Planning our Backyard, DIY Wedding Reception During COVID-19
Welcome to “Wedding Week”! You’ve read about my dress but I wanted to share some more details about the day, the ceremony, and the party. Today is the logistics of it all: planning our backyard wedding reception. Wednesday is all emotions: my play-by-play of the big day. And Friday is all about flowers! Next week we’ll be back to the regularly scheduled sewing and making.
My family was absolutely stellar at putting this wedding together. With the small guest count, and our desire for an outdoor venue to reduce COVID spread, we decided on a backyard reception at my parents’ house. Our initial wedding reception was set to take place at a beautiful botanical garden, and the caterers plus the venue staff would have taken care of pretty much everything. With a backyard DIY wedding reception – it was all on us! And suddenly there were dozens of tiny details that we needed to think about.
David and I arrived in Virginia on the Wednesday before the wedding. My parents had already done a lot of work to get ready, from tidying the inside of the house to trimming trees in the backyard. My mom had ordered a big box of white roses from Costco and put them in vases all around the house… it felt so special to come home for my wedding!
We had already done most of the planning and ordering, but in those 2.5 days it was time to get to work. I built bouquets, my mom assembled charcuterie plates, Andy charged speakers, my dad and David hung lights. Then my brother Ben and his wife Olivia arrived, and they jumped right in. Everybody rallied to get tables and chairs set up before the ceremony, then tablecloths and place settings set after the ceremony as the guests arrived. David and I arrived to the party last, after we finished our couple photos, and everything was perfect. I know my family did a ton of work to make it all happen so seamlessly, and I’m so very grateful to have them.
That’s lesson 1. Have help. Ask for help. If your helpers are as awesome as mine, you’re super lucky. If they’re not, make them a really good list so that you don’t have to worry about it on your wedding day. I worried constantly every day until the wedding day, but on the day itself? I didn’t care about any of it. Even better? I didn’t have to, because my family was busy being awesome.
Here’s what we did and how we did it. I love reading about how other people plan things, so I wanted to share.
- COVID Wedding Planning
- Guest List & Digital Celebrations
My dad loves speakers. And the wedding proved no exception. I asked if we should rent two of the big standing amp speakers from the rental company, but in order for them to send sound to the edges of the party, they’re always deafening when you’re close. My dad had a much better idea. He said, “you know how at Disneyland, it just feels like the music is coming from everywhere?” For my wedding, he wanted to turn our backyard into a magical, musical Disneyland. So he bought ten wireless, waterproof Bluetooth speakers, and placed them in the bushes all around our seating area. Ambient sound, rather than directional sound. The speakers were the Anker Soundcore Flare 2, and we all agreed they sounded fantastic especially considering the relatively low price. My parents also emailed the neighbors to tell them about the wedding and give a heads up about the noise, and everyone was gracious and congratulatory and happy to let us play our music.
We made Spotify playlists for our music (and obviously we upgraded to Premium for the wedding). Managing the playlist sounded easy enough, and I considered just handling it myself from my phone. This is where we say, “No! Bad Sam! You’re the bride. Ask for help.” So I did. I asked my brother Andy if he’d be our DJ and he agreed, and he did a fantastic job. He started the music for the cocktail hour, which was extra perfect since we were taking photos and arrived after all of our guests (as planned). He played our entrance song when we arrived, which was the song from the Disney World parade that was going on when David proposed – the key line for us? “Let’s get it started, ’cause we just can’t wait.“
For dinner, we just let it play. Here’s our playlist. A lot of Disney parks ambient music, some of our favorite special songs, and a few very cheesy romantic songs. I know Hannah was just shocked that I included Taylor Swift on my wedding playlist… I was too! But something about, you know, getting married made me feel a lot cheesier and more romantic than usual.
Having a dedicated DJ was crucial. There was some troubleshooting, I remember Andy running up and down the deck stairs to the “DJ stand”. He was also the one to hit pause for the toasts by the best man and matron of honor, and my dad’s prayer before dinner. He changed the playlists for our dances, and then changed it again when we invited everyone to the dance floor. And while we had a playlist, we weren’t tethered to it, and I’ll never forget when Hannah said, “WAIT – is Andy taking requests?!?!” and ran up to request the song that we girls sang all weekend at my bachelorette party. Good music, and a great music manager, was key to our party.
Our ceremony was at 2 at the church, and that was about 40 minutes from my parents’ house. I knew that by the time we got back from church and pictures, it would be around 5pm and starting to get dark. Luckily, my dad had this one under control, too.
The Thursday before the wedding, my hair stylist came to the house to do my hair trial, and David and my dad went on a tour of the local Home Depots. They bought out multiple stores’ worth of patio lights, plus some 1×2″ boards. My dad doesn’t do anything halfway. We could have strung the lights along the fence, but that would have only been around waist level. So my dad and my groom bolted boards to every-other fence post, so that the lights could be strung 10-12 feet in the air to bathe the whole backyard in a soft glow.
Andy brought a spool of color changing LED lights with him because he figured they might come in handy. My mom had draped white tulle along the edge of the deck, and Andy tucked his lights along the tulle. He programmed the lights to rainbow and it was awesome to have some color to add to our dance floor!
We rented the mandatory stuff: tables, chairs, and tablecloths. I loved how the chairs and tablecloths looked – those Chiavari chairs are just so “wedding-y” to me, and it was the small details like that that helped me feel like my DIY wedding was a Real Wedding.
We also rented all of our tableware. The number of table items we needed added up fast! Plates, forks, knives; water glasses, beer glasses, champagne flutes (we decided to give each guest 1 wine glass and 1 beer glass, assuming they could put water in one and their drink of choice in the other); cloth napkins; water pitchers. Renting the tableware was awesome because we didn’t have to wash any dishes – just scraped off the extra food and then they were all picked up the next day. And, of course, no waste from single-use plates. Our rentals came from Sammy’s Rental (DC area), they were fantastic to work with and very, very organized.
Planning the food was a tough decision because we were trying to avoid the dense gathering of a buffet line or similar. Fortunately, with our small number of guests, we were able to order individual meals for each table. We ordered our food from Maggiano’s catering, and they were extremely helpful and willing to work with us. They packed each table’s order in a separate bag. Our tables were set up to respect household “pods”, so each couple sat at its own table. The food was ordered “family style” but for couples, with a shared salad and two large entrees to share. When the food arrived, it was just a matter of distributing the bags (with the men of the party executed very graciously). We were even able to customize orders so that most of us could order salads without blue cheese (thank goodness).
For snacking during the cocktail hour, my mom put together charcuterie plates for each table. This was also great because she arranged the plates the day before, then just wrapped them in plastic wrap in the fridge. Slices of cheese, prosciutto, salami, crackers, and grapes for everyone to nibble on before the food arrived.
We also gave everyone stacks of Ritter Sport mini chocolates as favors. I was adamant that I would not have wedding favors that created a bunch of waste, so no elaborate boxes or personalized bottle openers or whatever else. Just a stack of yummy, special chocolates, that my mom wrapped in a stripe of pretty cactus wrapping paper.
This was a big highlight of the DIY Wedding. Our original venue had us tied to a caterer who was tied to an alcohol distributor. This was both expensive and prohibited us from featuring something awesome: Papa’s beer. My dad had brewed all the beer for my brother’s wedding the year prior, and to dispense the beer, he built a beautiful wooden bar that hid four small kegs and the carbonation apparatus. It hadn’t had an opportunity to come out of hiding again… until now!
We had four different beers on tap, all brewed by my dad. We also had wine and soda available, but of course the beer was the most popular! Each table also had its own pitcher of water. For toasts, my sister-in-law went around to each table offering pours of champagne or sparkling apple cider, and of course we had more of each of those in case people wanted more bubbly. I love my dad’s beer, but it was my wedding day, and champagne was definitely my drink of choice!
Our wedding cake was another item where we were able to embrace our small guest count. We requested Papa’s cheesecake as our dessert. You may be noticing a theme here – my dad loves to make food and share it with people! He made cheesecakes for years, trying to “crack the code” to make perfect, tall, not-too-dense but not-too-fluffy cheesecake. He cracked the code years ago and his cheesecakes are really amazing and special, and now that he’s got the science down he’s always experimenting with new flavors.
We wanted enough cheesecake to go around, and that called for a cheesecake sampler. We narrowed it down to three varieties:
- Bride’s cake: Oreo crust, amaretto cheesecake layer, chocolate cheesecake layer, chocolate ganache top
- Groom’s cake: brownie crust, vanilla cheesecake, chocolate ganache top
- For the Neutral, we chose seasonal Pumpkin: spiced cookie crust, pumpkin cheesecake, white chocolate drizzle
David had bought this Lego wedding set soon after we got engaged ( 🙂 ) and we modified it by adding a few of our own pieces and a lot more Lego plants. That was our cake “topper” but it sat off to the side so as to not mar the perfect ganache finish on the cheesecake. My mom surprised me with this plate, it’s my own version of the “Special Day” plate that we always used on birthdays growing up.
Yes, we DIY’ed the flowers. I’m planning a whole post about flowers because I was just obsessed with how they came out (edit: here’s the DIY wedding flowers post!). I made the bouquets and my mom made the boutonnieres and corsages. It was a lot more work than I expected, but it was also so fun to choose all my own flowers and make exactly what I wanted.
I did my own makeup, but I had my hair done professionally and I am so, so glad that I did. I’ve never been one to do much with my hair and it would have been extremely stressful for me to have to do my own hair on my wedding day. It came out better than I could have imagined and I was just thrilled. I had considered wearing some sort of flower crown, but I never quite figured out what I wanted. I ended up just trimming the top end of some Stock (the flower) that was leftover from the bouquets, and the stylist pinned that into my hair. It. Was. Perfect.
Since we live in Florida, and the wedding was in Virginia, I had my hair trial on Thursday for the Saturday wedding. I suppose there was potential for disaster if I hated the trial, but it worked out very nicely. My stylist really enjoyed doing the trial and the event so close together, because she could remember what worked and came up with even better ways to do the final hairdo. If you’re in northern VA, I highly recommend Stephanie from Bridal Artistry.
Photography was our biggest splurge. This was one day, and a big day, and I was not about to risk having mediocre photos. I also really wanted two photographers. Anna and Liz of Anna Liz Photography are a sister team, and we loved that they were able to capture our day from two different perspectives. I most wanted two shooters so that there would be pictures of me walking down the aisle AND pictures of David’s face as I walked down the aisle, because I expected him to cry. Of course, he was just grinning ear to ear while I was the one doing weird squeaky sobs.
COVID Planning Details
If you followed along with my wedding dress sewing series, you know that we didn’t plan to have an October wedding. We were all set for a wedding on May 9, 2020, and with only 6 weeks to go (almost exactly one year ago now), COVID-19 shut down the world and took our wedding with it. We waited in limbo for months. I couldn’t bear the thought of planning a second wedding, only to have to cancel that one too, so we were waiting until we could be sure that our event could go on.
Finally, in August, we decided it was time to plan the new wedding. No more waiting! We had every intention of getting married in 2020 and we weren’t going to let 2020 stop us.
Our number one priority was simple: nobody would get sick from our wedding. We didn’t go into this with a “it will probably be fine” attitude. It’s clear now that none of our guests, or ourselves, had COVID-19 at our wedding, so maybe we could have “gotten away with” more. But that wasn’t our game to play. We designed our celebration to prevent any transmission that could occur, and while it definitely made for some compromises, I’m still very proud of this decision and glad that we and our guests were able to relax and mingle relatively safely and respectfully.
The only indoor activity was the ceremony inside the church. Everyone was seated with their household pods and the pods were spaced out across the front half of the church. Our priest allowed David and me to remove our masks for the ceremony, which was much appreciated, especially for the pictures! We were close to the altar and secluded from the rest of the congregation so our lack of masks did not create much risk for others.
The remainder of the day’s events were held outdoors. We were so fortunate to have good weather! It was very cloudy all day but it wasn’t cold and there was no rain. Plus, the overcast sky made for much better pictures than bright sun! For our posed photos with our families and the wedding party, everyone did remove their masks, so this was the one time of day when different households interacted without masks. But it was in short bursts and we were outdoors.
The rule for the reception was essentially “masks unless you’re eating”. Each couple had its own table, and the tables were spaced out across the backyard, so that everyone could eat and drink comfortably at their own table without worrying about a mask. I think everyone had a good time, too, because it was like a special date night. It’s always fun to mingle with other guests at your table at a big wedding, but I think our wedding was fun in its own way, with each couple in their own little bubble.
When it came time to dance, we all donned our masks and danced our hearts out. Would it have been better without masks? Sure. But it was awesome anyway.
Guest List and Digital Celebrations
The biggest compromise, and the hardest part of planning the new wedding, was the guest list. Our original guest list was close to 100 people, with many relatives and my dozens of cousins. But our new guest list had to be much, much smaller. We wanted to make sure everyone would be able to socially distance at each of the locations, especially during dinner, and we also focused on keeping guest travel to a minimum.
Our final decision was a very, very small number of people: just our parents, my siblings, and our wedding party plus their dates. Sadly, two of David’s groomsmen were unable to attend because they would have been flying from California and Europe, which both felt like the other side of the globe in October 2020. So we ended up with 17 guests, plus the two of us, for a cozy 19-person total.
It was such a hard decision to make. It was sad to have our day of celebration without our extended families, and I was so disappointed to miss out on my aunts cooing over my dress! But it also meant we could get married now, instead of later, while keeping everyone safe. So we did three things to help include our extended families:
- We broadcast the wedding live over Facebook. We made a new Facebook account for this, and sent the link to our extended families. (make sure to make the account well in advance – we had to add some friends to our account before we could share video so Facebook would decide we weren’t spammers). We were extremely fortunate in that our church had been live streaming services throughout the pandemic, and the church’s videographer was available for our wedding. He was familiar with the church setup and network, and he already had mics set up with the priest and at the lecterns, so that was really seamless for us.
- I emailed everyone a program for the ceremony. We didn’t do printed programs, but I thought it would be nice for our families to be able to follow along from home. I listed the readings so that everyone had the option to read along in case the video stream was hard to hear. I also wrote our own personalized petitions, the “prayers of the faithful”, and shared those in the program as well.
- We hosted what I called a “virtual receiving line” the day after the wedding. On Sunday afternoon, we hosted 4 Zoom calls, all in a row, with all of our relatives: my mom’s side, my dad’s side, David’s mom’s side, David’s dad’s side. This was David’s idea, and it worked out so well. We were able to talk with our families in small groups, and tell them more about how the day and evening went. And yes, my aunts cooed over my wedding dress. 🙂 Even though none of them could be there in person, it was wonderful to get to see them all.
I’m hopeful that within a few months, my “Pandemic Wedding Tips” will be obsolete! We’re almost to the end. But this was a real challenge for us, and 2020 was a truly noteworthy time in history (besides the fact that Nobody Went Anywhere). We’ll always remember the weirdness that surrounded our wedding, and the unusual questions we’ll face in the future (“mama, why are you wearing a mask in your wedding dress?”), but it was all part of our day. And it was a glorious day.