Trends: Get the Party Started

The average length of an engagement is 14 months—but you don’t have to wait that long to start celebrating.

The average length of an engagement is 14 months—but you don’t have to wait that long to start celebrating. An engagement party is an opportunity to share the excitement of your pending nuptials with friends and family in a relaxed setting before kicking into high-gear wedding-planning mode. However, the engagement party is relatively uncharted territory compared to all the other wedding-related events, and questions of where to have it, who should be invited, or whether to even have one at all, confound many newly engaged couples.

If the thought of planning yet another blowout to celebrate your union has your head spinning, don’t worry. Having an engagement party isn’t a necessity—and it isn’t practical for everyone. Kate and James Diamond, a Boston couple who was married in the Berkshires eight months after their engagement, decided they could skip one. “It was a fast process, and there wasn’t time for a formal engagement party,” says Kate. They had lots of small celebrations—like dinners and drinks—with different people, since their loved ones are spread out across the country. “It seemed like too much to ask everyone to gather in one place for an engagement party when the shower and the wedding wouldn’t be too far behind,” says Kate.

A shower is typically two to three months before the wedding, so if your wedding is going to be any less than a year after your engagement, it’s probably best to skip a formal engagement party, says Patricia Almas, wedding planner and owner of Simple Elegance Planning in Taunton. Too many events in a short time period can be overwhelming to you and to your guests, so if you have one, it should be spaced out as much as possible, she says.

From intimate dinners for the two immediate families to blowout bashes that include the entire wedding guest list—anything goes for an engagement party, says Pamela Chase, wedding planner and owner of Sophisticated Brides in West Roxbury. The number of couples having engagement parties has increased in recent years, and they are in many cases larger and more elaborate. Even a clambake or a barbecue at a relative’s home is often a catered event that includes live music and dancing, she says. “Couples should think about what they hope to accomplish,” says Chase. If the purpose is for the families to meet or get to know each other better, it’s better to keep it small and intimate, but if it’s just to throw a party to kick off the celebrations, everyone they know may be invited.

When inviting out-of-town guests, it’s important to acknowledge that traveling to yet another event can sometimes be a burden, says Chase. A skilled invitation writer can help you choose the appropriate wording that sends the message: We’d love to have you, but it’s completely understood if you can’t make it, she says.

There are no strict rules about whom to invite, where it should be held, or who should host an engagement party, says Almas. Traditionally, the bride’s parents hosted—similar to the wedding—but now any parent, relative, close friend or even the couple themselves may do it.

Christine Doherty is a bride-to-be who grew up in Philadelphia and now lives in Boston. Her parents hosted a catered engagement party for her and her fiance at their home in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Extended family, the bridal party and close friends of the couple and parents were all invited, and this was the first time that many of them—including the parents of the couple—had ever met. “It was important to us to bring our worlds together before the wedding so we won’t have the added pressure of introducing everyone for the first time that day,” says Doherty.

No matter the style of the event you have, one essential element to any engagement party is champagne, since it goes hand-in-hand with toasting, says Almas. Friends and family often toast the couple, and the couple often thanks everyone for coming.

At her own engagement party, Almas also used this time to give personalized gifts to the bridal party. The girls received martini glasses and the guys received shot glasses, each with their name and the words: “Will you be my maid of honor?” (or bridesmaid, best man or groomsman). Everyone left not only with a memento, but also excited about their role in the wedding.

When choosing music, it’s important to think about what type of tone you want to create, says G. Andrew Maness, sole proprietor of Absolutely Music/Four Guys in Tuxes, which provides custom live music for events throughout New England.

A band creates a festive atmosphere that usually involves dancing—which is great for a large engagement party. But for a smaller party—if the purpose is just for guests to mix and mingle and get to know each other—a solo pianist or a string trio is less intrusive.

“The presence of live music at any social event shows the person putting on the party really wants to make it special,” says Maness. And throwing a fabulous engagement party sets the mood for all the celebrations to follow.

To Gift or Not to Gift

Most guests bring gifts to an engagement party, but it isn’t absolutely mandatory, says Patricia Almas, wedding planner and owner of Simple Elegance Planning in Taunton. Monetary gifts are always popular, especially since so many couples today are at least partially paying for their own weddings. “Vendors require deposits, and this can give them a head start.” However, it’s also acceptable to get personal and creative with gifts for an engagement party.

Anything to help the couple relax or plan—like a gift certificate to a store or restaurant, a couples’ massage, or a wedding organizer—will be appreciated, says Panamai Manadee, owner of Bliss Home in Boston. It’s always a good idea to register to give guests as many options as possible, but the registry should not be included on the invitations, she says. “If they want to find it, they will.”

Bride-to-be Christine Doherty purposely didn’t register before her engagement party because she didn’t want guests to feel obligated to bring gifts. “It costs so much to come to the wedding and the shower, and we didn’t want this to be another expense,” she says.

If you truly don’t want gifts, a simple “No gifts please,” on the invitation lets guests off the hook—even though many will bring something anyway, says Almas.