There’s more to free than free ‘stuff’

Fill in the blank: The best things in life are ‘_______.’ If you said ‘free,’ that’s what I had in mind as well.

This generally means that the most rewarding or satisfying experiences in life are often those that cost nothing. This proverb originated in 1927 as the title of a song, which contains the following lines: The moon belongs to everyone, The best things in life are free, The stars belongs to everyone, They gleam there for you and me.

But when it comes to weddings almost nothing is free.

If you are planning a wedding you must have a reasonable budget that works for you and prioritize the things that matter most. It does get expensive. So remember that free doesn’t just mean free ‘stuff,’ but actions and words that make you day special. If you believe that the best things in life are free you can express that in many ways. The love given freely between you and your partner can be expressed (for free) by writing your own vows.

Here are a few more suggestions:
Do you have family or friends who are musicians? Have them play a special song for you at the ceremony or reception.

Can someone play a song for your wedding?

Collect flowers a few weeks before your wedding and dry them – use the petals for tossing for the recessional. Put the dried petals in a paper cone, easily made from paper, also at no cost.

Used framed photos of parents and grandparents weddings to get conversations started at the reception. Use photos of the bride or groom at specific ages to create table numbers, for example a photo of each of you at age 8 for table 8.

Something borrowed is a great tradition – so don’t hesitate to borrow and save some money – perhaps a purse, or a piece of jewelry. Put the word out to friends and family and maybe you’ll wind up with a special antique car for a dynamic entrance or transportation. Who knows what gifts will be freely given?

Create a YouTube video about yourselves to share with your guests, or to share information about the wedding, where to stay, where to go, and what’s going to happen. (Click here to see the most amazing Save-The-Date video ever – warning – do not try to hold yourself up to this standard however!!!) :)

Have your guests participate in your ceremony by holding a stone and then placing them into a glass jar, infused with their love for you; or choose other interesting interactive actions, such as a wish jar.

Ask for a favorite song to be played at the reception as part of your RSVP. Doesn’t cost a cent but lets people know you care about what they think and adds a lot of fun to the reception when you announce the song and who suggested it.

And finally good manners are always free and greatly appreciated. Don’t forget to greet and send off guests with your sincere thanks! Some of the best things in life are free!

Thank you Lisa Rhinehart for the wonderful photo (above.)

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The Salt Covenant

As I continue to write about rituals, customs and ideas for weddings from diverse backgrounds and traditions – today I’d like to explore the Salt Covenant. There are many ways this very essential element can be used. The Sand Ceremony and the Salt Covenant or Salt Ceremony are performed in much the same way but the meaning is quite different.

A couple performs the ritual.

Exploring both the religious and historical aspects of this ritual, salt is important in the Bible and in ancient Middle-Eastern culture. In the biblical era, before and around the time of Jesus, it is thought that men carried a pouch of salt on their belts. When two men wanted to make a promise or contract, each would take some salt from his pouch and sprinkle it in the other man’s pouch. They then stated the terms of their agreement and shook their salt pouches, mingling the grains of salt. Shaking the salt pouches reminded them that this promise or covenant could not be broken, because it would no longer be possible separate the grains of salt. Fantastic symbolism! So it is with a wedding. In blending the salt together you symbolize your union and the impossibility of separation. It represents the everlasting and irrevocable agreement.

As in ancient times, entering into a covenant of salt is not done lightly – it is an important and meaningful experience. I’ve also learned that in that same era newborn babies were rubbed with salt to express the desire that when they grow up they will say what they mean, and mean what they say. In a marriage commitment you are also promising to keep your word.

You may use the salt as a personal covenant and as a covenant with God, becoming one with Him. We can find many references to salt in the Bible and they clearly refer to the bond it represents. I’m not a biblical scholar but here a few references and what I think they mean.

Mark (9:50) said: “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with each other.” This means that goodwill “seasons” positive relationships between people. It is a reference to the covenant of salt because it shows how trust builds friendship and compassion.

And in Matthew 5:13, Jesus refers to his disciples as ‘the salt of the earth,’ perhaps asking them to “preserve” his teachings and to be true to their words, and that they are good and trustworthy.

There are other meanings and symbolism for the salt as well. Because salt is a most basic spice, and brings out flavors, we can think about how marriage makes life more flavorful, too. But we can also think about the salt of tears, and how they reminds us that life might be difficult at times and we must learn to cope with life’s struggles. Salt is an element that is indispensable to life. Its in our bodies and the waters of the oceans and made the development of civilization possible through its powers to preserve food.

To perform a Salt Covenant ceremony simply have two glasses filled with equal amounts of salt are placed on the altar and then each partner pours the salt into a single container simultaneously. You may also do this with children, parents or in other ways, creating a Family Salt Ceremony.

There is a ceramic egg-like container you find for sale that is sometimes used for this ritual. It’s beautiful, but it’s not necessary. In fact, it could be quite nice to use something personal from your families, heirloom bowls, salt shakers, even grandmom’s spoons. Use your fingers, pour the bowls or use spoons. It all works!

A cute little kit you can get to use for a salt ritual.

In the Salt Ceremony when the salt is blended together it becomes one. In the Sand Ceremony using different colors of sand you will still see each person’s individuality even after pouring it all together. There is a clear difference in meaning and each has its own power and beauty.

Couple pouring salt: photo credit: Eddie Bojorquez, Studio 512  THANK YOU!

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Wedding are going to the dogs!

We have a celebrity dog in the Poconos so it seemed like a good time to talk about dogs in weddings. Animal Planet is featuring Leo, Susie Forrester’s food stealing dog on a segment. Susie is a wonderful photographer and wonderful person, and like many of us, considers her dog to be a part of her family. I know my dogs are family.

The famous Leo - photographed by Susie Forrester

I have enjoyed working with couples who wanted to have their dogs be a part of their ceremony. If it’s an at-home wedding, of course you can do what you wish, but if at a venue, will they permit it? You may be pleasantly surprised to find that if you have an appropriate plan for your pet, many will agree. Most churches, however, will not. After clearing that obstacle, here are some hints on how to proceed.

Great dog photo by Lisa Rhinehardt

The Job: Whether or not your dog has a task, just coming down the aisle is what it’s all about! The most popular role for your dog is ring-bearer. But there’s more to it than simply tying the rings or a ring pillow to the dog’s collar. And, by the way, do I need to remind you not to use the real rings? This is a ceremonial role, a symbolic action. A dog can also be in the role of flower girl, or shall we say ‘flower dog?’ There is even a product that a dog can pull, attached by harness, which distributes petals on the floor behind her, much like a seed spreader on a lawn. Sounds crazy, but not to us dog lovers!  Or simply have a special collar, leash, or a floral arrangement for your dog’s neck to add that special touch

The Picture: For the all important photo shoot, arrange for photos with your pup before she has to depart the festivities. This is one of the highlights of having your dog in your wedding, the photos. Speak with your photographer, but it’s probably best to do the pictures before the ceremony.

Dogs and weddings go great together. Photo by Laura Billingham

The Handler: Be sure someone is specifically in charge of bringing your pup to and from the ceremony and/or party. And you will want someone to walk the dog down the aisle, although sometimes the bride or groom wants to do that. Just remember, the dog will steal the show, so you may want to get him down the aisle and out of the picture before the bride’s entrance.

The Partner: Your dog can be partnered with a young person, which makes a great combination, but it really can be anyone who has a good relationship with you and your pet. A rehearsal will really help with this. Let the dog get to know the new surroundings, so she’ll perform better, and it will also give you a chance to find if there are any unforeseen hazards for your pet, such as toxic plants, or any kind of distraction or obstacle.

The Objections: Please check with guests, especially your wedding party, to be sure no one is allergic or has strong objections. You don’t want that coming up unexpectedly on the day of the wedding.

The Alternative: If you can’t actually have your dog attend or participate in your wedding, you can certainly recognize your animal companions in many ways. You can write about them in your wedding program, you can use their photos as part of your reception. A couple I worked with had photos of their dogs printed and used as table markers. And most importantly, you can do an engagement photo shoot with them.

If your pets are both well behaved and too important to be excluded, and everything falls into place, you may be able to include them in your wedding. It may sound like a strange idea to some people – but those people just aren’t dog people, are they?


Thank you Laura Billingham, Lisa Rhinehart and Susie Forrester for the great photos!


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Learning about the Chuppah

The chuppah, a canopy used in weddings, is an ancient and beautiful Jewish tradition. It can be constructed in many different ways and is used to create a sacred space for the couple to stand beneath for their ceremony. The word itself means covering, but can also be translated as protection. There are a variety of spellings – huppah, chupah, or chuppa – and that is simply because it is an approximation of the Hebrew word.

The structure itself consists of four poles that can either be held up by attendants or fixed to the ground. A cloth canopy, typically a square cloth made of silk, wool, velvet or cotton, is stretched across the top. More traditionally that cloth is actually a Tallit, the garment the orthodox Jewish men wear, but it’s not required. The poles are often decorated with flowers. The couple’s parents may also stand under the chuppah.

The great synagogue in Tel Aviv with a Chuppah set up.

The symbolism is just beautiful – it represents the home the couple will build together. When I describe it in a ceremony I always point out that the sides are open to be inclusive and welcoming to all. It also signifies that the couple must build harmony from all sides of their lives, from all four directions of the world, as well as take shelter in the sanctuary of marriage. It is not only a fascinating custom, but a ceremonial ritual with deep meaning and connections to the past.

As in most rituals from the Jewish tradition, there is long history, because it is a very old religion (Hinduism being the oldest of the organized religions that are still practiced). The Jewish year is currently marked at 5774. The chuppah itself is said to trace back to biblical times.

As the chuppah evolves and adapts, just about any arch or wedding canopy may be considered your chuppah. Today people create all kinds of chuppahs, sometimes very beautifully crafted and very elaborate, and sometimes simple and rustic.

Jewish weddings almost always include a chuppah, and for interfaith weddings the chuppah is definitely encouraged by this celebrant!

A great way to create an interfaith chuppah is to include patterns and materials that are traditional to the non-Jewish partner’s family or culture. You could even send guests squares of fabric and ask them to decorate them with words or drawings that will be significant. Then sew the squares together into a quilt that becomes the chuppah covering, and later a wall hanging in your home.  Whatever way you interpret the building of the chuppah, the meaning is what matters, and the meaning shows me how some ideas are indeed timeless.


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Some out of the box ideas that also save money

Creative fresh ideas can also be money saving ideas. How wonderful! Here are a few ideas to consider.

Instead of buying a wedding gown, just buy a dress – a beautiful dress, a dress you love, a dress you could even wear again. With colors for wedding dresses coming into fashion you’ll be on the cutting edge and this offers an opportunity to be truly unique. Not only that, you will save hundreds or even thousand of dollars spent on a ‘gown’ you only wear once. Speaking of dresses: ask your bridesmaids to wear any dress they like within your color scheme.

The bride wore polka-dots!

Potted plants make excellent centerpieces and can double as favors. Put a small collection of potted succulents, short and tall, all together in the center, and then tell your guests to take one home.

Have a brunch instead of a dinner. Great for folks old and young! Not everyone wants to dance the night away.  A picnic also makes an excellent wedding reception, complete with games like horseshoes and lawn croquet.

Have a small but very special wedding cake and augment with cupcakes for the guests.

Forego the program booklet. Unless you plan to make it very special and it adds information not in the ceremony, it only encourages people to follow along and mentally check-off what has happened. I’ll write more about this soon!

Limit the bar. Serve beer and wine and perhaps a signature drink, but that’s it. Offer non-alcoholic beverage choices as well.  If you think weddings are about getting drunk, you may want to reconsider the meaning of your big day.

Something not to skimp on: a great photographer!  You will really value wonderful photos that you’ll have for the rest of your life. Don’t count on the guests or a friend. This is something that is truly worth choosing carefully and investing in.

Great food is also important to you, don’t skim here, but to save money you can cut down your guest list or move from a dinner, to luncheon, or full sit down meal to buffet.

A wedding should not put you in deep debt. A wedding celebration should feel right for you and reflect your values and taste. It’s not easy, but if you set your mind to it you can have a beautiful event without breaking the bank.

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Photo by Laura Ann Bailey, Plays With Light Photography

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The Symbolism of Trees

There are so many ways you can symbolically express the meaning of your wedding. Rituals in faith traditions are well known, as are the many secular and spiritual types of rituals we’ve become familiar with such as the Sand Ceremony, Unity Candles, Rose Presentations and other lovely customs.

The planting of a tree is something I’ve done several times and it is an excellent example of a fresh and meaningful ritual. There are many reasons to do this for a ceremony and can be done not only a wedding ceremony, but for a baby blessing or other occasions.

Planting a tree represents putting down roots and future growth. It connects you to the earth and is great for people who have a keen interest in all things ecological or even just gardening. Trees represent resilience, as a tree bends in a storm just as we weather the daily struggles of life.

In watering the tree you show how you plan to nourish your commitment, and you might even combine soil from each family’s place of origin. You might talk about growth, family, blooming, seasons and many other metaphors that this action represents. You can explore the meaning of the water as well. There are countless poems, quotes and passages that can be tied into the ceremony.

A beautiful tree planting moment captured!


Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote: Caresses, expressions of one sort or another, are necessary to the life of the affections as leaves are to the life of a tree. If they are wholly restrained, love will die at the roots. And Khalil Gibran wrote: Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit.

You obviously need a place to do this. If you are being married in your own backyard or the backyard of a family member, it’s easy. Some venues will also allow it. The always wonderful Stroudsmoor Country Inn has an excellent plan for this and even offers a plaque for the tree with your name and wedding date.

If you can’t actually plant the tree at the ceremony you can water a small tree in a pot and then take it with you to plant back at home. It’s really just as good! You simply water, or add the two containers of soil first then water the tree, making a strong ritualistic statement.

The downside of this idea is that its possible that the tree won’t thrive or even dies. You could also have problems transporting it to its final destination for planting. But don’t let that deter you. My husband once gave me a tree for a birthday present – one that flowered on my birthday, and a few years later the poor tree died. I was only the tiniest bit sad, and always remember this meaningful gift. It was one of my favorite gifts of all time, regardless. It’s the thought and meaning that counts.

Thank you Laura Leslie Photography for the wonderful photo!

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Wedding Etiquette

In our fast paced, modern world we tend to think of etiquette as an antiquated concept. But good manners, and knowing appropriate protocol, never go out of style. Understanding what to do, especially in unfamiliar situations, helps us all enjoy ourselves, knowing we will avoid embarrassment.

Who pays for the beautiful cake?


Especially for weddings we want to know what’s expected. The bride and groom and their respective families, have traditionally accepted roles. It is perfectly ok to stray from those protocols and customs – but knowing them to begin with certainly helps. For example, modern couples often pay for their own weddings, when historically it has been the bride’s family’s responsibility.


Which leads us to one of the biggest questions: ‘who pays for what?’ Here is the traditional answer, but remember, it is always entirely up to you. Since the bride or her family do often still pay for almost everything, it’s easier to say what the groom or his family traditionally pay for. It is the following:

Wedding Ring for Bride

Wedding Gift for Bride

Groomsmen/Usher Gifts

Bride’s Bouquet

Mother’s Corsages

Groom’s, Groomsmen, and Usher’s Boutonnieres

Marriage License

Officiant Fee

Rehearsal Dinner

Father of Groom Formal Wear

Limousine Service

Honeymoon Arrangements

Another frequent question is: what are the responsibilities of the mother of the groom? Her first order of business is to initiate contact between the families, if they don’t know each other. Call and invite the bride’s family for dinner at home or a restaurant. If they live far away, reach out – a letter is always appropriate. Provide the bride’s family with your guests list in a timely manner and inquire about dress selection and color.

One of the most important rules of etiquette involves the thank you note. Sadly, the art of the personal note is being forgotten. I’m the first to go to my email whenever possible, but for a wedding gift you really should write a personal thank you, and in a timely fashion! A printed note just won’t do. Include in it:  thanking the person for attending (if they did), mention the gift specifically, possibly how you will use or enjoy the gift, and reference any other specifics, such as a toast, or tidbit from the wedding. Three weeks post celebration is the perfect timing, but even six to eight weeks is still within reason. Please do not mess this one up – of all the etiquette rules to be broken, this is not one of them. And please don’t ask your guests to address an envelope for you to use for the thank you note.

Customs, traditions, and etiquette all play a role in our lives and are especially important at life’s milestones. Knowing what is expected helps make things run smoother, and helps one decide which rules are right for you, and which you will decide to change.


Traditionally the groom's side pays for the boutoniers.

Thank you Lisa Rhinehart for the wonderful photos

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Lovely contrast!

Everything looks and feels more beautiful with fresh flowers! Here is a bit of fun historical information about the use of flowers in weddings and then some tips on using them.

It wasn’t until modern times that brides began carrying flowers in the way we now know. In medieval times they carried garlic and dill to ward off evil spirits or even the Plague. The traditional Celtic bouquet was made of ivy, thistle and heather. In ancient Egypt and Greece flower garlands were used in the bride’s hair.

There is some evidence that in the 14th century, after a wedding guests would rush to the altar to rip a piece of the bride’s dress for good luck. This was obviously not fun for her! So tossing the bouquet (and later the garter) became a way to give a piece of that good luck to guests.

Europeans especially the Dutch, began decorating with flowers in the 18th century. And we know flower arranging in Japan has been taken to a very high art form.

Queen Victoria, who influenced our modern weddings with her choice of a white dress, also had her impact on the bouquet. She replaced some of the traditional herbs and spices with flowers, particularly marigolds. Marigolds are an edible flower, so along with dill, the bouquet was consumed because it was thought to increase passion and desire.

Today most brides carry a floral bouquet (and want their bridesmaids to, as well) and what that bouquet will be is one of the many choices modern brides face.

If you are considering how to choose your bouquet, I have a few suggestions.

Size: Remember you have to carry and hold your bouquet, so don’t go crazy on the size.

Style:  You know your wedding style – formal, semi-formal, rustic, casual – so that should immediately direct you in choosing a bouquet.

Color:If you like the monochromatic look, white roses with a white gown is classic, or pink flowers with pink dresses, and so on.  But if you would like to use color for contrast – make is intense! Take your bridesmaids dress color and pick a color for the bouquet that pops against it. I recently saw yellow bouquets with bright blue dresses and it looked amazing. If you choose multicolor bouquets the options are endless but don’t be overwhelmed, just pick something seasonal that works with your wedding colors.

Not monochromatic, but softly compliments.

Dress: How will it look with your bridal dress and the bridesmaids’ dresses? If you have a beautiful skirt don’t cover it with a trailing bouquet. If you want to emphasize your waistline make sure the bouquet is narrow.

Make it personal: Consider carrying the same flowers as your mother or grandmother. Add a keepsake such as a locket, rosary, small photo or other memento to attach to your bouquet.

To toss or not to toss? You can forgo that tradition entirely, or have another bouquet at the ready to toss, if you choose to preserve your bouquet as a keepsake.

Your floral professional will help you but do your homework first. Like all things wedding, the choices can get overwhelming. Don’t let that happen. And if you are on a very tight budget, you can grow your own, gather wild flowers, or having a friend bring you flowers from their garden!

Thank you Lisa Rhinehart for the wonderful photos

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Indian and South Asian Wedding Traditions

I’ve been writing a lot lately about diverse wedding traditions and customs and today I want to explore a few more. Today I’ll focus on rituals from India and parts of South Asia.

If you have every experienced an Indian wedding ceremony you have been a part of something amazing. Just search for photos of Indian weddings and you will see something quite beautiful and elaborate. Indian culture spans more than 4,500 years, so naturally the beliefs and practices have deep roots and are quite diverse. Four religions are practiced by the majority of India’s 1.2 billion people: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, but there is also Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.

Among these you will find many traditions that work beautifully for anyone, even if it is not your culture of origin. Here are a few of my favorites:

Mehendi, or the Henna Ceremony, is the adoring the hands and feet with intricate designs of stain made from the henna tree. This custom is traditionally celebrated by the bride’s family and friends before the ceremony. Many American women, Indian or not, especially love this because of its body art element, similar to tattoo, but not permanent.

One of my beautiful brides.

Weddings in India are a huge family affair. They begin with the arrival of the groom. However the Barat Nikasi – the groom’s processional – may be a bit harder to adapt. This tradition is from northern Indian regions, and consists of the groom entering the wedding on an elaborated decorated horse or elephant, surrounded by drummers and dancing family members!

The Jai Mala, exchange of garlands, is a great tradition. It is simply the bride and groom exchanging floral garlands, signifying their acceptance of one another. This custom is also popular in some African countries and reminiscent of the use of the lei in Hawaii.
Saptapadi, The Seven Steps, is the most beautiful part of the wedding ceremony itself. The couples takes seven steps together, sometimes around a fire, with a sacred vow for each step.

1. Together we will live with respect for one another.

2. Together we will develop mental, physical and spiritual balance.

3. Together we will prosper, acquire wealth and share our accomplishments.

4. Together we will acquire happiness, harmony and knowledge through mutual love.

5. Together we will raise strong, virtuous children.

6. Together we will be faithful to one another and exercise self-restraint and longevity.

7. Together we will remain lifelong partners and achieve salvation.


I have enjoyed facilitating this ritual with couples and also variations on this, especially using the Jewish Seven Blessing in concert with it.

This is just a little taste of Indian wedding customs, but words also matter. Here is a lovely poem from the Hindu tradition:


You have become mine forever.

Yes, we have become partners.

I have become yours.

Hereafter, I cannot live without you.

 Do not live without me.

Let us share the joys.

We are word and meaning, unite.

You are thought and I am sound.

May the nights be honey-sweet for us.

May the mornings be honey-sweet for us.

May the plants be honey-sweet for us.

May the earth be honey-sweet for us.

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The tradition of the 13 Coins

Continuing to explore diverse wedding traditions, weddings in any of the many Spanish-speaking cultures here and around the world are still most often Roman Catholic, but of course, not always.

Keeping in mind that Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central and South America, and Spain, all have specific traditions, certainly makes it hard to generalize. But there is one particular custom I’m highlighting, and it is indeed used in most all of these countries. It is also used in the Philippines. If your background is from any of these places, and whether you want a religious ceremony or not, you might consider using this wonderful tradition.

It is the ceremony of The Arras, or Las Arras Matrimoniales, and in English, The Thirteen Coins. This tradition has many variations but always centers on the concept of giving thirteen coins from the groom or grooms’ family to the bride. The coins are sometimes referred to as unity coins, or wedding tokens.

Pouring the coins back and forth.

The origin of this is reflected in the word ‘arras’ itself, which means ‘bride price,’ or sometimes translated as ‘earnest money,’ or ‘bride wealth.’ The history can be traced back to ancient Spain and Rome. The coins represent a dowry, and some believe that the number thirteen is used to represent Jesus and the twelve apostles. Other say it stands for each month of the year, plus one for the poor.

Today this tradition can be adapted in many ways and is sometime used for Quinceañera, the coming-of-age party for a 15-year-old girl, and even for a Bat Mitzvah, but usually it is for weddings. You might have a young boy bring the coins, similar to a ring-bearer, have the couple’s mothers or fathers bring them forward at the designated time, or simply have the coins at the altar.

Sometimes an ornate box is used to hold the coins, or a pouch. Often the priest blesses the coins. As you give the coins to your partner you make a promise for each one. This might take many forms, but thirteen promises (one for each coin) are: love, harmony, cooperation, commitment, peace, happiness, trust, respect, caring, wisdom, joy, wholeness and nurturing. The pledge, or promise can take other forms as well, giving your vow of responsibility to the marriage.

Beautiful boxes for the coins made by the bride!

I have created several variations of this tradition, sometimes even having the bride and groom give each other coins, symbolizing their commitment to support one another.  It brings a more modern sense of equality to the ritual, yet still holds the original intent: the couple’s hopes for good fortune and their commitment to each other through good times or difficult times.

However this ritual is performed, it is always beautiful. I officiated for a bride who created her own special boxes for the coins, and another couple used coins from their country of origin. You can make it as personal as you wish.

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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. Follow her on Pinterest, ... Read Full
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