This is not the case in a number of other countries and is becoming increasingly more common in the U.S. I do not have a global list at my fingertips, but I am aware that in a number of European and South American countries the civil ceremony and the wedding are two entirely separate events. A trip to the courthouse or registrar is followed by the wedding later the same day, or days, weeks, sometimes even months later. Most couples who do this in such countries tend to do it for religious reasons. The subsequent wedding is typically held at a house of worship, but not always.
Although not entrenched in the culture to the same degree, a legal marriage solemnized at the courthouse followed by a social wedding in the United States is actually not all that uncommon. Couples choose to do this for any number of reasons ~ military deployment, financial circumstances, health concerns, etc. I have encountered objections to the practice, but these are usually based on a misunderstanding of the concept of a wedding and the assumed motives of the couple.
A wedding is a ritual ~ a communal event that invests emotional meaning into life's transitions. Some people object to the use of the term if the occasion is not also the moment at which the marriage is solemnized, but that's quibbling. Whether you refer to the ritual in these circumstances as a Celebration of the Marriage, Vow Renewal, Commitment Ceremony, or Wedding...your guests are pretty much sitting through the same thing. I prefer the use of the word 'wedding' simply because it evokes the traditions and etiquette guidelines with which we are most familiar.
Many people look at the first definition of the word 'wedding' in the dictionary and don't make it to the second. 2. "the anniversary of a marriage, or its celebration:" (emphasis added) ~ Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013. Okay, some may assert the dictionary is saying the term is denoting the celebration of the anniversary rather than a general celebration of the marriage. But really, when is the last time you heard the word wedding used with an anniversary celebration? The grammar in the definition also makes it pretty clear. We can safely conclude that a wedding is a celebration of the marriage, which to me indicates we can meaningfully and beautifully do so at any time.
A social wedding following a legal marriage in no way devalues the concept of marriage nor should it be considered a "gift grab" or plea for undeserved attention. For one thing, friends and family are never under any obligation to give gifts for both the occasion of the legal marriage and the wedding, or either for that matter. That's absurd, and the couples I have met who have done this have never expected such a thing. I also cannot grasp the idea that just because a couple was married privately at the courthouse they are now prohibited from the ritual of a public wedding and are barred from using the term because their courthouse ceremony was their wedding and they are "double dipping." Um, no it wasn't and no they aren't. I honestly cannot follow any of the arguments I have seen and heard that promote this prohibition. They are nonsensical.
I do encourage couples who choose this option to be completely honest with their friends and family. I would never advocate a "secret marriage" followed by a wedding at which everyone else believes the marriage is being solemnized. Deception is never a good idea. So if everything is out in the open? Happy WEDDING planning!
NOTE 1: This particular column has generated a surprising amount of email and not all of it has been kind. I find the phrase "Pretty Princess Day" to be rude, spiteful, and ignorant and will be delighted if I never hear it or see it in print again.The only requirements for a legal marriage are a couple in possession of a valid marriage license, an officiant authorized to solemnize the marriage, and in some locations witnesses. Therefore, any woman planning more than that for her wedding day has no call to be accusing anyone else of unwarranted attention seeking. In other words, pot meet kettle.
If you are opposed to the practice of separating the solemnization of the marriage from the wedding, then just don't do it and don't attend the weddings of those who do. It really is that simple. There is no acceptable reason to exhibit a lack of compassion and shame others for decisions that differ from yours.