I have had a couple of brides ask if bridesmaids and groomsmen are required, but I suspect they are actually asking what the purpose of their attendants may be. The clue is in the term I just used. Your bridesmaids and groomsmen are also referred to as attendants. They attend to you. They are supposed to be there to help the bride and groom, though as we all know, that is not always the case.
Bridesmaids and groomsmen are a tradition, but certainly not a requirement. In states that require witness signatures on your marriage license, the witness is never required to be an official member of your wedding party.
In the best of circumstances, your attendants are a support system. They are people who are emotionally close to you, excited about being part of your wedding and whole-heartedly support your decision to marry. If you are picking bridesmaids and groomsmen based on any other criteria you may have some issues down the road. You are not obligated to ask any person to be an attendant based solely upon their relationship to you, whether or not you served a similar function at their wedding, or because mom expects you to do so. Choose wisely.
Attendants should be ready and willing to help whenever they are called upon without becoming stubborn and insisting on their own way. Your best choices are physically and emotionally available to assist you during both the planning of the wedding and at the ceremony and reception. Because of their enthusiasm and ready wiliness to help, it behooves you to treat them with respect when asking for their assistance.
I highly recommend you make sure your attendants understand exactly what their role is, how involved you expect them to be, and how much the occasion will cost them in terms of time and money when you ask for their participation. Bridesmaids and groomsmen should make an informed choice when deciding whether or not to accept your invitation.
From my perspective as an officiant, all I see are the attendants processing in to the ceremony, standing beside you and recessing out when the ceremony concludes. I make sure the maid of honor gets the bouquet so the bride can hold the groom’s hands, retrieve the rings from the best man at the appropriate time and perhaps obtain their signatures as witnesses on the marriage license. To me, they are beautiful people in matching outfits. To you, they should be much more.
Traditions regarding attendants have changed dramatically in the last generation or two and there are regional variations. When I was growing up in the south, the groomsmen also functioned as ushers. When I moved up north, I was startled to see that different people filled those two roles. Today, I hardly see ushers used at all whether they are groomsmen or other friends and family members.
Photo Attribute: Shannon Perez of Simply in Love Photography
Traditionally, the groom and groomsmen enter the ceremony site from a side entrance and avoid walking down the aisle. Bridesmaids process down the main aisle in single file with the maid of honor last among the bridesmaids, followed by flower girls and ring bearers if there are any, and then the bride makes her grand entrance with her escort once all the attendants are arrayed at the front. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the groomsmen and bridesmaids process out together in pairs.
This is becoming less common in contemporary weddings although there is actually a symbolic reason rather than a superstition or etiquette rule for this tradition. The attendants processing in alone and walking out in pairs symbolize the bride and groom coming to their wedding single and leaving the ceremony as a married couple. Today it’s not uncommon to see the attendants both enter and exit a ceremony as couples.
Having an uneven number of bridesmaids and groomsmen can mess with the processional and recessional a little bit, but there is always a way to work it out. We’re also seeing more gender mixing. I have officiated plenty of weddings where the best man was actually a woman or a close male friend of the bride stood with the bridesmaids rather than the groomsmen. This is one of the reasons why I like the gender neutral term ‘attendants.’ Referring to them as the bride’s attendants and the groom’s attendants helps a great deal at the rehearsal when this is the case. Consequently, a female best man or a male maid/matron of honor is simply an honor attendant. The terminology helps avoid the whole maid or matron thing as well.
As an officiant, I recommend your maid of honor not hold the groom’s ring. She is already tasked with holding the bride’s bouquet during the ceremony and possibly helping to rearrange the dress when necessary. Give both of the rings to the best man if they are not being held by a responsible ring bearer. The maid of honor juggling act is funny, but might not be the tone you want to set for your ceremony.
Bigger and more formal weddings tend to have a greater number of attendants, but that is not a hard and fast rule. I am finding the formality of the ceremony and the length of the guest list have less influence over the number of bridesmaids and groomsmen these days. I have officiated weddings where the attendants outnumbered the guests!
Wedding parties these days consist of Best Men, Groomsmen, Jr. Groomsmen, Ring Bearers, Maids/Matrons of Honor, Bridesmaids, Junior Bridesmaids, Flower Girls in any combination of numbers and genders you can imagine.
Do not worry too much about traditions and expectations. When considering your attendants, invite those people who are most important to you and can be there for you when you need them. That is far more important on your wedding day than a head count filling out a requisite number of pretty dresses and tuxedos.
Rev. Ann Fuller
The commentary on this blog is my own opinion developed over years of officiating a wide range of wedding sizes and styles. I am always happy to answer any questions you may have.