Couples ring in new year with wedding bells

Iris Young is modeling her wedding gown - off-the-shoulder, velvet, with some chiffon thrown in.

"I'm going to be so exquisite," the Newark, Del., resident says happily. "I just hope nobody else has my dress."

Not something the bride traditionally has to worry about on her wedding day. But the soon-to-be Mrs. Thompkins's wedding is anything but traditional. Tonight at midnight, she and her fianc will join more than 150 other couples in a group New Year's Eve ceremony in Wilmington, Del.

The nuptials in Delaware are just one example of how couples are racing to have the wedding of the century. But scores of midnight ceremonies tonight and booked chapels well into October are witness to more than just a fascination with round numbers. They're also a reflection of America's optimism, as

brides and grooms seek to make a new life in the new millennium.

"Maybe no other year will ever have this sense of entering into a new era," says Deborah McCoy, a wedding consultant in Boca Raton, Fla., and author of the new "Weddings A-Z."

And there are practical considerations as well. "I've heard some women are doing it just because they want their husbands to remember ... their anniversary," laughs Lisa Milbrand, associate editor of Modern Bride in New York.

In the City of Brotherly Love, Mayor Ed Rendell and his wife, a judge, are performing a group ceremony for 1,000 couples. Some 2,000 couples are being united in Bangkok. And a Virginia duo went on an online auction and won the right to be the first pair in 2000 to say "I do" - from an island in the South Pacific.

For Ms. Young and her fianc, Delaware's First Night wedding was the perfect combination of low-fuss and high celebration. "We'd both had big weddings the first time [it's the second marriage for both] and didn't want to do that ... but a justice of the peace just didn't seem special enough." Then she heard about the midnight wedding and thought, "That's it!"

But the weddings aren't just New Year's Eve. The matrimonial marathon should continue throughout 2000, experts say. In one of the more notable ceremonies, 1,000 couples will wed at Niagara Falls on Valentine's Day.

About 2.3 million Americans marry a year. How many more are likely to tie the knot in 2000 is anybody's guess.

"I can't even fathom a guess," says Ms. Milbrand. "It's a huge phenomenon."

Ms. McCoy says that her clients are finding sites and services are already booked for October. However many people end up getting hitched, she says, one thing's certain: They'll be paying a premium for having that double zero on their wedding certificate.

"You're looking at 20 percent increases, and 300 percent for New Year's Eve," says McCoy, who has advised her clients against New Year's weddings. One Las Vegas chapel raised its prices from $189 to $1,999 for its midnight ceremony. Some hotels charged as much as $140,000 for a New Year's wedding, though there were no takers for some of the pricier options.

The cost of Young's wedding wouldn't cover dinner and a movie for two. For a $30 application fee, she gets a pre-ceremony reception, a fireworks display, wedding cake, photos, and a basket of commemorative goodies, including a millennium travel clock.

"It's probably the least expensive wedding anybody could ever have," says Ken Boulden, the clerk of the peace who is officiating the group ceremony, which will be held in English, Spanish, and sign language. As for the all-important timing, the fireworks display has been cued to a computer synchronized with an official clock. In addition, Mr. Boulden has been rehearsing to get the ceremony timed to the second - although he's left himself a 30-second buffer, just in case.

He's not the only one working on his delivery. "When the Waterford ball crashes down in Times Square, we hope to be saying 'I do,' " says Robert Duckworth, clerk of the Anne Arundel Circuit Court in Annapolis, Md. Tonight, he'll be donning a tux, officiating at two group weddings - one at 11:30 p.m. and one at midnight.

While some might resent giving up this special night with their families, Mr. Duckworth looks at it "as part of my celebration." And he describes with evident delight the preparations he's made to make the 24 couples' courthouse nuptials special - from poinsettias and a trellis filled with balloons to a three-tiered wedding cake, complete with a tiny bride and groom decked out in millennial blue and silver.

"I think it's very romantic," says Terri Travis of Odenton, Md., who is being married during the midnight session in Annapolis. "It's the start of a brand new century. Why not start it off doing something wonderful?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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