So much to do, so little time.

On Tuesday, Elena Cardona and her partner, Liz Quinones, plan to go to Town Hall in their hometown of Phillipsburg, N.J., to file for their license. Wednesday, there will be last-minute errands. Thursday, Quinones will get her hair done. Friday, it will be Cardona's turn. The food's ordered, including heart-shaped ravioli and a three-tier wedding cake.

And then at 7 p.m. Friday, before more than 50 of their relatives and closest friends at the Lambertville Station restaurant in Lambertville, Cardona and Quinones will be in the first wave of couples in New Jersey to be joined in civil union.

"I'm very excited," Cardona said. "I can't believe it's only . . . days away."

Believe it. This week is the start of civil unions for gay couples in New Jersey.

The law, signed by Gov. Corzine on Dec. 21, goes into effect tomorrow, meaning couples can apply for a civil-union license. In most cases, couples will have to wait 72 hours after receiving the license before they can be officially civil-unioned.

The wait rule is waived for couples civil-unioned in another state, namely Vermont or Connecticut, or married in Massachusetts or a country that allows gay marriage. New Jersey will recognize those unions as civil unions, with all the associated rights, but couples can choose to reaffirm their union, said Lee Moore, a spokesman for the state attorney general.

Hence right after the clock strikes midnight tomorrow morning, Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality, and his partner, Daniel Gross, will reaffirm their union at the office of State Sen. Loretta Weinberg in Teaneck. Goldstein and Gross were civil-unioned in Vermont and married in Canada.

Because of the Presidents Day holiday, most people won't be able to apply until Tuesday. The first wave of unions is expected Thursday or Friday. Garden State Equality is sponsoring four days of celebratory events tomorrow through Thursday around the state.

In super-gay-friendly Lambertville, across the river from New Hope, Mayor David Del Vecchio said his City Hall would be open from just past midnight to 1 a.m. tomorrow to accept filings for civil-union licenses. Then on Thursday just after midnight, he said, he will perform Lambertville's first civil union for a lesbian couple, who don't want to be identified.

(A sprinkling of other municipalities, including Asbury Park and South Orange, will also have limited hours to take license applications tomorrow.)

Depending on demand, Del Vecchio said, his City Council president and a municipal judge are on deck to perform unions.

"I think you're going to see a burst in the beginning," said Del Vecchio, who will be civil-unioning Cardona and Quinones on Friday.

In Collingswood, Mayor Jim Maley said town offices would be open tomorrow so civil union applications would be accepted.

Maley said he had blocked off Thursday and Friday to perform union ceremonies for those who want them.

Kathy Hogan, deputy mayor of Haddon Township and self-described "out elected official," said she was happy to perform ceremonies for free.

Not everyone shares the enthusiasm. Some elected officials around the state have said they won't perform civil unions.

State Attorney General Stuart Rabner has said that if a public official chooses to be "available generally" to perform marriages, he or she must also perform civil unions.

Cape May Point Mayor Malcolm Fraser said he had performed quite a few weddings in his time, but no longer. Vineland Mayor Perry Barse also said he had performed his last wedding and would not perform civil unions.

"I respect everyone's right to be with whom they wish," Barse said, but "I reserve the right . . . to not perform these ceremonies."

The attorney general said clergy could refuse to perform civil unions.

The Rev. Charles J. Stephens said he and his congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing in the Trenton area were "very excited" to begin celebrating civil unions. In the first two weekends of the law, "we could do up to 70," he said, adding he had lined up other clergy willing to help out if they got even more.

Some couples have already expressed interest in having their ceremonies at the church, Stephens said, including one couple from the Philadelphia area, even though civil-union legal protections do not apply in Pennsylvania.

Russell McTague and John McFarlane, who live outside Trenton and have been together 39 years, plan to be civil-unioned. McTague, a retired teacher, said he was pleased.

"Am I ecstatic? No. Unless this law is changed, it puts us in a permanent state of second-class citizenship," he said.

His is probably the voice of the gay majority.

In October, the state Supreme Court ruled that gay couples are eligible for the same legal protections as married couples and ordered the Legislature to take action. The Legislature, saying gay marriage lacked support, passed the civil-union law.

While the law affords gay couples far greater benefits than before in New Jersey, it won't apply to federal matters. Indeed, some couples consider civil union an insult; they're waiting for the law to allow marriage.

Garden State Equality has said most couples who get civil-unioned will do it for the greater protections, but may forgo elaborate celebrations. Many gay couples have already had commitment ceremonies.

Collingswood couple Colleen Gallo, an advocate for the disabled, and Stefanie Hansen, a theatrical designer, will await the day when they can have a real wedding.

"We're basically going to have a very simple ceremony on Friday, and someday we will have a bigger to-do when marriage equality becomes available to us," Gallo said.

Janine Casella and Rachel Roff of Woodbury had a formal commitment ceremony in 2004 - gowns, witnesses, very elegant. Since then, they've become the mothers of twin boys. Saturday, they plan to be civil-unioned at home. Roff will take Casella's name.

"We'll probably have sweatpants on," joked Casella, a teacher. "Basically, we're doing it for the paperwork, the legal rights."

Elena Cardona, a finance worker, and Liz Quinones, a university police officer, want that, too. After Friday, Cardona and her children will be eligible for coverage by Quinones' health insurance, among other benefits.

But then there's the party. They have booked a videographer, a DJ, and a drag queen to perform. Cardona's mother, who is giving her away, is getting nervous. Her son, the ring bearer, has been practicing "the walk." And all the kids are psyched about staying in a hotel. The honeymoon? That, she said, would wait until next year "for our wedding anniversary."

She did not correct herself.

"Everyone can call it what they want to call it. For me it's our wedding day," Cardona said. "A wedding is about two people who love each other and are committed to each other, and that's what we're doing."

Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or