This fall, I designed four weddings and my best friend’s funeral. Planning a memorable gathering in a pandemic may sound impossible. In reality, all five events were experiences I will remember for a lifetime.
In the last 25 years, I have designed over 1,000 celebrations, from dinner parties for 10 to public gatherings with more than 10,000 people. I have planned awards dinners, celebrity black-tie galas, a wedding for a U.S. president’s daughter (not Ivanka), and seven state dinners during the Obama administration. I decorated the White House for two dozen holiday parties two years in a row.
These were events for, on average, 300 people — an impossible number in the time of Covid. In Massachusetts, the limit on gatherings has been as high as 100 and as low as 10, all in nine months. And that number includes every person attending: family, the caterer, the photographer, and the band.
The pandemic has forced us to decide what is truly important. I am not just talking about the most important people in your life, but about life itself. This isn’t just about not getting to have the fairy-tale wedding you dreamed about. Did you ever imagine that a joyful event could be deadly? Or that you would not be able to say goodbye to your loved one at the end of your life together?
What separates one gathering from another is the story you tell. The pandemic has not changed that, but it has forced us to tell our stories in a different way. Bigger is not always better. Smaller is, well, smaller. Being obliged to choose who can be in the room is hard, but it may tell a story about the most important people in your life.
As for the kind of celebration you create, well, that has to change, too. In March, I was convinced that people would be making more conservative decisions: smaller weddings and smaller budgets. I was wrong about that. People are still celebrating with big budgets for small celebrations. Clearly, the fairy tales live on, just in smaller castles.
My niece’s wedding in her parents’ back yard was as moving for the 48 who were there as it would have been for the intended 350 guests at the Woodstock Inn in Vermont.
My best friend’s farewell was attended by just 22 family members. But over 1,000 people watched it on YouTube. The loss is just as large for all who knew him. His life is just as important to celebrate, in person or virtually.
I expect the fall of 2021 will be an extraordinary time for celebrations. We will make up for all the gatherings we had to postpone: the birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, and the celebrations of life. I am sure couples will tell their children how Mommy and Daddy were married in a pandemic. Family reunions will be trending!
This moment will be a part of all our stories for decades to come: that time when we all had to sacrifice, wear a mask, stay home, and celebrate our lives in small ways.
Event planner Bryan Rafanelli lives in Provincetown and Boston.