How to Throw a Surprise Wedding

A bride and groom surrounded by confetti.

In a 2011 episode of Parks and Recreation, characters April and Andy threw a one-month anniversary party that—surprise!—was really their wedding. Their nearest and dearest showed up expecting a low-key evening of food, music, and chatting with friends, and they got all that plus a celebration of love (and a few hijinks—it was P&R, after all). When that episode aired I was 23, my boyfriend and I were “on a break,” and I fell head over heels in love with surprise weddings. “What a cool idea,” I remember thinking. “Too bad I could never pull it off.”

Cut to June 2018: that break with my boyfriend had ended and evolved into an engagement, and I found myself…thoroughly uninterested in planning a wedding. I’d spent a year fussing over our guest list (trying to create the small and intimate event my fiancé wanted without hurting the feelings of my massive extended family). I was half-heartedly planning an engagement party with my mother (and by planning, I mean repeating “Whatever you want is fine” ad nauseum).

While I wanted to spend the rest of my life with the man I loved, I just couldn’t get excited about any of the traditional wedding stuff—until my sister called with an idea that had been percolating in both our minds for the past six years:

“Why don’t you just get married at this party?”

Three weeks later, on July 1, 2018, our family and friends arrived at my grandmother’s house for an engagement party. Instead, they watched us get married. Here’s how we pulled it off.

First of all—Why?

Brad and I noticed that one word peppered every conversation about the kind of wedding we wanted: low-key. And when I say that, I mean really low-key. We wanted no dancing, no speeches, no bouquet tossing—just a nice meal with the people we loved.

The problem: the party we described was…well, not a wedding. It was an engagement party, maybe a rehearsal dinner. But dancing? Speeches? A grand entrance set to “Uptown Funk”? Those are integral to a wedding—or at least they’ve become so to many people as weddings have grown into the colossal industry they are today.

Given our wish for a simple wedding free of modern traditions, Brad and I had two options:

  1. Throw the wedding we want, spend months fighting our families when we don’t plan the things you “have to have” at a wedding, and disappoint our guests when the party didn’t meet their expectations.
  2. Throw an engagement party, tack on a quick ceremony at the beginning, and thrill our guests with a party that far exceeded their expectations.

For us, it seemed like a no-brainer.

If you’ve been dreaming of your wedding day since childhood, or even if you’ve recently been swept up in the joy of planning a wedding, that’s a wonderful thing and I’m thrilled for you! But if you’re like me, and you don’t want to elope but the idea of choosing a wedding dress, dancing in front of everyone you know, and kissing whenever you hear the clinking of champagne glasses (that horrible, horrible clinking) makes you want to break out in hives, the surprise ceremony may be for you.

Know who Can Help

There are a lot of moving parts in a wedding, which is why most couples rally the troops and get help from their family, friends, or even a paid professional. But when no one even knows your special day is coming, getting help can be a lot harder. Instead of getting everyone involved, you have to stick to those individuals who can keep a secret.

A couple getting married in a backyard.

In our case, we were very selective in letting our news out. My husband’s best friend was one of the first to find out (he married us) and my parents knew right away, but my grandma was in the dark until a few days before (even though we were planning the party at her house). Similarly, while my husband told his parents a week before the big day, we didn’t tell his sister and grandmother until the Friday before.

The writer and her husband after the ceremony.

Your inner circle may look slightly different from ours. You could go with your parent, your siblings, or maybe your best friends from college. However, I would suggest telling someone about your surprise wedding, or else you risk going insane during the planning process (Seriously, we would not have pulled this off without our parents).

Prioritize Your Planning

When you plan a surprise wedding (particularly when you plan one in three weeks like we did), you don’t have time to focus on every little detail. As a result, some traditional wedding things are going to fall through the cracks. This is why you should think ahead and prioritize the things that matter to you and your future spouse.

We only wanted three things: to get married, to have good food, and to have time to chat with our family members. Did we want to hire a photographer? Not really; photography is expensive and phones have great cameras these days. Did we need a DJ? Not when I have a speaker and a Spotify playlist handy! What about space for a dance floor? There won’t be time for dancing when we’re busy catching up with cousins!

Ultimately, by focusing on the things that mattered most to us (instead of rushing to throw together a standard wedding) we were able to create the kind of day that we would enjoy and since it was a surprise, it would be a day everyone would remember!

Give Yourself Extra Prep Time

On a typical wedding day, the couple’s family and friends usually help create an idyllic space for the ceremony and reception while the couple get ready in separate suites. You have plenty of time to relax, sip mimosas with your friends, and get pampered by your hair and makeup artists.

When no one knows it’s your wedding day, no one (outside your inner circle) is available to help—which means you need to step up. Make sure you give yourself extra time to get ready, or else you may find yourself sweating off your makeup while you rush to set up chairs.

For our wedding, we spent several hours setting up the party space the night before. On the morning of, we really only needed to set up the buffet areas, lay out a few tablecloths, and then get dressed and prepare to become husband and wife. But I know that if we’d left everything to the last minute, the morning would have been unspeakably stressful.

The Cons of a Surprise Ceremony

Of course, there are a few cons to having a surprise wedding. The first is that your support system shrinks by a lot. Planning a wedding is usually a group effort, with your closest friends, your parents, and sometimes even the extended family pitching in to help you. If no one knows it’s a wedding, they may not be as ready to lend a hand.

Thankfully, for us this wasn’t a huge issue. We did tell my parents of our nuptial plans, and we told his parents a week or so later, so everyone came together to do the work of an army (thanks Mom and Dad!).

It also helped that we kept things simple—or as simple as a garden party for 100 guests can be (I told you I have a huge family). Plastic tablecloths, paper lanterns, and a table decorated with photos of Brad and I scattered my grandmother’s yard, complete with a tulle-covered wooden arch in the corner where we eventually said “I do.”

Another downside to a surprise wedding is that some guests simply won’t come. After photos of the event hit Facebook (before the party was even over), I was already getting text messages from cousins and friends who didn’t come, but “Would have come if they’d known.” However, if you can accept that some folks will be absent from your day, this is a non-issue.

Finally, Have Fun with It!

If you ask me, many couples take their wedding all too seriously. Yes, it’s a big commitment, but it’s also a wonderful, exciting day! By having a surprise wedding, we were able to inject a little more fun into our nuptials.

For example, how did our guests discover that our “engagement party” was more than it seemed? My father gathered everyone on the lawn and made a special announcement…complete with a confetti cannon! We had water balloons (it was hot), upbeat music, and a relaxed atmosphere that made the day even better.

So if you want to surprise your guests with a wedding, go for it! I promise it will be a day no one will ever forget.

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