MANY IS THE MISTLETOE kiss that has ended in wedding day bliss, but this year will see some couples opting to exchange vows in a stately home or a hotel. In the case of the 50 per cent of couples who opt for a civil wedding they no longer have to.go to their local registry office, they can shop around.
The reason for this change is down to the 1994 Marriage Act, which came into force from 1 January, and a flurry of application from alternative venues not pubs or bars to be licensed for marriages is expected by local authorities.
But before rushing down the aisle or up the registry office steps more prospective brides and bridegrooms are considering it sensible to have an Americanstyle marriage contract protecting their personal assets in case they divorce.
Even Catholic engaged couples, for whom divorce is not an option, say they set about making a Will, and talk about practical issues such as what to do if one partner is offered a job that entails a move not necessarily the man in a way in which their parents find difficult to understand
But such hard facts of '90s life have to be faced and are just the sort of issues discussed at marriage preparation classes run by the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council.
It also raises the question of "Why get married"? as study after study charts the increasing number of couples who opt to cohabit.
Joanna Lafaber of the London based Cavendish Counselling Group, a partnership of trained relationship counsellors says: "For so many of us, marriage still represents an ideal state of being loved and desired, understood and valued by the person we love. Add to that the promise that we will never have to feel alone any more, and it is easy to see why most of us continue to search with the hope of finding that special rela tionship.
"It is a decision to make that special commitment and most people want to make such a commitment by standing up in front of family and friends."
The romantically inclined pair, however, can make their promises to each other by following the increasing trend of getting married in exotic locations, and at the same time get round the problem of who to invite to the wedding.
Getting married abroad now accounts for four per cent of the wedding market with around 15,000 couples saying "I do" or the foreign language equivalent in locations as varied as a Thai temple, a helicopter over Las Vegas, or a Caribbean beach. .
Apart from not wanting to have the entire family and friends at the wedding, price difference is a major factor. The average cost of a wedding in Britain is 1,000 excluding the honeymoon. Whereas a week's all-in trip to the Caribbean including a ceremony at a five-star hotel averages £2,000.
The country's biggest holiday company, Thomson's, flies out more than 2,500 couples a year to weddings abroad. Among the more unusual ceremonies last year were an underwater exchange of vows in Florida, and a hot air balloon wedding on safari in Kenya.
Jamaica is regarded as an economically popular destination around £500 for a wedding package but bargains are to be had in Dominica, where you can get married for £380 on a basic wedding deal.
Of course residency qualifications need considering: some countries require you to have been there for a month; in others it is a matter of days.
But as this wedding market continues to expand, travel operators such as Kuoni, Cosmos and Elegant Resorts of the Caribbean offer packages that make red tape easy to cut. Which is all a far cry from the local church and reception in the adjoining church hall or nearby hotel.
But you don't have to travel thousands of miles if you are in love. Nearer at home is Gretna Green in Scotland, the Dumfriesshire village where eloping couples once made the dash to the Scottish borders to be married over the blacksmith's anvil usually with the bride's father in furious pursuit.
Today marriages take place in a smart registry office half a mile away from the smoke-stained blacksmith's shop. On St Valentine's day last year 20 starry-eyed couples, many in long white dresses and toppers and tails exchanged vows, paying an extra £36 on top of the normal £56 fee.
Of all the changes happening on the wedding scene perhaps financial factors are the most telling of all. The cost of the average wedding has soared by an unprecedented 20 per cent in a year. Couples who want a white church wedding with all the trimmings are happy to spend £11,000, but an increasing number are as likely to say "We'll pay" as "I will". No longer is the father of the bride expected to pay the brunt of the eventual bill.
A survey by You and Your Wedding magazine reveals that the largest slice of the wedding budget goes on the reception at an average cost of 44,104. Photographs are taken for around £329, the wedding dress costs £624 and £224 is spent on wedding cars or carriages. Then the newlyweds escape on a £1,936 honeymoon.
Said a magazine spokesman: "You would have thought that if people were paying for themselves they would aim to spend less, but that doesn't seem to be happening.
"People are going for designer cakes and designer flowers rather than the more traditional things."