Bite-size berry tarts, cheesecakes and cupcakes were being passed to the 70-plus guests who had gathered for Lauren Pienkowski and Corey Chavers’s engagement party at the SKY Armory, in Syracuse. By 8 p.m., the party was in full swing when the couple took to the stage, the front of a sign pressed up against Ms. Pienkowski’s chest. The crowd quieted.
Bridesmaids and groomsmen were asked to stand behind them, for a photo op, they were told. A videographer and photographer started to capture the moment. Ms. Pienkowski, 30, scanned the group to make sure everyone had arrived. The D.J. took a musical pause.
“You’ve been so patient about the date of our wedding,” she said. “We promised we would tell you tonight when it will be. I hope people are ready to pack their bags and get excited, because …” She then paused to turn over the sign, which read, “Surprise! Welcome to the wedding of Lauren & Corey, March 18, 2017.” “It’s today.”
Mouths hit the floor. Screams and shouts ensued, followed by clapping. An ivory curtain behind the stage was pulled back to reveal the ceremony location. Guests filed in and took their seats as Ms. Pienkowski ducked into a reserved bathroom and changed into her wedding dress.
Then the couple were married.
“It was fast, suspenseful and exciting,” the bride said. “The shock in the room made for more of an interesting affair.”
Shh, don’t tell anyone, but surprise weddings are having a moment.
No longer the sole domain of celebrity couples looking for privacy, such weddings are becoming popular among couples who can’t pin down a date months in advance, are overwhelmed by the prospect of planning a huge gala, or want to save a bundle on doing an out-of-season event (sometimes without having to provide dinner). The here-and-now philosophy offers many positives.
“As soon as we got engaged, we were asked repeatedly when the big day was, what kind of wedding we wanted, where the wedding would be; we got overwhelmed,” said the newly married Ms. Chavers. “And Corey’s schedule makes it nearly impossible to plan past six months in advance. It was all too much pressure.”
The faux engagement/real wedding was planned within four months. Only their parents and one person from each side of the bridal party knew.
Mr. Chavers, 31, found humor in watching people’s reaction and their attempts to up the amount of their gifts.
“I overhead someone screaming to their date: ‘Put more money in the card, it’s a wedding. It’s. A. Wedding!’” he said. “People were screaming: ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ We really nailed this.”
For Lauren Mabry and Sam Petner, both 33, their goal was to do something unusual.
“We wanted our guests to experience the flood of emotions and happiness that we assumed we would experience on that day,” Ms. Mabry said.
The couple were married in Houston on April 25, 2015, at the McGovern Centennial Gardens. As far as their 200 guests knew, it was a surprise proposal where Mr. Petner would ask for an unsuspecting Ms. Mabry’s hand in marriage. (Unbeknown to everyone, Mr. Petner had proposed five months earlier.) Before calling anyone or snapping photos to post on social media, they discussed the surprise wedding idea.
“We thought it was a good bluff,” the recently wed Ms. Petner said. “Who doesn’t want to watch a proposal? After knowing each other for 19 years and dating for the past four, we thought people would enjoy watching Sam ask. Now looking back, I realize there were so many things that could have gone terribly wrong. I’m not sure it was tremendous luck or meticulous planning, but somehow everything turned out truly magical. I can’t imagine our day any other way.”
Cocktails in the garden were interrupted when Ms. Petner’s father gave a welcome speech and then revealed the truth.
Ms. Petner, who had spent the night before in the nearby Hotel ZaZa, was hiding in a car behind a big wall of shrubbery, in full makeup and dress. Before emerging into the crowd, she heard the joyous eruption from her attendees.
“The video was really important because I wanted to relive the moments I missed,” she said.
“We’re very spontaneous people,” she added. “The surprise made it exciting, and that’s what we were going for.”
While having sealed lips may bring some couples closer together, it can disappoint relatives and best friends who, once the surprised is unveiled, can have hurt feelings or feel left out or duped.
“We had to keep the truth from best friends; that was really hard,” admitted Ms. Petner, who said that only a handful of people were disappointed, but that the disappointment lasted only 24 hours. “If the roles were reversed, I’d probably be hurt, too, so I get it. It’s not for everybody, but it’s the most special thing we’ve ever done.”
Ms. Chavers spoke similarly about hating to fib or be unusually secretive to those closest to her.
“My maid of honor didn’t know; that posed an issue,” she said. “I couldn’t share it with her, and she felt left out that she missed certain moments with me.”
Missed moments are twofold.
For brides choosing to surprise, they lose out on group wedding fittings and a bridal shower. Bachelorette party? Not this time. Registry? What registry? And, as Mr. Chavers witnessed, envelopes contain less money and smaller checks.
“Lauren did feel shortchanged and cheated,” Mr. Chavers said. To make up for a lack of shower and bachelorette party, her friends took her on a post-wedding getaway in June.
Still, for many couples, they’d rather have less than more.
“I’m an anti-bride who’s an event producer who didn’t want to plan my wedding,” said Kate Levenstien, 30, who married Fletcher North, also 30, on March 25, 2017, at Gary’s Loft in New York. They, too, invited guests to an engagement celebration. “It was too much planning and stress,” she said. “We knew we didn’t want to spend a lot of money, and both of us are jokesters who love adventure. We wanted to skip the formality and have something nontraditional.”
Which is what they did. Their 130 guests arrived at 7 p.m., some dressed elegantly, others in ripped jeans and T-shirts. (“If you’d only told us this was a wedding,” claimed her two friends from Brooklyn.) The caterer, Sweet Chili, passed spicy lamb chops and fried chicken sliders. The band, 45 Riots, played jazz off to the side.
For the first hour, Ms. Levenstien wore a pretty skirt and top. Attendees slurped oysters, sipped cocktails and mingled. Then her mother was handed a microphone. Everyone was asked to grab a glass of Champagne and head to the roof for a group toast. Ms. Levenstien jumped into her dress; her father zipped her up. Mr. North added a fancy jacket to his understated tuxedo shirt and slacks. He went upstairs to stand at the end of an aisle, which had been lined with candles. Plants doubled as an alter. Guests sat on benches. The Empire State Building was their backdrop.
“I was so nervous when I entered I grabbed someone’s Champagne and drank it because my throat was so dry,” Ms. Levenstien said. “We didn’t take into consideration that Fletcher would be standing there for 10 or 15 minutes while people came up the stairs. But once they realized what was happening, they started laughing and clapping, hooting and hollering. It made the ceremony my favorite part. That energy lasted through the evening. One friend suspected and brought popping confetti and shot that off.”
For the parents, many of whom have been made co-conspirators, knowing about plans alleviates some concerns while creating others.
“I was relieved when Kate told us because they had gone around and around for a month not knowing what to do,” said Robert Levenstien, Kate’s father. “But my wife and I were concerned people might not go out of their way for an engagement party like they would for a wedding.”
James Mabry, Lauren’s father, was apprehensive about how people would handle the surprise once he shared the real news.
“I didn’t know if I’d hear crickets chirping or applause,” he said. “But when I said it was their wedding, there was an explosion. Everyone really enjoyed it.”
Like the Chavers, the Norths chose not to have a cake. Instead, mini-Key lime pies and a variety of desserts were served.
“My fear was people would go home early because they were mentally prepared for a short engagement party,” the newly wed Ms. North admitted.
Her concern was nullified. Guests stayed until 7 the next morning at the loft. Like Ms. Chavers, a handful of girlfriends are whisking Ms. North to Vermont for a post-wedding party weekend. Gifts are still tricking in.
“Having a surprise wedding allowed the planning process to be an intimate affair between Corey and I,” Ms. Chavers said. “It was a secret for just us, until we let everyone else in on it.”