Dwayne Chin and Maria Ruiz-Chin had 14 guests at their...

Dwayne Chin and Maria Ruiz-Chin had 14 guests at their Long Beach wedding two years ago. Credit: Jennie Clarke Photography

At the end of Thanksgiving dinner last year, Claus Wagner, 61, made an announcement. He and his longtime partner, Margaret Nicosia, 60, were getting married.

When the cheers died down, the Yaphank couple unzipped their fleece jackets to reveal some unusual attire. She had on a lacy white wedding top over her jeans. His T-shirt was designed to look like a tuxedo.

Then, Nicosia dropped the bomb.

“And we’re getting married now,” she shouted.

That’s when the crowd realized they were the surprise participants in a phenomenon that has become increasingly popular on Long Island these days — an elopement. A minister appeared for a quick ceremony, vows were exchanged and afterward the group gathered for dessert, some still dazed by the development.

“My best man didn’t even know he was the best man until we stuck the boutonniere on him,” Wagner said.

Traditional weddings, with all of their pomp and circumstance, are still common around the country. But elopements, once considered to be “secret” weddings, are now recognized simply as an intimate and personalized service, said Janessa White, co-founder and chief executive of Simply Eloped, the largest provider of such packages in the country.

“They definitely are on the rise,” she said. “The state of the economy, plus changes in values, are leading to couples making more cost-conscious, experience-worthy wedding decisions.”

Her company defines an elopement as a ceremony with 20 guests or less that can be held anywhere, she said. A micro wedding, another trend in nuptials, normally has 30 to 80 guests and requires infrastructure such as parking and bathrooms.

The Knot, a marketplace for wedding vendors, estimates the average price of a wedding in the United States is $35,000, while the Wedding Spot, an online site that allows people to search for wedding venues, puts that figure at $50,000 on Long Island.

Wagner and Nicosia’s shindig? “Less than $500,” Nicosia said.

’Something short and sweet’

Ryder Kilfoil and Carol Romano married at Coe Hall at...

Ryder Kilfoil and Carol Romano married at Coe Hall at the Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park on April 21, 2022, in Oyster Bay. Credit: Marie April Gismondi

“Some people don’t want the big, splashy Long Island wedding,” said Joe Iadanza, 52, an ordained minister with Church of Ancient Ways, a nonprofit, interfaith religious organization with an offshoot division that specializes in elopements called Elope Long Island.

Instead, he said, “They want something short and sweet.”

It was short and sweet for Long Islanders Ryder Kilfoil, 31, and Carol Romano, 32, who had a brief “Gothic” service two years ago at the Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay. There were no family and friends at the ceremony. There was no banquet hall. It was just them, the minister and a photographer, who served as the witness.

“If the wedding had cost a half-million dollars or $500, it wouldn’t have mattered to me,” said Romano. “I felt so good that day.”

Wedding photographer Marybeth Rajotte, based in Coram, said she also has seen a jump in elopements in recent years.

Whereas in 2020, she was shooting a half dozen a year, that figure now is around 35 annually, she said.

“People who elope prefer something more personal,” she said. “They want something that feels right for them.”

Certainly, attitudes about nuptials are changing.

Although there has been an uptick in recent years, marriage rates in the United States have generally plummeted over the past few decades, primarily because of financial reservations about starting a family, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center.

And for those couples who do want to marry, a national survey two years ago by the Wedding Report, a research company that gathers industry statistics, found that 62% were open to a scaled-back, elopement-style wedding.

The pandemic effect

Probably the most significant reason elopements have increased is the pandemic, according to Iadanza, who said he officiated at about 35 elopements annually before 2020 and now averages about 100 such events per year.

Marie April Gismondi, who founded the Church of Ancient Ways 27 years ago, remembered getting panicked calls during the early days of the pandemic from people who had secured a marriage license, but were afraid they couldn’t arrange a ceremony before its 60-day expiration date. One of the main reasons they wanted to tie the knot was so they could be covered by their partner’s health insurance, according to Gismondi. They wanted to know: Was an elopement possible?

Leave it to me, Gismondi told them.

“They would put the license in the mailbox and stand on the lawn. I would pull up and take it out of the mailbox. After that, I’d shout out of the car window, ‘Do you, so and so, take…’ Then I’d do the same thing for the other person. I’d yell, ‘Congratulations, you’re married,’ ” she said. “Then, I would drive away.”

Lauren Gunn created “Pop-Up Vows” during that period precisely because she recognized the need for a quick wedding with little physical contact, she said. She got ordained, registered with the town clerk and began hosting couples at drive-through services at her home in Long Beach.

Some people asked to be married on the beach, which was easy for her to accommodate since it was walking distance from her home. Demand for the ceremonies has continued despite the decline of COVID-19, Gunn said, and she now holds about 100 ceremonies a year in venues such as restaurants, parks and the walkway on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Literally, the world can be your altar,” she said.

Services provided by her firm and Elope Long Island range from $100 to several thousand dollars, depending on fees charged by the locations and whether food or photography is requested, said Gunn.

Just because such events are more casual doesn’t mean the participants take them less seriously.

“It was quick, but still very personal,” Nicosia said of their ceremony. “All the people who are important in our lives were there and that’s what mattered.”

Newsday spoke to three couples who chose an elopement and explained their reasons why.

Showing their independence

Ryder Kilfoil and Carol Romano’s wedding environment was not exactly ideal.

The sky was overcast. A chilly wind whipped across the grounds and under the gray arches of the century-old Tudor-style mansion where the nuptials took place. The bride and groom braced themselves against the cold and exchanged shivering vows.

But for Romano, it was heaven.

“I felt like a Gothic queen,” she said. “It may not be every little girl’s dream, but it was mine.”

The scene took place two years ago at Coe Hall at Planting Fields.

It was chosen because Romano, a lunch monitor at an elementary school, and Kilfoil, a bricklayer for the New York City Housing Authority, loved visiting the grounds when they were dating, she said.

“I have a Gothic flair, so it was a no-brainer to do it there,” Romano said.

In keeping with her preferences for a dark ambience, Romano wore a black ball gown. Kilfoil donned an all-black suit and tie. The event totaled about $800, Romano said. That included dinner with a few relatives and more than a dozen friends at the Seaford Italian restaurant where Kilfoil had proposed to her seven years before. Dessert was a cake embellished with black roses.

The Bethpage couple, who have two children, decided on an elopement as an affirmation of their independence.

“It’s always been the two of us leaning on each other,” Romano said, “so it was important that we did it alone with no external influences.”

Afterward, it was back home to their kids and their daily routine.

“We were already a family unit, so this wasn’t a big change,” Romano said. “But that day was a little sparkle.”

A surprise ceremony

Margaret Nicosia and Claus Wagner had a "surprise" wedding ceremony...

Margaret Nicosia and Claus Wagner had a "surprise" wedding ceremony last year. Credit: Margaret Wagner

Margaret Nicosia and Claus Wagner’s elopement last year turned out even better than they expected. Both had been hitched before and never thought they would marry again. But as the years passed, they said they changed their minds and decided to give it another try, Nicosia said.

The Yaphank couple’s initial plan was to gather friends and relatives at an upstate family cabin for a “regular” ceremony. But COVID-19 was still lurking and it was a long way to travel.

“We didn’t want everyone having to drive all the way up there,” said Wagner, the owner/operator of a tractor trailer.

A Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Wagner’s side of the family was coming up and — since everyone they had planned to invite would be there anyway — they decided it would be the perfect time to tie the knot, Nicosia said. Then came the inspiration.

Why not make it a surprise?

Covert arrangements were made with Nicosia’s family. Wagner’s side had no clue what was about to happen. Then came the announcement, the unzipping of the jackets, the reveal and the wedding.

Also, some confusion.

Nicosia’s future mother-in-law wasn’t wearing her hearing aids and had trouble figuring out what was happening.

“It was like a comedy show,” said Nicosia, a marketing director for a personal-injury law firm.

Nicosia said she brought out a veil she had secreted away and put it on. The family moved furniture out of the way. Hidden flowers and candles were brought out and positioned around the living room. They turned off the football game. In all, there were 15 guests including the dog, Shadow.

Gismondi, the Church of Ancient Ways pastor, showed up to perform the ceremony. And then, it was over.

“Everyone was happy,” Nicosia said. “Nobody got drunk and everybody is still talking about it.”

'It was for us’

Dwayne Chin and Maria Ruiz-Chin got married in Long Beach...

Dwayne Chin and Maria Ruiz-Chin got married in Long Beach for around $2,200. Credit: Jennie Clarke Photography

When Dwayne Chin, 41, and Maria Ruiz-Chin, 35, decided they wanted to get married two years ago, they both knew what they wanted. And what they didn’t want.

“Large weddings, for me, are just headaches,” said Chin, owner of Wine & Design Rockville Centre, a franchise that hosts art classes during which wine is served. “I didn’t want to go through all that.”

That received an amen from Ruiz-Chin, a licensed technician at a Forest Hills animal hospital who said she was particularly stressed at the time, since she was taking finals for college and also working overtime.

The Lynbrook couple decided the answer was an elopement. Both knew the perfect venue.

“Some people want to do it in a church,” said Chin. “But we love the sun and the heat, so for us it was the beach.”

The morning of the ceremony in Long Beach was overcast, not a great sign. But Chin surprised his fiancée by creating an archway bedecked with flowers. Afterward, he smoothed out the sand to make it look like an aisle.

“I was in a state of tears because I wasn’t expecting all that,” said Ruiz-Chin.

The 14 invited guests arrived. There were no chairs. Just before the service began at 12:30 p.m., the clouds rolled away and the sun came out.

“It was the perfect moment,” Ruiz-Chin said.

They especially liked the intimacy of the occasion, which cost around $2,200 including dinner at a restaurant afterward, Chin said. With the money they saved, they went on a “babymoon” to Jamaica and — after their daughter, Amari, was born in June 2023 — a honeymoon in the Maldives.

Some of their relatives and friends were unhappy they weren’t invited, Ruiz-Chin said.

“But everyone who needed to be there was there,” she said. “It was for us and that’s all that matters.”

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