Your Aunt thinks your Mom's Best Friend is nothing but a pretentious social climber and refuses to sit anywhere near "that woman" and your friend Shannon finds it highly insulting to be sat at the "singles" table just because she's "single." It never ceases to amaze me at how petty people can get when it comes to seating at the reception...What to do? Well, with a little diplomacy and common sense, you can create a seating plan that will make "almost" everyone happy.
A Formal Seating Plan
I think the best thing about a formal seating plan is that it reduces your guests' anxiety of trying to find a seat and it ensures that couples who want to sit together get to. You may feel that you're not up to the task of developing a formal seating plan but if you've ever been to a wedding without a seating plan before (and survived the mass trampling), then you know why having one is a great idea.
On the other hand, if you have an intimate wedding (under about 50 people), you may not need a detailed plan. Some couples opt to have a cocktail party or buffet with a few tables, in hopes that guests will "alternate" sitting and eating. If this is what you plan to do, make sure that your elderly guests have a place to sit down.
Who Sits Where?
The Bridal Table: The bride and groom may sit at a long rectangular head table or round table at the focal point of the room, or alternatively, at their very own "sweetheart" table. Some couples choose to have no table at all, but to leave a few seats empty at every table so they can mingle throughout the reception. No matter which configuration you choose, the bridal table is usually set apart from the others by some type of decoration, such as flowers.
Classically, the groom sits to the bride's right and the best man sits to her left. The maid of honor sits to the groom's right. Depending on how large the table is, the other attendants can also be seated near the bride and groom. In the old days, spouses and significant others were relegated to different tables, but this tradition is now generally ignored. If you can only fit the best man and maid of honor along with their significant others at your table, do so. Seat remaining attendants and their "plus ones" at another table.
Family Tables: Often, the parents of the bride and groom sit opposite each other at a large family table, with grandparents, the officiant, and other close friends. An alternative is to have the bride and groom's parents "host" their own tables, consisting of their family members and close friends. In the case of divorced parents, each parent may also host his or her own table, smoothly diffusing any awkwardness or discomfort.
Mix or Match: As for the rest of your guests, should you put friends together or seat them with "new" people? The answer is a bit of both. While it is a great idea to mix in a few new faces at each table, remember that people are most comfortable when they know some of their dinner companions. Be considerate. Not even your most gregarious friends will want to sit at a table full of complete strangers, so put acquaintances together when you can. If you have guests who don't know anyone, seat them near guests with similar interests. If you have a group of friends that cannot fit at one table, split them down the middle, and fill in each table with other guests. Whatever you do, don't leave one of the gang out.
If you have no idea what to do with your parents' friends, let your mother and mother-in-law arrange those tables. They will be thrilled to be involved, and this may keep them from trying to control of the rest of your seating plan.
Singles vs. Couples
If you've been dying to fix your old roommate up with your fiancé's cousin, you might take this opportunity to discreetly seat them next to each other. Resist the urge, however, to create a separate "singles" table, though, as this might embarrass your guests. By the same token, don't seat your unmarried friend at a table full of gushing newlyweds. A little sensitivity and some good old common sense are the best guides.
If you have several children at your wedding, seat them together at a separate kids' table. If your flowergirl and ringbearer are the only children present, seat them with their parents.
Place Cards or Escort Cards
Now that you've figured out where to put everyone, all you have to do is decide how to guide them to their seats.
Place Cards: These tented cards can be used alone or with escort cards. Displayed near the entrance of the reception in alphabetical order, they usually include the guest's name and table number. Once at the table, guests usually select their own seats.
Escort Cards: Used in the most formal seating plans, escort cards usually contain the guest's name on the outer envelope, and their table number on the card inside. Place cards await guests at each table, designating their seats.
A Definite No-No: Guests should never alter seating arrangements or "switch seats" at a wedding reception, but it is perfectly acceptable to mingle at different tables after dinner.
Before creating your seating plan, it is a good idea to obtain the floor plan and make several copies. Wedding Mapper has a great interactive tool to help you put together a great seating chart. This way, you can experiment with various different arrangements before making your final decision. When in doubt, trust your instincts. And no matter how perfect your final seating plan seems, you will undoubtedly receive at least one last minute phone call begging you to change something to make a guest happy (your MIL). Try to be accommodating, but don't let it make you crazy. Chances are, after the dinner, everyone will want to get up and mingle anyway.