree image every time I feel like I just can't handle the wedding-planning anxiety anymore.
I try not think about what I could have done with all the time I've spent chasing people down to find out if they want steak, chicken, or vegan pasta. Or waking up at 5 a.m. to write painstakingly detailed emails to our invitations designer about calligraphy, fonts, specific shades, and paper weights. (Yes, I know Minted exists and it would have taken five minutes to order stationery there.) Or spent dinner dates with my fiancé arguing about table-number stands, of all things.
That's why I've started entertaining alternate wedding fantasies: Eloping on a beach somewhere far, far away with about 20 guests (there are so many great elopement packages that include flowers, an officiant, dinner, and more for a couple thousand bucks!). Having a meat-and-cheese buffet on my favorite vineyard in Long Island instead of a formal, sit-down dinner. A less-formal rooftop party at a small boutique hotel. No printed programs or menus, no three-course dinner, no logistical puzzle of assigned seating. When the Ojai Valley wedding of Jaclyn Johnson, the founder of the Create & Cultivate conference, crossed my desk, it very much crystallized everything I had wanted — friends and food on a ranch, vineyard, or beach; not a lot of extras. Sometimes, it feels really good to "research" these ideas on the internet to see what could have been.
Part of the reason I've been two-timing our original traditional wedding plans is that the formal, sit-down dinner might actually be going out of style. When most people imagine their dream wedding, the conventional image that pops into their head might be one with a perfectly designed tablescape with floral centerpieces, candles, and fine china.
But wedding planners are saying that more and more couples have been veering off the beaten path, choosing buffet-style dinners, food-truck stations, and family-style dinners at longtime favorite restaurants. Cost is, of course, a big factor. Millennials who are just starting out in their careers likely can't afford $20,000 catering bills unless they're lucky enough to have help from their parents. But there's also a cool factor to forgoing fanciness these days; you see food-truck weddings pop up on lifestyle blogs over and over again. A fancy, formal dinner just doesn't look as appetizing anymore once you consider the stunning cost per plate — and, to some, going all out doesn't feel right in our grim climate.
Susan Martin of SMARTproductions recently told Brides magazine that she's seen a major upswing in cocktail-party-heavy weddings and "free-form" dining. "Having all of that food — no matter how delicious it is — people never really eat all of it," she said of sit-down dinners. "It can be daunting to look at packages from wedding venues that are $100 to $125 per person for something you HAVE to order whether guests eat it or not." So, you save money and you get to customize your food stations and let people get creative with making their own s'mores, tasting different craft beers, and more — win-win. Plus, no seating chart, which means not having to create hundreds of escort cards and place cards or figuring out where to put all those people who don't know anyone else.
In fact, most people didn't even host sit-down dinners for their receptions until the '70s and '80s — which, if they really are going out of style, means they're just a blip on the radar of wedding history. According to A Practical Wedding by Meg Keene, the beginning of the 20th century was all about the afternoon-tea reception with those little sandwiches. And in the '40s and '50s, many receptions consisted of cake and punch in the church basement.
Of course, alternative weddings have been breaking the formal-dinner rules for years. What seems new, in the past year or so, is that they have entered the mainstream. If blogs and magazines — plus watching friends' weddings get progressively more casual since attending my first one at the age of 21 (there were updos and Disney-princess cake toppers) — are any evidence, it looks like they're here to stay. And that's probably a good thing, giving more options to those who want to break with tradition.
Trends aside, I'm going to love my wedding no matter what. But if you just got engaged, think beyond cookie-cutter, expected choices — and set boundaries with relatives early on. Decide on your venue, style of event (buffet vs. sit-down), your budget, and maximum guest count before anyone who is not you or your partner has time to kindly offer their own input.
I'll never have that barefoot-on-a-beach reception. But I don't regret it. Even though we're pulling out all the stops, we're not forgetting what matters: genuine connections, joyful moments, and amazing food. Even though, once in a while, I still put "intimate vineyard wedding" into the Pinterest search bar and scroll through every single photo.
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