Updated: Apr 23, 2019
“Deeds not words” - Emmeline Pankhurst
As anyone who’s ever had an unhappy relationship knows, loving words aren’t always enough. Love is a verb and when you really love someone, you show that through actions.
When we celebrants talk about wedding rituals, the word can put some people off. It has connotations of religion, spirituality and solemnity that don’t necessary connect with modern couples.
A ritual is really just any action that carries a bit of symbolism with it. I made you a birthday cake to show you I love you. I gave you some flowers because I’m sorry your guinea pig died. Almost all humans participate in rituals - even if we think we don’t.
A wedding ceremony itself is a ritual, containing various mini-rituals within it. Depending on how you feel about weddings, tradition, religion and being the centre of attention, the Christian rituals many of us associate with weddings (such as the bride’s entrance with her father, the singing of hymns, the exchange of vows, the giving of rings, the minister’s blessing to the couple etc) might make you feel emotional, excited, uncomfortable or irritated - or none of the above!
But even if you’re not even slightly spiritual or touchy-feely, you can still have a wedding ceremony that expresses what the two of you mean to each other - through actions, moments and little details as well as through the words you’ll speak.
Let’s not use the word rituals, let’s say actions. Find the right actions to include in your wedding ceremony and, just as we often remember a thoughtful birthday present more intensely than the words in the card, so you might find that these are the moments that come rushing back to you whenever you remember your wedding day.
If you ask me to help you create your wedding ceremony and suggest personalized rituals, I guarantee we’ll come up with cringe-free ideas that feel just right to you.
Here are a few unusual ideas that can be fun, understated and relaxed. Many of them will give your wedding guests an opportunity to feel more involved in your ceremony. They won't be suitable for all couples or all venues but they’re a starting point.
1) Creating the space
If you’re having a rustic, outdoorsy wedding, you can involve your guests by getting them to build or decorate the space where you’ll exchange your vows. For example guests could:
Create a circle for you both to stand inside - using pebbles from their gardens, flowers they’ve brought along, rose petals or any other objects that suit your theme or style.
Build an archway, canopy or naked tipi out of sticks or other natural materials (perfect for a woodland wedding).
Decorate your wedding canopy with ribbons, flowers or their own notes of good wishes or even pictures of the two of you (a great way to involve children).
2) Making an entrance
There are countless ways to make your entrance - whether you choose to come in together or separately. Remember, if you want a traditional walking down the aisle moment, you’re free to choose which of you will be the one to make the grand entrance and who - if anyone - will accompany you. You don’t have to stick with traditional gendered roles. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking:
Walk in towards each other - if you’d like to emphasize the equality of your relationship, why not both walk in at the same time to your processional music? Lots of couples are now choosing to walk down the aisle together. Another lovely option, if your venue layout allows it, is to walk in at the same time but coming from opposite directions so that you’re slowly walking towards each other.
Avoid the processional altogether - you’d be surprised how many nearlyweds feel anxious about being centre of attention and dread that all-eyes-on-me walking in moment. If that’s how you feel, why not just avoid it? Both of you can be present to meet and greet your guests, just as you would at any other party and, when it’s time to start the ceremony, just walk in with everyone else and ask your celebrant to find a different way to mark the beginning of the ceremony.
Make use of your guests - for outdoor weddings or any venue with plenty of space and flexibility, a really inclusive entrance idea is to get your guests to form an aisle. Your celebrant can get them all to stand in two rows and then you can walk in down the middle - giving you a really personal and intimate processional route. You could give your guests flowers, ribbons, candles or similar to hold to decorate your own living, human aisle.
Wait for your guests to come to you - this could be as simple as having a private moment together in your ceremony room before you invite guests to come in and take their seats. Or it could be as wacky as planning a woodland wedding where you wait for your guests in your secret ceremony location while they have to follow a treasure trail to find you!
Get creative with your means of transport - if you want to make a grand entrance, the sky’s the limit. Search YouTube for unusual wedding entrances and you’ll find couples dancing, biking and parachuting into their ceremonies. I wrote a wedding script inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which the bride arrives by rowing boat to a ceremony held on a sandy beach on a remote island. (This was just a sample script I did for my celebrant training! Do get in touch if you want a Tempest themed wedding - it’s on my celebrant bucket list!)
3) Playing with fire
(When you’ve checked all your venue’s rules and carried out a full and thorough risk assessment…) why not get creative with fire? Lighting a unity candle (where each partner lights a taper candle and together they light a third, larger ‘unity candle’) is a tradition that comes from the Roman Catholic Church but is really catching on at secular weddings. It’s a lovely simple ceremony with great potential to involve other family members or to light candles for absent friends.
If you’re having an evening wedding, why not give a candle to each of your guests - they can pass the flame between them, lighting their neighbour’s candle from their own until everyone’s is alight. This is a lovely way to involve everyone and bring your guests together - it will also create the most gorgeous photographs.
If you like your flames warm and wild and you’re having a festival style wedding, why not kick the party off by lighting the bonfire or fire-pit together at the end of your ceremony? Same symbolism, much more exciting!
4) Food and Drink
Even if you have no truck with candles, rose petals or any big romantic gestures, we can surely all agree that weddings are a great excuse to enjoy food and drink together. From the eastern European custom of newlyweds breaking bread together to Japanese sake-sharing ceremonies, it’s hard to find a culture from around the world that doesn’t have wedding traditions involving eating and drinking.
If you want to find a ritual that’s right for you, a great starting point is to 1) research what’s out there for inspiration, 2) think about your own tastes, personal stories and cultural connections and then 3) get creative and think about how you can adapt the ideas you’ve found to make them fit your needs. With that in mind, here are just a few ideas to get you started:
Raise a glass to seal the deal - the Scottish ‘loving cup’ or Quaich is a shallow, two-handled cup that couples traditionally sip whisky from after they’ve exchanged their wedding vows. If you like this idea you can, of course, choose any kind of cup and any kind of drink.
Create a ‘Unity Cocktail’ - one of my couples will be making a unity cocktail straight after they’ve exchanged their vows. They’ll each add ingredients that reflect their separate heritages and tastes. Then they’ll sip from the resulting blend and share what’s left with all their guests.
Eat chocolate and say it’s symbolic - taking a moment in your ceremony to nibble sweet white or milk chocolate and a square of bitter dark chocolate is meant to represent the ‘for better for worse’ idea in your wedding vows - together you promise to share the sweetness and bitterness of life. We all know you just want to eat some chocolate during your ceremony but none of us will say that out loud…
5) Make some memories
If the two of you create something together during your wedding ceremony, that object will carry with it strong memories of how you felt when you made it. Many popular ceremony rituals produce something tangible for you to keep - from handfasting cords to jars of blended sand - but my very favourite is the First Row Box. You put together a box that you’ll only open when you’ve hit a bump in the marital road and you need to remember how you both felt in happier times. Many couples put a couple of sealed love letters and a fabulous bottle of wine into the box. You can lock the box or even hammer it shut during your ceremony. At any time in your marriage, even if times are good or to mark a milestone anniversary, you can always open the box, enjoy its contents and then make a new one!
6) Make your mark on the landscape
I feel very connected to the place where my husband and I got married and I’d have loved to have made a permanent (but eco-friendly) mark on the landscape on our wedding day. If you’re going for a wild, outdoor wedding, you might persuade whoever owns the land to let you plant a tree or sow seeds as part of your ceremony. Or you could bury something. You can pop almost anything small into a sealed jar - a wedding invitation or a copy of your vows, notes of good wishes from your guests or a flower from your bouquet. This simple action cements the significance of your day - a physical and geographical record of a key event in your family history.
7) Create a tradition to pass on
A few months before David and I got married, we went to our friends, Ben and Saray’s wedding in Bilbao. I’m not sure if this is a Basque tradition, a Spanish one or something unique to Saray’s family but, after the cake was cut, Ben and Saray presented us with their cake toppers. We were the next couple due to get married so they told us to use them for our cake and then pass them on. So we did - we put the figures on our own wedding cake and then gave them to our friends, Joe and Suzanne, who were due to get married the next summer. We thought this was a lovely idea; it created a random chain of connection. I have no idea where our cake toppers are now but I hope they’re having an exciting journey. Creating any tradition that bonds you to your guests or to future generations is a lovely way to root your wedding into your community - and it’s particularly meaningful for those of us who feel disconnected from our communities because of where we live.
8) Soak up the love
Do you know what took me by surprise on my wedding day? It was the tangible love I felt from every single person who’d come to share our day with us. As I’d been planning the wedding, I’d got increasingly wound up imagining all sorts of problems: guests hating our choice of music, judging my hairstyle or objecting to having to endure a whole wedding ceremony before they would get a proper drink. Of course, that was all in my head. When I began my walk down the aisle, a sea of heads turned towards me and I felt the warmest and most sincere wave of love I can ever remember experiencing. Believe me when I tell you your guests love you and they want to share their happiness with you. Let them. Here are some ideas:
A ring warming - this is a popular but low-key way to involve all your guests without pushing anyone out of their comfort zone. Put your wedding rings in a little pouch or box and then, as your guests take their seats, ask someone responsible to pass the rings round so that everyone can hold them for a moment. As they hold them, they think of a good wish for the two of you - health, happiness, good fortune - it’s like the wishes the fairies give at Sleeping Beauty’s Christening before the Bad Fairy arrives and ruins everything…
Let them shout out ‘we do!’ - a more positive alternative to asking the wedding guests if they know ‘any just cause or impediment’ why your marriage can’t legally go ahead, is to ask them if they promise to support and encourage you in your married lives together. They’ll give a lovely resounding ‘we do!’ and everyone will feel much more relaxed and upbeat.
Have a Quaker-style gather-round - at Quaker meetings, participants sit in respectful silence, speaking only when they feel moved to do so. If you’re having a quiet and intimate wedding, this can be a lovely tradition to include. The celebrant simply invites everyone to gather together in a circle for a few moments of quiet reflection and announces that anyone who wishes to share a few thoughts for the two of you can speak up whenever they feel moved to. (This works best if you warn people at the beginning of the ceremony that this will be coming up so they can prepare some thoughts.)
Include good wishes from afar - I recently led a wedding ceremony where none of the bride’s family could be there (they'd already had a separate ceremony for her relatives in Thailand - her home country). Not only did we light a candle at the start of the ceremony to represent them, but we also asked the bride’s mum to write a little message to the happy couple. The bride translated it into English and the groom’s dad read the out for us. It was such a lovely moment (in fact quite the loveliest part of the script - annoyingly, the one bit I couldn’t take any credit for!) If you put a bit of thought into involving your loved ones in a way that feels comfortable for them, they won’t disappoint you.
9) Make it fun!
So many couples tell me they’re worried their wedding ceremonies will be boring. Here are a few ideas that will be anything but dull:
Have a Mr and Mrs style quiz (or Mrs and Mrs, Mr and Mr, Mx and Mx, Doctor and Professor - these are all just details…) You can have so much fun with this one. If you trust your friends and family, you can leave this to them and your celebrant to work on together. It’s guaranteed to round the ceremony off with some big laughs.
Have a tug of war - a fun way to get everyone up and mingling! (Ask your celebrant to invent some profound symbolic meaning if that’s important to you. Something about marriage requiring give and take or teamwork should do…)
Plan a practical joke - not for the faint-hearted this one, but perfect for an April 1 wedding. Get a flamboyant friend to burst in in the role of an angry spurned ex or convince your guests that the venue’s been double booked by getting two guests to turn up in full wedding attire. It’s probably best to warn any particularly anxious or easily confused guests and all your suppliers about your nefarious plot in advance - and don’t let it get so out of hand that it overshadows your vows or just confuses everyone… But if the two of you are at your happiest when you’re embroiled in subterfuge and trickery together, then why not?
10) Make an exit
Hand out some instruments - even if you don’t have a church-going bone in your body, the sound of church bells pealing as the confetti falls has made a strong imprint on our culture. If you want to walk out to the sound of bells, give your guests some bells and tell them to earn their dinner! You can mix it up with tambourines, drums, whatever you like!
Swap confetti for something more distinctive - today’s couples get showered in anything from paper aeroplanes to bubbles to feathers; and, while couples with a military link might pass under an arch of swords, those with a Star Wars connection might prefer an arch of light sabers; while Potterheads could choose wands or Gryffindor flags. The point is… do what you like.
Which is basically the main point of this whole blog post...
Although my secondary point is that if you’d like a bit of expert support with any aspect of planning and personalizing your wedding ceremony, do please schedule a free phone consultation with me! I’d love to help and to hear all about your wedding ideas…