Don't let the name fool you. You don't have to spend the entire night perfecting your walk down the aisle -- just part of it. You'll spend the rest eating and drinking merrily, compliments of the groom and his family (at least most of the time).
What Is It?
The rehearsal dinner is a practice party traditionally hosted by the groom's parents on the eve of the wedding. A formal rehearsal of the ceremony is not mandatory, but most officiants will want to run through the service with the bride, groom, their parents, the wedding party, and any readers, giving everyone their cues for the next day. If you have a slew of attendants this is a good time to get them familiar with the layout of the ceremony location and make sure they know the order they're walking in -- as well as an opportunity to go over what time to be there on the wedding day, and any other last-minute details.
After the rehearsal -- usually held at the church/ceremony site -- everyone gathers for a celebratory dinner, where the bride and groom are roasted and toasted (go easy on the toasting; you do have to get married the next day!). The dinner is a great opportunity for your two families to get better acquainted before the wedding day. You may also present the wedding party with thank-you gifts during the course of the evening.
Mingle with your guests. The dinner is a great opportunity for both of your families to get better acquainted before the wedding day.
Traditionally, the groom's family throws this fete, but these days it's up for grabs. You two might take matters into your own hands, or both sets of parents may choose to do the honors together.
Where Is It?
The event can be as casual or as fancy as you like. Many are held in hotel banquet rooms, or restaurants, with full-course dinners and desserts (some have a distinct resemblance to a wedding reception!). Others are held at home, with Italian or Chinese food ordered in. Where you decide to have yours depends on the budget of whoever is throwing it, how many guests there will be -- and often simply what kind of party the host or hostess envisions. While the couple does have some say about this, if the groom's family hosts, you should really try to let his mom be the hostess for this evening. Concentrate your own planning efforts on the wedding.
At the very least, the guest list includes immediate family (parents and siblings), wedding-party members and any spouses and significant others, and the parents of any child attendants (inviting the children themselves is optional). You should also invite the officiant and his/her spouse to the dinner.
If many out-of-town guests are invited to the wedding, they may also be invited to the rehearsal dinner, especially if there are many who will have already arrived in town for the wedding. If you'd rather have the rehearsal be an intimate affair but don't want to leave other guests hanging, think about having the rehearsal two nights before the wedding day -- on Thursday night for a Saturday wedding -- and then having a welcome party for out-of-towners on Friday night instead.
A few elements are generally incorporated into the festivities:
Toasting: This is a great opportunity to thank your loved ones -- there probably won't be time to publicly toast everyone at the wedding reception itself. As host of the party, the groom's father often goes to bat first, toasting his soon-to-be daughter-in-law and her family; the groom also says a few words.
Giving gifts: You may choose to give your attendants their thank-you gifts at this shindig. Make sure to also present your parents and anyone else who was an integral part of the wedding-planning process with a token of your appreciation -- flowers, a nice bottle of wine, or even a huge hug will do.