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Ten top tips for a simple wedding: California style

How difficult could it be? All we wanted was a simple, intimate wedding in the US for thirty or so people and yet it proved a challenging task. Admittedly, we did decide to get married leaving ourselves only one month to make all the arrangements, which included flying various family members across the Atlantic from the UK.

“Hmm, you asked for it then,” I hear you say, but let’s look at the alternative. We could have got married in England (we were due back there for Christmas in six weeks’ time, anyway) but wouldn’t a wedding in sunny California be a bit more memorable and enjoyable for everyone instead of a wet afternoon in Worthing Register Office?

And so the planning commenced. Neither of us had been married before and we hadn’t any real experience of wedding organisation but we’re both reasonably intelligent and organised with straightforward tastes. We didn’t want chocolate fountains, thrones and doves released on the announcement of our commitment – just a simple, informal ceremony in a nice location with food and drink laid on for a handful of family and friends. It couldn’t be that difficult, could it?

So we embarked upon the project oblivious of the steep learning curve that lay ahead of us. The level of stress we both experienced in the space of those four weeks was phenomenal and proved to us that planning a simple wedding does not necessarily mean an easier ride!

So, I thought I would write down some of the lessons learned in the hope that our experience might be of use to other Brits wanting to marry in a simple but memorable style in the US of A.

• Traditions and Wedding Group. We were not interested in getting caught up in the traditions and formalities of the big wedding thing. Our main priority for the wedding was to create an occasion that was informal, relaxing and fun. The dress code was casual Californian style and we didn’t have formal bridesmaids although our four nieces present on the day all looked lovely. As my husband has two brothers they automatically took up the role of best men and we chose music we happened to like for the very short walk up the “aisle”! Speeches happened spontaneously throughout the course of the day and there was a barbecue instead of a sit-down meal and no wedding cake! It almost sounds too simple but it was great.

• The Ceremony. OK, the whole point of getting married – publicly making known your love and commitment to each other – ’til death us do part. We wanted a civil ceremony without a religious tone and with very simple wording. We didn’t have the time to write our own, although that is definitely an option. We took a modern ceremony format from the internet (there are stacks of them – search “wedding vows”) and removed the lines we didn’t like and added a line or two mentioning friendship and laughter.

• The Officiant. When we searched for someone to perform the ceremony, the officiant, we found that quite often his or her services came packaged with other goodies – or not so goodie, depending on your point of view. Don’t know about you, but the prospect of getting married in front of a golden lectern in the shade of a silk flower encrusted arch with a copy of the wedding certificate printed on tea-stained faux parchment paper was just TOO cheesy. But with further research it seemed almost impossible to find one that didn’t come without these additional baubles and it hiked the price as well!

We spoke to several potential Officiants and, as nice as they all were, not one of them answered the brief. After much agonising, we discovered that anyone (in the state of California, at least) could become an Officiant if they were an American citizen. Bingo. We asked one of our best friends if he would do the deed – and he agreed!! So if you have a friend who is happy and confident to speak out loud in public then rope them in. We did, and it is what made our day really special. (Don’t forget to apply for your marriage licence in advance of the wedding day.)

• The Venue. To cut costs and logistics it is a good idea for ceremony, celebrations and, for visiting guests, the accommodation to be in the same place. We chose Palm Springs as the place to be as we were marrying in December and we wanted to guarantee sunshine as well as giving visitors from the UK more of a holiday. Off to research Palm Springs, we found a small hotel consisting of ’50s chalet style accommodation nestled around a swimming pool. We commandeered the venue for the whole weekend with all family staying on site and the ceremony and party taking place by the pool.

When looking for a venue it is also worth looking around to check whether there are good backdrops on site for photography on the day. One thing to beware of is additional costs for photography at certain hotels. The bride and groom stayed at the hotel over the road from the venue as there was only space for our families at the venue hotel. We wanted to take a few pictures of us with our parents and were charged an additional $175 “site fee” for the privilege of using the grounds of the hotel we were guests at! That was certainly one thing we hadn’t planned or budgeted for so ask the question before you book.

• Invitations.You can definitely save time and money on this one. There are hundreds of options for lovely printed invitations available although we did find that they were often of the same style, ie gold and silver filigree writing with lots of ribbons, bells, champagne flutes etc. As we were getting married with such short notice we had to distribute invitations quickly. We decided to buy notecards with a retro-look print – tied in well with our Palm Springs theme – and printed off the invitation inserts on a PC and glued them into the cards.

A great place to look for blank notecards is Target. They stock a good range in funky designs for a really reasonable price. The invitation wording was to the point including basics such as venue, date, time and a brief day-plan. The day-plan was useful because it gave guests a little bit of understanding about how the day would be structured as we wanted guests to feel free to wander off and explore Palm Springs in the late afternoon after the barbecue stuff had finished and before the evening party started.

• Decoration and Flowers. During the course of our research, we found a number of websites dedicated to weddings and investigated the venue decoration possibilities. We wanted elegant simplicity without too much of the conventional weddingy stuff. Chocolate fountains, yards of silk drapery and ribbon festooned gifts weren’t at the top of our list. Luckily, the venue we chose was full of colour and greenery with palm trees and mountains in the distance offering a ready-made backdrop. We spent our decoration budget on candles and lots of single stemmed roses in one colour.

We created a focal point for the ceremony by filling different-sized clear glass vases with roses arranged on two round tables covered with ivory tablecloths and placed either side of the officiant. My bouquet was a bunch of six single-stemmed roses with a little greenery and wired ribbon tying them all together. My lovely mother-in-law did this for me on the morning of the wedding, working from an image I downloaded from a florist’s website. It worked a treat! So if there is someone creative in the family, make use of them. They love to help.

Also, buttonholes were made only for the groom, parents and best men. If you want to give everyone a flower, why not give away one of the stems from the flower arrangement before they leave at the end of the day? Large candles in hurricane lamps decorated with eucalyptus were placed at either end of the buffet table. All the vases and the candle lamps are now in use in our apartment and on the balcony back at home. Again, look around Target for vases, and tablecloths. Michaels Craft Stores was also very useful for candles, ribbons and floristry tape.

• Catering, Champagne & Entertainment. We decided to do the Californian thing for catering and had a barbecue. My sister managed the barbie – thank god, another helpful relative roped in – and the salads and breads were supplied by the venue owner who did small scale catering as a sideline. We tried to find some nice disposable plates but they proved elusive and costly so in the end we went on down to Ikea and bought some of their cheapest white ceramic plates and bowls at 50c a go. Just plain white crockery – it worked a treat and what would it matter if they broke at that price? At least we could recycle by using them at home or giving them away afterwards.

Because we were celebrating around a poolside, we had to use plastic glasses for the drinks and the toast. Incidentally, we used cava instead of champagne. Much cheaper and tastes just as good to me, although possibly not to be recommended if your friends and relatives are champagne connoisseurs!

During the barbecue we had a compilation of music playing in the background so that people could eat and chat. Later in the evening, after guests had had an opportunity to explore central Palm Springs or go back to their hotels in the late afternoon, we served hot food and drinks and a live Mariachi band played as the twinkle lights and candles flickered.

• Wedding outfits. Like a lot of couples getting married, we were very keen to buy outfits that we could both wear again. Of course, this is much easier for the groom as he can go for a smart suit which is often the first suit investment of a lifetime and will form part of his wardrobe for future weddings, interviews etc. However, not every bride wants the big, white bouffant dress with train and veil.

Although I wanted to buy something well made and classic I didn’t want white partly because we got married in our late thirties and partly because I wanted something in a pale colour that was more of a cocktail dress than a bridal gown. I went through some hoops to find something in a pale colour a month before Christmas, I can tell you. I found the perfect dress ten times over in chocolate brown! Not that I don’t like chocolate brown, because I love it, but as tempted as I was, I wanted to stick with the pastel colour.

Two shopping weeks went by and I had no luck whatsoever. Even South Coast Plaza, southern California’s retail Mecca, couldn’t help me in my quest. I visited bridal gown stores where I thought I might find a fitted bridesmaid dress in a pastel shade but the fabric was like upholstery material and reminded me of childhood dressing-up clothes.

In desperation, and completely going against my instincts, I gave in and tried on a couple of white wedding dresses. These did nothing to lift either my mood or solve the outfit problem and I had to leave. I scoured the Internet into the early hours wading through countless pages of dresses, none of which were right, until I came across a site for Nicole Miller. She is a wedding dress designer but she also carries a wide range of attractive bridesmaid dresses in flowing fabrics and pastel colours and at more reasonable prices. It meant a long drive down to San Diego for the nearest shop but I finally managed to buy the dress I wanted.

• Photography. Our first intention was not to use a formal photographer as we had struggled, once again, to find someone who could take pictures in a non-traditional wedding style. We thought we could use a friend to take informal pictures of the day in more of a documentary style as that was what we wanted. Ultimately, on the advice of concerned family members we decided to hire a photographer to be sure that a handful of the photos would be guaranteed good ones.

Again, we had to shop around and talk to several until we discovered a professional photographer that we could hire for just over an hour and had photos taken before the ceremony of the bride and groom and our respective parents. This was partly because we were both incredibly nervous and didn’t want an audience glaring at us when we took formal group shots and partly because if these shots were in the bag before the ceremony then we could relax more, have a celebratory champagne and hopefully other more relaxed pictures would just happen after the ceremony.

• Relax and enjoy every moment. Once the morning arrives, try to relax and stop worrying about the bits you didn’t get around to doing. If they haven’t been booked, made, bought or ordered now then they simply aren’t going to happen and probably weren’t meant to be.

During the four weeks planning the wedding a lot of people would say to me that a wedding is exactly about what you and your partner want and nothing else matters. Particularly in the case of a small wedding, you are inviting a select group of people who you want to share the day with and they want to be there for you. Don’t fret if there is not enough greenery in the flower arrangements or the napkins are not the same shade of ivory as the tablecloths – just enjoy every moment of your special day and have fun!

I’d be happy to answer any questions if it would help you out with your wedding planning.

1 Comment

Alison Collin 24-03-2011, 16:16

Great article! Super to know that there are still people who are happy to have a meaningful wedding without mortgaging a house for it! It is absolutely ridiculous the amount that is spent on weddings with young people taking out huge loans to cover the cost. We had a small country wedding 43 years ago and have been “happy ever after”. We feel that the length of a marriage will be inversely proportional to the amount spent on getting married!

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