By Sally Hughes, Melbourne Celebrant
“We're newly engaged and considering a surprise wedding. Can you tell me if there's anything we should consider from a planning perspective and if there’s anything we need to know from a legal standpoint?”
Given that I receive enquiries like this several times a year, I feel that the subject of surprise weddings well and truly warrants a blog post.
Surprise weddings are fabulous! There's nothing quite like the roar that erupts immediately after guests learn that they've been unwittingly invited to a wedding. The thrilling cacophony of squeals, applause, laughter and odd cry of “I knew it! I knew it!!”, never fails to make me smile. The atmosphere is always electric.
The Pros and Cons of Surprise Weddings
If you’re considering a celebration that doesn’t conform to the norm, allow me to take you through the pros and cons of surprise weddings.
The vibe is fantastic. When guests realise that the’ve been invited to a wedding they tend to get really loud and really excited very quickly. They’re usually a few drinks in by that stage, so by the time the ceremony begins they’re ready and willing to involve themselves and actively participate. I love this.
Savings (well, in theory anyway!). You can still end up spending large on catering, clothing, styling and so on, however surprise weddings tend to be a little more casual than traditional (i.e. disclosed) bells-and-whistles ones. The opportunity to combine your engagement party with your wedding is a definite cost saver too.
Less stress. Given that you won’t be fielding questions from well-intentioned loved ones about your reception menu, choice of band, wedding party and colour palette, there’s no expectation to conform to expectations held by others. You have so much more freedom to do it your way.
You can’t discuss your plans with anyone other than suppliers. This means no water cooler conversations with work colleagues about finding your dream dress, and no counting down to the big day on your Facebook page!
Parents, siblings and besties may be offended if they aren’t privy to the plan. And fair enough. When you think about it, your parents have probably thought about your wedding day for longer than you have. Though they can certainly be involved in your celebration, you may have deprived them of their opportunity to contribute to the planning process, including preparing a heartfelt speech. For that reason you might want to give some serious thought to letting the VIPs know. ONLY the VIPs!
You’ll probably miss out on a hen’s/buck’s/huck’s night.
Guests may arrive after your ceremony has taken place or they might even miss your wedding altogether. The latter particularly applies to overseas or interstate guests. Often logistical and financial constraints cause long-distance loved ones to skip your so-called engagement party in favour of your future wedding - the wedding they might miss.
So, if you feel a surprise wedding is the way to go, here are a few tips to ensure the surprise element plays out perfectly.
Unless you're absolutely certain that your work colleagues won't see your work emails, use a personal email address for correspondence with suppliers. (Nothing ruins the surprise like an email from email@example.com)
Don't note the name of your celebrant, photographer or dress designer in your work diary/calendar. Again, work colleagues may recognise a wedding supplier, as was the case with a surprise ceremony I was hired to conduct. One of my former brides arrived at the so-called “engagement party” certain that it was a wedding after having seen my name in her boss’ diary.
Don't tell anyone! (Have I stressed this point enough?) I know how tough this can be, however trusting people to keep such a big secret is a risk! If anyone queries whether your engagement party or child’s first birthday bash is likely to double as your wedding, don't feel bad about telling a white lie. It makes the surprise so much better! Keep in mind that if everyone’s in the same boat, guests are less likely to be offended. Issues usually occur when 20-odd people are in on the secret and the remaining 50 realise they weren’t deemed as trustworthy as the others.
Consider how the surprise will be delivered. Will your celebrant pose as a singer in the Baker Boys Band (yes, I've done that!), or as the venue's emcee (that too) and make the announcement? Will your fiance and yourself welcome guests and announce the ceremony yourselves? Will guests arrive to a huge “Welcome to our Wedding” sign? You’re only limited by your imagination.
Consider whether or not your celebrant should remain well hidden before the big announcement. When I know that my former couples will be attending, I think it’s best that I stay in the back room until show time. Otherwise, they’ll figure it out rather quickly.
Give some thought to what happens immediately after the big reveal. Will your ceremony begin immediately or will you need five minutes to change your outfits and put a few chairs in place? Will you announce the names of your official witnesses and wedding crew and invite them to come up and stand with you? You’ve gotta have a plan!
From a Legal Standpoint
For an Australian marriage ceremony to be deemed legally valid, the surprise element can only extend to official witnesses and guests. In other words, the ceremony cannot come as a surprise to the marrying couple. A ‘Notice of Intended Marriage’ (NOIM) must be lodged with a celebrant at least one calendar month prior to the “surprise” marriage ceremony (unless a shortening of time is approved by the relevant authority) and the celebrant must be satisfied that both parties understand the nature of the relationship they intend to enter into and that they are doing so voluntarily and without coercion. The celebrant must also have sufficient time to establish the identity of each party to the marriage.
And for the record… it is legally possible to surprise one of the consenting parties to the marriage with the date, time and location of the marriage, as long as intention to marry has been lodged within the required one calendar month timeframe. For example, a bride and groom could lodge the NOIM with their celebrant but agree to leave all the event planning (date, time, venue and so on) to the groom. The bride would therefore be surprised in that way. It’s not commonly done, but it is legally permissible.
If you’ve any questions or stories to share, feel free to comment below.
Sally Hughes, Melbourne Marriage Celebrant
Looking for a little inspiration? Take a look at Nicole + Saul’s surprise wedding.