Sami Weddings and other traditions

I recently wrote about expectations for my Arctic/Northern Lights trip. I’m back now and have some cool things to report. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the aurora – there are no guarantees you will see the phenomena, and that’s just how it goes sometimes. But I did have some other wonderful experiences, and one of them was learning about the Sami people.

The indigenous people of Northern Norway (as well as Sweden, Finland and into parts of Russia) have managed to maintain only a few ancient traditions, after being converted to Christianity about 400 years ago. These industrious folks have been living in the arctic regions for about five thousand years – but surviving and thriving in such an extreme climate afforded them no time to develop a written language. Customs, beliefs, and stories were passed down through oral tradition, and that is why, sadly, they do not know as much about their history as they would wish.

During one excursion, our Sami guide announced that he would be providing information on their clothing, their traditional singing, and weddings.  Weddings?! You can imagine my surprise and joy when he announced that topic! This is one of the few rituals that has survived.

Our Sami guide.

I learned that it is very difficult for a young man to find a young woman to marry. A family still living in the old ways, with the reindeer herd, fishing and trapping, and all the other activities necessary to live in the north, prefers to keep a young man at home. But mom also realizes that her son can’t stay home forever. So how does he find a potential wife? Most often at church, one of the few places to meet someone outside one’s immediate family. If a couple begins a relationship, they don’t get see much of each other, but when the time comes to take the next step, the traditions really kick in.

To propose, the reindeer are hooked up to the sleds and they proceed, with the groom and his best friend in the first sled, followed by family members in order of importance (parents next, etc.). They ride to the women’s lavvo (tent-like dwelling) and encircle it three times. Then the best friend enters the dwelling and asks the young woman if she will say accept his friends propose. If the answer is yes, she comes out, unhooks one of the reindeer from its harness, and ties the animal to his sled. If his proposal is rejected, the friend simply comes back out alone, much to the man’s disappointment. This is still done today with reindeer herding families, but it is also sometimes done with cars. The woman comes out of her house and takes the key out of the ignition, puts it in her pocket, signaling yes, this car is now hers to share ownership. I inquired about same-sex couples and was told that they probably did not accept that for marriage, historically, but today, absolutely yes, no problem. Norway is a progressive place.

The 'lavvo'

The Sami are a very egalitarian society, with women holding leadership roles along with men, and working with the reindeer and everything else that needs to be done in their harsh climate.

The wedding itself is a massive affair. The celebration provides an opportunity for Sami near and far to gather, and today, outsiders are welcome too. A small Sami wedding is about 500 people, a more typical number is over a thousand! And of course, the celebration lasts for three days. I would expect no less. For this reason, couples often put off marriage, since the expense of such a large party is great.

Our guide was a 30-year old Sami guy, with a master’s degree in economics, who had returned to help the family with their herd and be a guide for us tourists. He told me he was not ready to marry yet, because he couldn’t afford to do so, although he hopes to one day. His family, generations of reindeer herders, represents part of only 10% of Sami people who live and work today in the old ways.  Most Sami are living a modern life just like any other Norwegian.

The traditional Sami food is a simple reindeer soup or stew with potatoes and carrots, along with hot beverages and lots of bread.

The reindeer sleigh ride

Another fun discovery I want to share was back in the town ofTromsø;I found ‘love locks’ on a bridge. It’s interesting how this engagement custom has spread around the world. I wrote about this a few years ago, noting how in Paris, padlocks on the Pont des Arts so weighed down the bride, the city had to remove them because the bridge was collapsing. I also saw love locks in Lisbon, and I’ll bet you can find them on many bridges everywhere, around the world.

I always love learning about wedding traditions around the world and sharing them here. Whether or not you follow your cultural traditions, you still might find inspiration if you dig into your background and find a way to infuse some of that character into your own engagement and wedding experience. I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to meet and learn about the Sami people, and discover the stark beauty of the arctic.

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An arctic wedding anyone?

Unusual wedding destinations are always a hot topic. As you read this, I’m on my way to the arctic to try to see the Northern Lights. I can’t help but imagine how magical it would be to have a wedding with the aurora borealislighting the sky. We can certainly file that under unique venues!

Locations for viewing the lights range from Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Sweden, Finland and my destination: Norway.

Why would anyone want to do this? The peace, quiet and beauty found in the arctic might be the perfect setting for a certain couple. There are plenty of skiing opportunities as well, along with huskies and reindeer and learning about indigenous cultures.  You might be inspired by this natural stunning phenomenon, and maybe you just love winter, snow, and the outdoor activities that go with that. There’s plenty of hot chocolate by the bonfiretype stuff to do. And very important to many couples – you may find it romantic and cozy.

It’s not as cold as you might think. And as I have learned, having family in Norway, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.

Even here in the Poconos I get inquiries about outdoor weddings in the winter. I’m game if you are. It’s just as the Norwegians say – it’s all about dressing correctly. I recently discussed this with a bride and we were thrilled to discover the Ugg makes white boots.

You may not have to go out of the country, because the lights can sometimes be viewed in Maine, Michigan and other state-side locals. But wherever you are going to see this spectacle of nature, there is never a guarantee you will see them.

The technical explanation of how this show in the sky happens is that charged particles from the sun strike atoms in Earth’s atmosphere that causes the electrons in those atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state, they release photons, aka: light. I’m not sure I completely understand, but sure hope I get to see it. Getting a look at the phenomena depends on clear skies. Wish me luck.

There are many ‘normal’ places to stay, nice hotels, in cities within the arctic. I’m going toTromsø– and they have beautiful Radisson and Clarion hotels, both right by the fjord with awesome views. It’s a small city with everything any other city would have.  And there is a beautiful historic cathedral (Tromsdalen Church)right in the town itself.

A little further out, you can find more exotic spots. There is the famous Ice Hotel in Sweden (not far from Norway) that would be an ideal venue for a wedding, or the Alta Igloo Hotel in Norway said to be the northernmost ice hotel in the world. They have their own ice chapel.

Another way to enjoy the arctic is in the summer, when its light all the time, but you won’t see the aurora borealis.

If you travel out of the country, always remember to check the laws for obtaining a marriage license in a foreign country and check in your state to be sure the marriage will be recognized. It most likely will, but its best to do your homework.

I’ll let your know if I see those lights and if they are as magical as I imagine.An arctic wedding anyone?



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The Power of Music

First a little story: A few weeks ago, I officiated a wedding with a lovely string ensemble playing for the ceremony. I mentioned that the couple had a wine sharing planned and asked if they could play during it. Naturally, they readily agreed, and it enhanced the ritual so much. This was the week when we had several domestic terrorist attacks, and afterwards, as I was driving home, my heart was heavy thinking about those mail bombs, mass shootings and murders. Knowing there was little I could do at that moment, I remembered to put on some music, and it lifted me just enough.

That is the power of music and why it is important to think about music for your wedding. Think about it in depth, and (as they say) ‘out of the box.’  Music is powerful and touches our emotions and moves us in ways that words cannot.

Trio at Harmony Gardens (Garth Woods Photography)

I am in a somewhat unique position to address this topic because, not only am I a Celebrant, which has given me the opportunity to experience a wide variety of choices for ceremony music, but in an earlier period in my life I was a musician and composer.

Here are some of my personal tips when considering your wedding ceremony music.

If you are using a DJ for your reception, he or she may be able to provide music for your ceremony for a reasonable additional fee. Often DJ’s have a smaller set-up just for ceremonies, and that is perfect when the ceremony and reception are at the same location.  But be clear about your needs and who you hire. I actually once had a DJ fail to play the recessional music because he was not paying attention! Read those reviews!

Similarly, if you have a band playing your reception, one or two players from the group may be able to play the ceremony.

With live music, amplification and volume issues are crucial. When we think about bands and volume, we usually think about them being too loud, but at a large, outdoor wedding ceremony, the opposite could occur. Without reflective surfaces, music dissipates, and quieter instruments may not be heard. I’m sure you would like your guests actually hear the music, so let the musicians know the situation. Most times they can use some amplification.

Penn Strings under cover (photo by me)

It’s almost never done, but I think putting the ceremony musicians at front, near the attendants, can be very effective. Place them off to the side – it will provide a nice visual as well as having the music coming from the same direction as everything else, which I like for some reason. But they may require a covered space, in case of dampness or rain, because for many instruments, the sun will negatively affect them, as would dampness of course.

If you are going for something a little more adventurous, consider bagpipes! Or why not have a sax player or fiddler lead you down the aisle? Ethnic music, such as Klezmer for a Jewish wedding, Celtic for Irish heritage, the many types of Latin music or even Gypsy music, evocative of Eastern European backgrounds, can be terrific.

With recorded music comes unlimited choices. You might even use different styles for your processional and recessional. Classical for the processional and a pop tune for the recessional, for example. Lyrics (even in an instrumental version) can express something humorous or personal. Think of your guests having that ‘ah-ha’ moment when they figure out the words to the song they’re hearing!

As I already mentioned, I often request music to be played quietly during a ritual. It truly adds a wonderful feeling to a wine sharing, unity candle, sand ceremony or other actions where there is no speaking. Music creates ambience and fills in those quiet parts helping everyone feel more relaxed and signaling the mood. That’s why you will no doubt have ‘guest arrival’ music for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes before the walk down the aisle.

Featuring a live performance right in the ceremony can be tricky. Unless they are undeniably, amazingly talented, I don’t recommend it. When a friend or family member volunteers, and you don’t think their skills are up to it, it can become very awkward. Try to graciously decline a well-intended offer if you feel hesitant. Trust yourself. Tell them that you wouldn’t dream of having them to miss the ceremony by ‘working’ it. But, if you can’t deny them, consider asking if they would perform at the party instead. Remember, there is so much intense focus, and quiet attention at the ceremony – the pressure can be too much for an amateur.

On the other hand, if you wanta friend or relative to perform you shouldask them. Maybe the latest upcoming star is your cousin! It is an honor to be asked to participate in someone’s wedding. However, find out what they would be comfortable playing. While a musician may have achieved a level of proficiency and sound great, don’t ask them to play something out of their area of expertise. From very personal experience I can tell you how difficult that is. I was once asked to sing and play at a wedding and was then informed of what song they chose; it was something that was completely out of my musical style and beyond my technical skill. I was embarrassed, to say the least!

Whatever you select for ceremony music, it will add beauty and joy to your wedding day. Aldous Huxley said, ‘After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.’

And Leonard Bernstein wisely said: ‘Music can name the un-nameable and communicate the unknowable.’


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I do, do you? Three essential elements of a wedding ceremony.

It is commonly accepted practice (although it is not the law) that there are three elements a wedding ceremony should contain: The asking, the vows, and the pronouncement. Signing the marriage license another piece of the puzzle, of course, and truly the only legallyrequired part, at least in Pennsylvania, where I practice. Personally, I would never sign a license without including the three elements I just outlined.

Some people are confused about the difference between when the officiant asks the question that elicits the response: ‘I do’, and when the couple exchanges their vows. These are separate elements.

I want to illuminate each one. We’ll start with asking the question. This is sometimes called the monitum. In Latin that means ‘warning’ and it speaks to the voluntary aspect of the wedding – that the couple are coming freely to join together. I prefer to call it ‘The Asking,’ because it just seems so much more straight forward. Why make things more complicated than they need to be?

Photo: Lisa Rhinehart Photography (gorgeous as always)

This ‘I do’ part, the asking, is traditionally put this way: do you ‘take’ this man (or woman) to be your husband (or wife). I don’t care for ‘take,’ I prefer: do you welcomeso-and-so as your wife or husband. There are many interesting ways this can be phrased, and I’ve created fun variations and solemn ones.

I was surprised to hear recently that a person officiating (not a professional I might add) used the old phrase: ‘if anybody here knows why this couple should not be joined in marriage, speak now or forever hold your piece.’ Maybe he drew his knowledge of weddings from movies. This bit comes from medieval times when the church had control over who could or couldn’t marry and they needed to know the status of the couple or if appropriate agreements were made. From there it evolved into being more about the consent and support of the community, and maybe even some outstanding debts. It was also used to ensure that close relatives weren’t marrying one another. Almost no one says this anymore.

Once the couple has agreed, answered in the affirmative, we arrive at the main event: THE VOWS – and the oldest traditional wedding vows can be traced back, once again, to the medieval church.

Vows, too, can be very simple or quite complex. I find myself reminding people that they do not have to reinvent this wheel. Sometimes one partner wants to write their own vows and the other is content to choose something. Just remember, the vow is your promise. And it should be spoken out loud, putting it out there in the universe, and more importantly, saying it to your future spouse. Understanding the power of words and saying those words out loud, makes it quite different, and way more powerful, than reading them to yourself or hearing someone else speak.

When working within a religious system that will not allow for much customization of the ceremony, couples who want to put their mark on their nuptials sometimes create long vows often telling their love story. It’s almost the exact opposite with me. Since the entire ceremony created by a Celebrant is customized, it takes a lot of pressure off the vows, allowing them to be sweet, honest, simple and to the point. Because, after all, your promise is not your life story. Leave that to me!

I didn’t list the exchange of rings as a crucial element. Although almost everyone does exchange wedding rings, it’s nice to add little vow for that moment, but I don’t consider it as essential as the other three elements. And that leads us to that final element – the pronouncement.

Again, this can also be creative or simple. I like to get right to the point with words such as ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife’, or ‘I now pronounce you married.’ I can add flourishes and fancy language, declaring on this day, and at this place, these two people declared their commitment, blah blah blah, but ultimately the ceremony has to end, and the couple can seal their promise with a kiss. Yes, they kiss. I do believe people kiss each other. You may kiss the brideis another throw-back to when the couple had never most likely never kissed or sometimes even met before the ceremony. And kissing was in the realm of manhood. No, a woman could not initiate a kiss, she was there to be kissed. But many people still find that phrase adorable, and I will certainly use it upon request.

So these three elements, the asking, the vows and the pronouncement can be expressed in many ways, and the language used is important. I just love that. I do. I now pronounce this column done.

Very grateful to the amazing photographer Lisa Rhinehart for the many years now I’ve been using her photos to illustrate my columns. Check her out – she’s amazing!


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When tragedy strikes

Today’s topic isn’t the most pleasant or uplifting, but it is important. And I am well aware that I have been accused of often being ‘too serious.’ Is that a bad thing? But here’s what I want to talk about, in light of recent events: What happens if just before your wedding a local, state, national or personal tragedy strikes. What do you do? There are many ways terrible events can impact a day that was supposed to be about love and should be full of joy. And there are many ways to respond.

When I was very young, my cousin was getting married – it was a big deal, especially because we’re a small family – and right before that happened, the father of the groom committed suicide. The wedding celebration was cancelled, and the couple married instead in the private study of the person who’d been set to officiate. This was an appropriate and proportional response.

Anything can happen, and in these turbulent times, they happen more and more. Whether it is something like the recent mass shooting at the synagogue, or a personal event in your own family.

There are two elements that come into play – that your response be appropriate and proportional. And any decisions made about it are always subjective. Only the couple and perhaps the immediate family can decide if or how to respond. But most importantly I urge you not to ignore what is going on, whether in your family, circle of friends, or in the world.

And now a small plug for hiring well-trained officiants: those of us with training and lots of experience can help couples with this. We can help find the words and actions to express what you are feeling. This is done most often, at the opening of the ceremony. So speak to the person or people you lean on, talk about it and talk to your officiant.

Ritual acts could include lighting a candle, tossing pebbles or stones into a nearby lake or river, a butterfly release, placing a flower in a vase. Some people like to have an empty chair, often with a photo or flower but I must confess this is not my favorite thing. Consider having the person’s favorite song played by your musicians or DJ, carry or wear something that belonged to your loved one. A memorial table with photos and artifacts is always appreciated and works well whether it is for personal or a community tragedy. But do not turn your wedding into a funeral. Again, proportion is important. A statement along with a reading and/or a moment of silence is always appropriate.

Transitioning into the joy of your marriage is the harder part. Words that remind us all that we must live our lives bravely and recommit ourselves to loving and gratefulness will certainly help, while acknowledging that it doesn’t change the fact that it’s difficult.

Cancelling a wedding is a tough decision. However, if there is a death in the immediate family it may have to happen. It might be you go from your planned ceremony at a lovely resort to a ceremony in a hospital room.

There is such a thing as wedding insurance, and if you bought it, you can recoup most of the costs. If you are considering cancelling, call your venue as soon as you possibly can.

The timing is important. If a death is a few weeks before your date, try to go through with your wedding plans. And don’t feel guilty! Think about what your loved one would want you to do, and most likely, they’d want you to be happy. Just acknowledge them at the ceremony, even with the simple lighting of a candle.

When community tragedies strike you may want to give part of your wedding over to dealing with it. Take a collection for a reputable charity. Give your gifts to victims. I wonder what it felt like for couples getting married on September 12, 2001 – the day after that terrorist attack?

Dealing with death is never easy, but it is a part of life, and we don’t get to choose the timing. Whether you are religious, spiritual, or secular, whatever your beliefs are about death and after-life, a loved one always lives on in your memory.  When you think about them and talk about them, they are with you. So don’t ignore it. It’s ok to cry and it’s ok to laugh, and it’s wonderful to celebrate love.

Death is not the opposite of life, it is a part of it.



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How to Choose Symbols and Rituals to Enhance Your Ceremony

As regular readers of this space know, I love rituals, symbols and traditions. I love the history and meaning as well as changing and updating them as well. Today is a ritual round up! As couples continue to want a wedding ceremony that reflects who they are as individuals and as a couple, using symbols as a visible sign of their love is perfect! The symbols and rituals enable a couple to take the invisible and intangible – their love and devotion for one another – and illustrate these feelings in a tangible way. It is also something very memorable. After the words are forgotten, the rituals are still remembered!

Ceremony symbols can range from traditional to the dramatic or the unexpected.  Here are some suggestions on how to easily and appropriately incorporate symbols into wedding ceremonies. Think about the reason you are choosing a ritual and it will become clear! 

Symbolize Your New Family Bond

If you are bringing children into the marriage, consider giving them a token such as a family medallion, or let them join in lighting a family candle or a Sand Ceremony, to represent the new bond you all share. Vows to the children are also powerful.

Honor Your Families

Apowerful symbol is one that honors a family member or tradition – something old.  Incorporate family heirlooms, a bridal gown if possible, is amazing, but more likely an accessory, a wedding ring, cufflinks or other special piece of jewelry. Use a Kiddush cup from the Jewish tradition in a wine sharing, or use a Celtic Quaich (cup or bowl). Do you have a photo of someone important? Consider using it in many contexts, the program, on a table, at the altar. Could you make a bouquet from a collection of family pins?

Symbols That Show Your Personality

For a casual fun wedding, couples have been known to break from traditional wedding clothes. Instead of gowns and tuxedos – try wearing a favorite color, style, designer or even something like Hawaiian shirts but only if that means something to you.  Ask your guests to wear your favorite colors. Cake decoration is really a great way to show your style. Have you seen those custom toppers that are made to look just like the couple themselves? Pets, especially dogs, are now playing a big role in weddings, even if only symbolically – use them for a photo shoot or have a photo of them on hand. Walking down the aisle with your dog is great, but takes some planning!

Symbolize Your Commitment

Vows and rings are the heart and soul, but you can add to that by exchanging other gifts reflecting what you love about each other. Share foods from your cultures to represent your bond not only with a cultural influence but with the literal feeding one another. A food ritual is both literal and metaphorical – feeding one another something special, such as chocolate, is meant to show sharing the sweetness of your life together. Herbs and spices also work well for rituals. The exchange of roses is a classic – it says ‘I love you’ now and forever – give them to one another or to your mothers!

Cultural Symbols

Do some research into your and your spouse’s heritage.  Age-old traditions are often powerful.  Some examples are: Japanese good luck origami cranes. The Chuppah for Jewish tradition, as well as circling your partner (walking around him or her) is making a big come-back.  Jump the broom to honor your African-American heritage or jump over an oak branch if you are Irish. Handfasting although rooted in both Pagan and Celtic traditions, can be done by anyone, plus – you can make your own braided rope to ‘tie the knot.’  A tea-ceremony is popular in many Asian cultures and you can adapt it in many ways. Use bread and salt for Eastern European heritage, and don’t forget the 13 coins, or Arras, as used in Spain, Latin American countries, and the Philippines.

Cues from Your Surroundings

Reflect the season of your marriage by using seasonal flowers, especially wonderful if they come from your own garden.  Your choice of location – whether a quiet garden, a wooded area, a dramatic hilltop or a busy public square can reflect your personalities.  Tree plantings or water rituals go perfectly with this, and speak to your love of nature.

We Americans are in a unique position – we come from every corner of the globe, and we borrow from each other’s traditions. That crossover has been the hallmark of great innovation in music, art and more, in our society. So if you feel captivated by a tradition that is not necessarily your own, know that you are free to borrow it, but be sensitive to cultural appropriation. Using something from another tradition without the proper acknowledgement isn’t a good idea. Explain why you have chosen the ritual, and by honoring that custom in sensitive ways, you may have just the perfect symbol. Ann Frank wrote: “We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.”  Using symbols reflects your love and helps bring friends and family together.

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When the officiant is an after-thought

If you have a minister, priest, rabbi or other clergyperson is who a part of your life, and they are willing and able to officiate your wedding at your venue, then read no further.

But for many couples today, finding the right person to perform their marriage ceremony is a daunting task and entering the great unknown. Today’s column may sound like a bit of an advertisement for me, and I always try to avoid that, but there’s something I need to share with you. I’ve been considering writing this for years, and finally decided that even if it is tooting my own horn, it’s something couples getting married should think about.

For couples who want a friend to perform their ceremony – there are two very big considerations. First of all, is this legal in your state? It is confusing to navigate the state’s regulations to ensure that your marriage will be legal, and many couples choose not to risk something so important. The laws vary widely from state to state regarding who can officiate. And, secondly, you must consider if the person you want to do this has the time, knowledge and skills to do it, and do it well.

There may be clergy or lay-leader in your family who does have experience – but will it feel too slanted towards one side if that person officiates? I’ve known couples who had one of their fathers officiate, but to me, that feels unbalanced. It can work, though.

Does a friend, who has never officiated a wedding before, understand if there is a need for a PA system, a rehearsal, or know how to fill out the license? Can they guide you in the creation of the ceremony, or your vows? Can they suggest special rituals, readings or other elements that add to a ceremony? Do they understand the bigger picture – the meaning of your commitment? It’s wonderful that they know you and love you, but is that enough?

What about interfaith couples? Some couples choose a spiritual leader from each faith conduct the service together – but be careful -  sometimes they compete rather than cooperate.

What about going to city hall or having a justice of the peace? Again, this really depends on where you live. It can be a great option, or no option at all. I know many judges who just don’t want to do this, it doesn’t feel like a fit for them, and they prefer to refer couples elsewhere. Some, however, do love it. In Pennsylvania mayors are legal to officiate – and I know some who do a great job. There is no ‘city hall’ where I live, but for city-folk, it’s a very viable option. But if you want something with a little more content, you won’t get that at city hall.

Here’s what bugs me the most: the money issue! When you look at examples of budgets for weddings on-line I often find the amount suggested for officiants to be much too low, that is, for a well-qualified, good one. I believe this is a hold-over from the days when one’s minister would come to perform the wedding and stay for the meal.  He probably had nothing better to do, and besides, it is part of his obligation as your clergy. Remember that clergy have salaries, and your membership in their church or other house of worship goes towards the performance of duties such as weddings, funerals and other rites of passage.

Officiating a carefully crafted ceremony

It is not uncommon to see a budget suggestion of more money for, say, flowers or décor, or limousines, than officiants. You can have a wedding without the former but not the latter.

An independent officiant, such as myself and other celebrants, dedicate ourselves to this task. We are professionals. We don’t have salaries or tithings to sustain us in this work.

If your ceremony is important to you, and in my way of thinking, nothing is more central to the wedding than the wedding ceremony… you know, the part where you are actually getting married, then don’t balk at a high celebrant fee that is still probably one of the smallest parts of your budget.

When your officiant is an after-thought you are short changing yourself. The opportunity to have a real, meaningful and unique ceremony creates one of life’s best moments. Isn’t that what you want for your wedding?

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Making the Most of Wedding Ceremony Readings

Including a reading or two in a wedding ceremony is quite a common practice. I explore this routinely with couples because it can be a wonderful way to honor a special friend or family member while imparting wisdom.  Often in a church ceremony, passages from scriptures are read by someone the couple chooses. It might even be a required as part of the liturgy (depending on the denomination) – and is always an honor to be asked to participate.

When outside of a specific religious orthodoxy, many people still want to include readings, and are free to choose from prose, poetry, and other inspirational sources, or even write something original. Readings can add content and meaning to any type of ceremony.

Photo: Garth Woods

But too often the reading is either not heard, or the meaning is not clear. Don’t squander this opportunity. Here are some helpful ideas for selecting and performing – yes, performing – a reading. Brides, grooms: please share this information with your readers.

  • Practice, practice, practice! Unless you are a professional actor or public speaker, in which case you already know this, practice (aka: rehearsing) makes all the difference. The piece should be practiced out loud. It is not the same as just reading it to yourself.
  • Typing or writing the piece (even if it’s been given to you) helps – you can put accents, or stress marks, as cues for the proper inflection. This also reminds you of a difficult word or phrase, so you don’t trip up. The process itself helps you internalize it.
  • As slow as you may try to read the piece, go even slower. Perhaps even jot a note to yourself to remind you of that. When we are anxious or excited we often go faster than we realize. Remember, the listener needs to absorb the meaning.
  • And with that one opportunity to hear the piece, unless you are providing ‘Cliff notes,’ go simple! Unless your guests are literature scholars, choose something easy to understand. Classics often require some analysis and are written in a style unfamiliar to most of us. A simple, straight forward piece, such as “The Art of Marriage” is not only beautiful and meaningful, but accessible for most of us.
  • Don’t put the text in your program booklet – it will shift people’s attention away from the reader.
  • Consider having several people read one piece. It can be very effective to have a group, such as siblings, read alternating lines or stanzas. Pauses tend to be longer between the readers, slowing it down, and each reader gains confidence from being with the other. This is also a great technique for children.
  • Volume, volume, volume. If there is a microphone, don’t shy away from it. If there is no microphone you will need to project your voice. Again, practice that.
  • When thinking about who will read, and why, pick something that fits both reader and the couple.

    Photo: Lisa Rhinehart

There are many places to look for ideas, including song lyrics, excerpts from novels, contemporary poets, and religious writings. From Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan, Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, or even children’s literature – I have found all of the above inspiring.We are free to borrow wisdom from other cultures. The writings of the Persian philosopher Rumi, or the Lebanese-American author Kahlil Gibran have works that are particularly appropriate for weddings.Gibran wrote that: “Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.”

Bob Dylan wrote: “… she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me. Written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century. And every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal, pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you.”

I hope your readings ring true for you, too.

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The Evolution of Tradition

Traditions and customs change and evolve over the years. It’s true for most things and for weddings as well. I recently wrote about how some ancient customs were connected to fertility and survival in the ‘rain on your wedding day’ column. But if we go back only a few hundred years ago, or less, we find lots of interesting wedding stories, and see a direct line to modern times.

Kidnapping the bride!

According to the New England Historical Societyweddings in the 1700s were a mix of homegrown ideas and practices brought from England. That kind of intertwining makes complete sense to me. Superstition reigned then, think: Salem Witch Trials, so we can easily imagine how their world-view impacted their weddings. For example, is was considered bad luck to get married on a Tuesday. That makes no sense to us, but in some places, it was even forbidden, and it was also bad luck to marry on Friday. Wednesday was seen as the best day, maybe because it sounds something like ‘wed day.’

Other superstitions have also faded away – such as it being unlucky for the bride to look in a mirror before the ceremony. That would never fly today!

Bee hives were used as decoration?  I can’t imagine that happening today either. But apparently bees had to be informed of the wedding and were even given a piece of cake. No one wanted bees getting angry we presume!

I officiated for this couple - she wore grandmothers dress!

With our present-day receptions, or parties, we see a straight line back to what was once called the ‘second-day wedding.’ Up until recently, couples were usually married at home, most often the home of the bride, so the following day the parents of the groom, or other close relatives, would throw a party for them. Today we combine the two into one big day.

Life existed before the internet, and even before every day postal service, so to let people know about the nuptials it was posted at their church or at the town hall.

The ‘something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue’ routine dates to the Victorian era when the ‘something old’ was worn to connect the bride to her past and her family and we see that today as well, usually with something small. I recently officiated for a bride who wore her grandmothers dress and it was so lovely. The ‘something new’ shows that she was ready to start her own family and journey forward. ‘Something borrowed’ was supposed to be taken from a happily married couple so that couple’s good fortune could be passed on to the bride. The ‘something blue’ was associated with faithfulness and loyalty, as in the phrase: ‘true blue.’ However, the part of the rhyme that most people leave off is ‘a sixpence in my shoe,’ which encouraged the bride to tuck in a sixpence coin for good luck.

All the little details have history

Bridal showers come from Holland where an old story explains how a bride’s father didn’t approve of the marriage and refused her dowry. So the brides friends ‘showered’ her with gifts, so she would have the dowry necessary to marry the man of her choice. Hurray for bridesmaids! After that, any woman who didn’t have a dowry was given a shower.

Some customs don’t go back very far at all. The diamond engagement ring only dates back to the 1920s. Good to remember if you want a different kind of ring.

A fascinating evolution is one that is traced from the literal abduction of the bride to what we now call the honeymoon. Vikings, who took the kidnapping less literal, ritualized it and it became a time for the couple to hide together after the wedding. During that period of about a month, the couple would spend that time alone, but friends would bring them honey wine and thus the name ‘honeymoon’ evolved. There is documentation from 1546 calling the first month of marriage the sweetest, add to that the honey mead and viola!

These are just a few examples of customs that have come and gone or changed. When it comes to weddings rituals, traditions, customs, beliefs and history all come together.

thank you Lisa Rhinehart for your beautiful photography!

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A Humanist Approach to Weddings

One of the most important subjects I explore for a wedding ceremony is religion. I want to know something about the couple’s faith traditions, if any. What is their thinking or practice at this time in their lives? What are the family traditions (if any) and how important is it to honor those, even if the couple themselves are not strongly tied to these beliefs?

It is not unusual in our modern world to find that young people are not as deeply religious as preceding generations. The Pew Research Center reports thatyoung adults are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated, especially in North America. Unaffiliated doesn’t necessarily mean non-believer, but clearly there is a shift.

Why there is a decline in religiosityis debatable, but one reason may be that with more education comes more questioning. The more data-driven and analytical we become the more likely we are to apply that to religion. Think of it, around 100 years ago, more than a quarter of children in America did not even attend school. Today 37% of Americans between the ages of 25 to 34 have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Another element that has turned people away from religion is the corruption and scandals within religious institutions. Feel free to speculate about other reasons, but for my purposes, it doesn’t matter why, just how to honestly express the couple’s views honestly.

Many couples I work with arebelievers, just not involved with religious institutions. I many people say they find their spirituality or connection to a High Power in their own way, along with others who are unsure (agnostic) and some who are non-believers.

When couples ‘come out’ to me as non-believers there is often an underlying fear of judgement. They will get none from me, but society does judge those who are not church-going, God-fearing individuals. And calling oneself an atheist does have a somewhat, negative connotation, because it means withoutGod, and lackof belief.  There seems to be an emptiness there, a void. But it doesn’t have to be.

I suggest instead: Humanist. This is a positive term, one that says, I believe in goodness and I don’t need God to be good. Humanism stresses the importance of humans rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanists believe in the potential value and goodness of people, emphasizing common human needs, and seeking rational ways of solving problems. That is a very positive approach.

So back to weddings! In a ceremony without any strict religious dogma, without prayers or scriptural readings, blessings or pronouncements about God, a Humanist approach can help express the couple’s values. Through their wedding ceremony they can declare to family and friends that they, too, are good people, who share values such as kindness, caring for others, and doing good in the world, just like their religious fellow humans.

And it’s not difficult to do. It is easily accomplished by simply including statements about those values. And of course, there are those readings we hear so much about!  You’ll find great content everywhere, from literary sources, poems, prose, and even scientific sources such as Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, when he concludes that ‘for small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.’ There are countless possibilities.

In our modern world, not only can we say: ‘love is love,’ we can say: ‘good is good.’

thank you Lisa Rhinehart for your beautiful photography!


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    Lois Heckman

    Lois Heckman is a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant who officiates at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonies in the Poconos and beyond. She has performed hundreds of ceremonies and brings a wealth of knowledge to her work. Visit her website: ... Read Full
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