Rituals are Everywhere

What?? She’s writing about rituals again? Yes I am, because rituals are a way to express something without words. A ritual can certainly express what your marriage commitment means to you and be a way to honor your culture or family. It might connect with your interests and values. Religious ceremonies are full of rituals, which are specific to their faith traditions. The Stations of the Cross, Confession, Communion, Shabbat candles, as well as prayers or songs are all good examples.

There are secular rituals as well, such as raising the flag, pledging allegiance and Thanksgiving. We heard a lot of fireworks this week, and I’d definitely call that ritual. 

Shared rituals, the ones we are all familiar with, provide comfort and continuity. That is why funeral rituals are so important.

Every wedding has the rituals of exchanging rings and vows. Consider how at the ceremony simply walking in separately and walking out as a couple is a clear ritual representing the journey of two lives now joining together on the same path.

Moving on to a reception – first dances, bouquet tosses, cake cutting – you know these things – they are all rituals. One of my favorites is the toast – but it is not that easy. A good toast is quite the art.

The Toast! Photo: Rhinehart Photography

There are many specific cultural rituals, such as the Japanese tea ceremony, the eastern European bread and salt,  jumping the broom for the African-American tradition, or breaking the glass in the Jewish wedding.

Side note: breaking the glass has no real religious meaning, it is simply a popular Jewish custom. Nobody breaks a glass in any Jewish worship service, it’s only a wedding ritual.

I want to suggest a few more unique ideas you may want to incorporate no matter what your faith or background, because, if chosen thoughtfully, rituals add beauty and character to any ceremony.

Using pebbles or stones can be wonderful. There are many variations, one would be to simply have guests hold small smooth stones throughout the ceremony. They can write a wish, blessing or message on the stone itself, and then you collect and keep them for display, or skip the writing, just think of it as infusing them with the love they felt through the ceremony, and then placing them in a keep sake jar.

Their own little ritual.
Rhinehart Photography

Tossing pebbles or stones into water is another way to go, representing sending your wishes out into the universe. Having natural elements like plants, water, sand or stone feels just right for some people.

I believe as modern people we may borrow from cultures as long as we are not using the customs in inappropriate ways, which is called ‘cultural appropriation.’  According to Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.‘To avoid cultural appropriation, we should learn about the diverse cultures that exist today. Don’t just borrow elements of a culture because “it is cool” or “exotic” but learn about the culture first and then decide if it is an element that makes sense to use in your life.’

Here is one I have borrowed from the Hindu tradition: The Seven Steps. This involves walking around a fire or in a circle while the officiant offers blessings or vows. These are loosely adapted by me, again, inspired from the Hindu Ceremony:

1. May this couple be blessed with an abundance of resources and comforts and be helpful to one another in all ways.

2. May this couple be strong and complement one another.

3. May this couple be blessed with prosperity and riches on all levels.

4. May this couple be eternally happy.

5. May this couple be blessed with a happy family life.

6. May this couple live in perfect harmony… true to their personal values and their joint promises.

7. May this couple always be the best of friends.

If you able to walk around the fire, you will toss small bits of puffed rice into the fire to indicate you agree. You can vary a tradition in many ways. Perhaps just walk around a candle. Traditionally the bride’s sari is tied to the groom’s clothing, but you can simply hold hands!

Blessing, invoking or addressing the Four Directions is a pagan ritual that is appealing to some. It is this belief, virtues are assigned to thedirections: East, South, West and North. Again, I have my own ‘take’ on this, a little too long for this column but keep in mind that the east represents air, the rising of the sun and a new day. South is for fire, energy and passion. West coordinates to water and emotion and true. And north is earth, providing sustenance, fertility and security. You can readily imagine how these characteristics relate to relationships and marriage.

Carrying the bride comes from way back when the groom carried his bride over the threshold of their new home.
Rhinehart Photography

Community vows, or support vows are a wonderful way to get everyone involved. This is a ritual where the officiate asks everyone to say an ‘I do,’ agreeing to support the couple. I simply adore this. What a great feeling to hear all your guests give voice to their support of this moment in your life.

Let your curiosity and creativity flow and borrow or invent traditions that work for you!

(find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman)

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Non-denominational? Secular? Sorting it all out.

When looking for someone to officiate their wedding, many couples  are not only unfamiliar with the terminology but may not be sure what they are actually seeking. Let me try to sort it out.

I often get requests for a non-denominational ceremony. After exploring this with the couple I discover what they actually want is a secular ceremony. Not always, but fairly often. There is a common misunderstanding of these terms. 

There are many circumstances, practical reasons for their confusion, as well as spiritual, emotional and family issues that add to the confusion. Perhaps the couple does not have a house of worship they are attached to, or they may be estranged from their faith traditions, they may be getting married out-of-town and don’t know anyone there, or they may not hold traditional religious beliefs. Often when couples don’t know exactly what they want they use the term: non-denominational, thinking it might fill their needs. 

Let’s be clear: non-denomination is literally any religious group that is not a part of a specific denomination, but usually open and accepting of most Christian practices. In other words, peoplefrom any and all Christian backgrounds whether Baptist, Methodist, Advent, Presbyterian, or any of the thousands of different sects, can attend. Sometimes the term ‘interdenominational’ is used – it’s basically the same thing.

Rhinehart Photography

The word some couples are looking is not non-denominational – it is ‘secular,’ ‘humanist,’ ‘ethical humanist,’ or ‘secular humanist.’ The main premise of these philosophies is the rejection the super-natural, with a belief in science. There is also an emphasis on morality based on learning, democracy and a perspective that strives to make life better for all people. In a word: progress. The Humanist Society (full disclosure, I’m a Humanist Celebrant) has chapters in 70 countries. They advocate for human rights and build strong ethical lives of personal fulfillment through rational thought. 

My grandson was recently confirmed in Norway through the Humanist Society. Just as with weddings, a confirmation gives voice to an important moment in life. Their program gives teens a way to explore and understand values and morals, not dogma, and mark the transition into adulthood.

My grandson’s Humanist confirmation
(note the Humanist Logo at top)

I believe we all need something  meaningful to mark the big milestones in life, a way to mark the moment. People look for someone or something to turn to for weddings, births, coming of age and death rituals. 

Going a little deeper, because a non-denominational church is not affiliated with a larger group, they can go in many different directions. It can be wonderful, freeing even, and congregants may find their particular church gives them the path they are seeking. People disillusioned with churches as organizations and hierarchies may gravitate towards non-denominational for those reasons. Many religions are bureaucratic and have suffered scandals. There are some excellent non-denominational churches.

Like anytime people get together, a religious group can undergo conflict. Some of my pastor friends have recounted terrible experiences with their board or other lay leaders in their congregations. It’s a two-way street – parishioners don’t like the pastor, the pastor struggles with the parishioners. 

A friend of mine, a Methodist minister (pretty mainstream, right?) tried to teach the gospel as he has studied it and come to understand it. He wanted to preach compassion, and that included victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It was enough to get him fired. His parishioners, he said, wanted to go to church to feel good, not feel compassion towards the poor or oppressed, as Jesus teaches.

Here I am at a recent ceremony.
(photo credit: Garth Woods)

Some non-denominational churches are more than happy to offer a feel-good approach. The bigger churches sometimes put on quite a show. It’s theater. And be aware that many leaders of non-denominational churches may have no background or education relevant to their role. They may not have attended seminary. Getting a good education when you are dealing not only with the spiritual, but the practical needs of a congregation, is pretty important.  Many pastors give counselling to members of their congregations, and if you don’t think this requires education, think again! 

Some non-denominational leaders are charismatic people who, in my opinion, are con artists. They’re in it for the money. Joel Osteen is worth $40 million. You may have heard of Creflo Dollar – he’s worth $27 million – he’s the guy that needed another private jet (one wasn’t enough apparently). Pat Robertson is worth $500 million. They all lead non-denominational churches.  And they don’t have to pay taxes or report how they spend their millions.

You know how much a Methodist minister makes? The average salary is $44,219. 

Most non-denominational churches are fundamentalist, meaning they hold strict, literal interpretations of scripture. But of course, again, there is a wide range within this group, including those well-meaning, kind, loving churches who are doing good work in their communities, from day care to food banks. Many of these good churches exist in rural areas or small communities and neighborhoods – and the congregations are small, some so small they meet in people’s homes, or in store-fronts. It’s a very, very broad spectrum. 

And finally, it is a sad misunderstanding to think that who do not worship a Supreme Being (God, Jesus, or any number of incarnations or representations thereof) are without morals. This is certainly not the case, and thinking of this in the reverse – we can all recall people who claim to be religious only to discover they are completely without morals. 

If you look at humanists and people of faith you will find many shared values. According to Paul Kurtz, considered the father of secular humanism, the goals of humanism are to tell the truth, keep promises, be honest, sincere, benevolent, reliable, dependable, show fidelity, appreciation, gratitude, be fair-minded, just, tolerant. A humanist should not steal, injure, maim or harm other persons… a pretty good list of values, I’d say.

I think we can all agree on that.

(find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman)

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Quaker Values Stand the Test of Time

Sometimes I write about silly things in this column, but I also often write about religion, culture and ritual and explore how traditions might pertain to weddings. One important religion I have not written about yet (after all these years) is the Society of Friends, or Quakers. They are especially important to us here in the Poconos because the roots of this faith in America are deeply tied to Pennsylvania. William Penn established our state to be a place where Quaker values of equality, religious freedom, and open democratic processes could be put into practice in ways that seemed impossible in Europe at that time.

Quakers have been a significant part of the movements for the abolition of slavery, promoting equal rights for women, and peace. They are well-known as pacifists, but contrary to popular belief, pacifism is not strictly required.

William Penn

From the beginning Friends gave women and men equal status, believing that we are all children of God who bestowed an equality upon us all. They say that one person should not set himself above others and that human distinctions are meaningless to God. Not to be confused with the Amish or Mennonites, Quakers  also practice simple living, plain dress and plain speech, but these days there is room for fashion.

In the Quaker tradition a self-uniting marriage license is used, and here in PA you can obtain this special license designed for this purpose. Please don’t get the self-uniting license if you are NOT a Quaker. That’s not right, and perhaps technically fraudulent (not that anyone is going to challenge you).

A Quaker couple marrying at the Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia
(photo: Thomas V. Lallone)

The Religious Society of Friends, was founded in mid-17th Century England by George Fox (1624-1691) The name comes from the Gospel of John which says, “You are my friends if you do whatever I command.” (John 15:12-15).The original Quakers called themselves “Friends of Truth” after this verse. They were also known as the ‘Children of Light.’ The Society of Friends became known as Quakers because the original Friends were mocked for ‘trembling with religious zeal.’ 

I have had the honor of working with a few couples who had a Quaker  backgrounds. They were well aware of how to conduct a Quaker wedding,  but they wanted something extra added to  the traditional. I totally understand this – and you don’t have to be dress plain to have a Quaker or Quaker-influenced wedding! Nothing precludes getting dressed up.

Rhinehart Photography

A true Quaker wedding has little fanfare in its ceremony content. Like their prayer meetings, there is no ‘leader’ and anyone in attendance may stand up and say something. It’s pretty loose and spontaneous. I really like that aspect. Everyone is free to speak. However, if your guests have no background in this, it could go sideways. Then the couple exchanges their vows. Once the self-uniting license is signed – that’s it. But again, many modern couples want a little more.

At Philadelphia City Hall
(Rhinehart Photography)

Friends believe that if they wait silently, God will speak to them in the heart. The silent Meeting of Friends is their sacrament of communion with God. During this silence they  open to the Spirit. I grew up in Philadelphia and attended some Quaker meetings in my youth because I was attracted to their stand on justice. 

While the clothing and quaintness might be a relic of the past, today’s Quakers have beautiful traditions that live on.

(find me on facebook – Lois Heckman, Celebrant, and Instagram – Lois Heckman)

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Hey, is this a good idea?

Today’s column – not religion, not culture nor traditions. I can’t be so serious all the time!  Because I spend a lot of time on the internet, especially concerning weddings, I was thinking about how overwhelming it can be. There are so many ideas ‘out there’ – advice, cute ideas, you can easily get turned around. When considering the vast number of suggestions, you would do well to ask yourself, is this useful? And, does this reflect us?

Of course, not that everything must be practical, some things are chosen just to be whimsical, or beautiful, evocative, or add to the vibe you’re seeking for your celebration. But there are a lot of dumb trends hanging around, too. And it’s never clear cut. Let me share a few examples, some can go either way.

A wedding website can be great or a waste of time. That’s true for most websites, actually, and yours can be an important and useful tool, if you provide information your guests need, especially if they are traveling to your location. You could include directions, accommodations, things to do in the area – and it will have value. There is only so much that can fit on an invitation, so go ahead and make use of a wedding website, they are pretty standard now and usually free. You can even offer an RSVP tool on it. But if you don’t have good content for a wedding website, it’s a waste of your time and your guests’ time. Don’t feel like you have to have one!

Definitely a good idea! (Rhinehart Photography)

Speaking of destination weddings… welcome baskets in your guests’ hotel rooms can likewise be useful or wasteful, depending on what you put in them. Snacks and beverages are great (maybe they won’t have to indulge in ridiculously overpriced hotel mini-bar.) Sunscreen if you’re somewhere it might be needed, is a good one, but don’t put items people will be stuck with especially if they are flying, or just packing them to  take home, stuff  no one needs. Don’t fill it up with Chachkies!If you don’t have enough useful items to put in, maybe skip it. No one is going to be disappointed. Plus, this could be another cost you may want to avoid.

Any item that has the wedding couple’s names and date on it is kind of silly when you think about it, because who (other than perhaps the couple’s parents) really wants something with someone else’sname on it? And do you know anyone who actually needs a new mug, water bottle or beer koozie? However, there is always an exception. If, for example, you were to get some beautifully handcrafted mugs, then by all means, go for it. Support your local artists and crafters! Now that is something worth keeping. I’ve seen too many favors, plastic and other junk, left behind and trashed.

A very useful favor – to be used at the ceremony and a great take-home! Well done!
(photo provided)

And speaking of those favors – whether or not to give them is frequently debated. Are they a waste of money, or a thoughtful token of thanks? Yes, they can be meaningful, given some thought. Food items are almost always appreciated but try not to skimp and give teeny-tiny samples. A one-time and done bottle of honey, jam or maple syrup is wasteful given the amount of packaging for the small amount of product. The ‘candy bar’ might be falling out of favor,  but personally I still love it! In case you are not familiar with this, it’s a table full of candy with gift bags for guests to scoop up their choices and fill ‘er up! Any delicious take-home treat is always a winner! Small pre-wrapped pies are delightful. Try not to eat it on the ride home.

Making a donation to your favorite charity in lieu of a favor is meaningful and expresses something about your values. Leave a note card on the table explaining why you chose it, even encouraging guests to also support the cause.

If you are having a ring bearer, you can go classic on this – he simply carries a pillow with the rings tied on (real or otherwise, depending on the age). But I also like the ‘ring security’ idea – with the boy (or it could be a girl) with sunglasses and little briefcase clearly labeled. The child is the little security guard for this big important package. Signage for boys and girls is also adorable. Things like ‘Uncle Pete – here  comes your bride,’ or for your own children, ‘Daddy, here comes Mommy.’ Other examples include ‘Wait til you see her,’ ‘They didn’t trust me with the rings,’ and  of course, simply ‘Here comes the Bride.’ There are lots of examples of appropriate and adorable signage for children. What I don’tlike is signage that implies it’s the groom’s last chance to run away. Funny, I suppose, in an outdated way. 

Another trend is women (and some men) writing messages on the bottom of their shoes, for purposes of a cute photo. I’d like to think this little love note is not intended to be stomped upon. Is this one more thing you should add to an already large to-do list? Does your photographer have a list of ‘must have’ photos or are they listening to you? Or perhaps you would like to have those shots, but let it be your choice. Which raises the question: do you want the wedding captured photojournalist style, or something more formal? These are things to think about in advance and ask: is it us?

Some wedding trends come and go quickly. Only you can decide what you like. Mason jars which were all the rage a few years back. If it’s your thing go for it, mason jars are nice for many things, especially canning food, but also for flowers for a rustic look, but they are not easy to drink from, at least without a straw. Who needs straws anymore? So passé. 

And a wall of donuts? I’m sorry, I just find this weird.

There are countless little details, and many of them are adorable, but try not to get too carried away with this stuff. I think that’sa good idea.

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The Road to Truth Can Vary

If you have even the slightest interest or knowledge of Judaism you most likely know the three major branches: Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. But did you know about Reconstructionist Judaism? This is a great example of how religion can evolve – although sometimes it seems as if it never will. Interestingly Israeli Jews are grouped into four informal categories of Jewish religious identity – Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (religious), Masorti (traditional) and Hiloni (secular).

The goal of the Reconstructionist movement, which began in the 1920’s through the 1940’s, was to give rabbis the opportunity for a new outlook on Judaism, one that was  more progressive. Its founder was Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, in – yes, you guessed it: New York City. Along with his son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, also a co-founder, they suggested that Judaism needed to be reevaluated and brought in line with modern thought. Although they did not intend these ideas to become another Jewish denomination, it did. It was, perhaps, inevitable. By 1967 a new school was created under the Reconstructionist ideology.

Reconstructionist Judaism is a great choice for those born into Jewish families looking for something more modern and meaningful to them while maintaining their Jewish identity.

In this beautiful photo by Lisa Rhinehart – the couple and the rabbi sign their Ketubah.

That is because among the many things that attracts people to this sect is the idea that it does not require its adherents to believe in God. The other main attraction is that they can, at the same time, partake in Jewish practices, rituals and holidays. While many very religious people would disagree, the idea is we can benefit by being more fluid. 

Reconstructionist Judaism is also based on a democratic model where laity can make decisions, not just rabbis. It is also egalitarian with respect to gender roles. All positions are open to all genders; they are open to lesbians, gay men, and transgender individualsas well.

A typical Reconstructions Jewish wedding would have many of the same familiar rituals as any other Jewish wedding, but the language used would be more updated to reflect the values of the movement, with its emphasis on social justice. 

You can stand under the Chuppah, the wedding canopy. If you wish, you may sign a Ketubah, the tradition marriage agreement, one that is updated with modern language. The Ketubah is often a beautiful work of art to be framed and kept in your home. You can even have the traditional Hakafot– the circling ceremony, reinterpreted to be more egalitarian as well, taking turns circling one another in a symbolic pledge to protect one another (rather than the bride circling the groom).

Under the Chuppah!

Focusing on helping others, you could incorporate the concepts of  Tikkun Olam (healing of the world through good deeds) and Tzedakah (charitable giving) into a wedding celebration. A great idea for all of us, really.

This is exactly what I have doing when I, too, create weddings for Jewish or inter-faith couples who aren’t necessarily religious but still want to honor their heritage. I infuse familiar rituals with more modern language.

There are so many sects within every religious denomination, and I suppose it is because as times change,  throughout the centuries, some adherents want their religion to change with them, while others prefer to stick to traditional ideas, even if they no longer make as much sense. In Roman Catholicism priests must be celibate, but the Episcopal Church was established as an alternative –  and their leaders can be married. Just as Reconstructionist Judaism is a lot like Reform Judaism, there are many similarities between Catholicism and Episcopalians, but they lean a little more towards Protestantism.

Who doesn’t love ‘breaking the glass’ ?

And of course, Martin Luther forever changed Christianity when he began the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe. Even Hinduism and Buddhism share common origins before following separate paths.

The religions of the world are complex and interesting. I don’t propose to be an expert, but I do love sharing what I have learned and continue to learn. And while all religions seek  to lead us on a good path, or towards a ‘truth’ (as determined by the particular religion) the road there can be quite different.

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Words Matter

‘I now pronounce you man and wife.’  Nope. That’s not correct. The equivalent of man is woman and the equivalent of wife is husband – so for a man and women getting married the correct pronouncement is: ‘I now pronounce you husband and wife.’Or perhaps ‘wife and husband,’ and if that sounds odd to you, it indicates how deeply ingrained words can be in our traditions and in our minds.

Because a wedding is one of the most important days in the life of two people, the ceremony offers the opportunity to express many thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Additionally, it is an opportunity to acknowledge and thank those who supported you throughout your life, and those who are there to witness your commitment. My role is to find the right words and actions that best express what is in the hearts and minds of the couple. And words do matter!

Every couple has their unique story. Along with their personal journey, I enjoy every ethnic, cultural, and faith tradition of the people I work with. Many secular couples are seeking a rich, meaningful ceremony, and that is something I do well. Five minutes in front of a Judge just won’t do if you understand the importance of this milestone. Sadly, many couples, especially secular couples, are not able to find choices that fit them.

Here I am reading the ceremony words I created for this couple. (Photo: Garth Woods)

I frequently create inter-faith wedding ceremonies, and for those I incorporate elements from the different religions. When there are children, I strive to find a way to involve them and make them feel special, and important, because they are. A wedding is often more than just the couple uniting, it is families joining together as well.

Whoever officiates for your wedding, if they haven’t taken the time to get to know you, take the initiative and provide them with something personal to incorporate into your ceremony. Most professional officiants will understand the value of this. Even the shortest ceremony will greatly benefit with the addition of a meaningful story or reading. 

If it has not been offered, ask your officiant for an advance copy of the wedding service. You may be able to make some edits and improvements. Sometimes just a few words can make a big difference. Would you want the words ‘love, honor and obey’in your ceremony? Thankfully, that phrase is almost never used anymore, but it illustrates my point, that words matter.

I stick to the script I’ve written and they have approved! (photo: Garth Woods)

And when you exchange your vows, you are giving your word. You are putting those very important words out into the universe – speaking your promise and expressing your commitment. Those words matter, too. They matter a lot!

We are fortunate to have amazing wedding venues in the Poconos, and I have enjoyed officiating at so many of them. I know I am contributing to the beauty and meaning of the day, and that is a great feeling, as the couple and their families and guests get to hear something meaningful, honest and heart-felt.

A ceremony is the time to time to say the important things in life. Emerson wrote: ‘Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.’ The words that are spoken at your ceremony set the tone for your celebration and are a reflection of your love and life. They should inspire, reflect, and uplift you. You deserve no less.

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Celtic Weddings Offer Many Choices

There are countless cultural traditions that can be a source of inspiration for a wedding, but one of my very favorites is the Celtic, or Irish heritage. There are many rituals and words to draw upon as well as a strong sense of identity for people with Irish roots – so much so that even those with just a touch of Irish in their families want to tip their hat to it. Statistically about 10.5 percent (33 million)of Americans have Irish heritage.

An Celtic Wedding! (Rhinehart Photography)

Although I sometimes use the terms interchangeable, we should distinguish between Celtic and Irish. The term Celtic encompasses more than just Ireland; it refers to six territories: Brittany (the coast of Northern France), Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, and Ireland. If you go back far enough – Celtic tribes once inhabited land all the way to what is now Germany, Austria, France and Spain. Celts share cultural traits such as art, history, music, dance, language and literature. Once powerful, most of the Celts were eventually conquered by the Romans, and were left with only Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  They have kept their customs alive even while Ireland was under British rule. 

What elements could you use to create a Celtic wedding? Many rituals are pagan, meaning coming from the time before the Christian era. If you are a Christian, you may still want use these symbols and rituals in honor of the past. If you are having a religious ceremony, however, you need to discuss this with your clergyperson. Most couples use these earth or nature centered rituals to show their love of nature. However if you are uncomfortable with the pagan aspect, there are other choices, notably music and literature. 

Piper leads the couple (Armen Elliot Photography)

In my recent column about bells I wrote about theIrish Belltradition, which is a great story, sometimes known as the ‘Truce Bell,’ or ‘Saint Patrick’s Bell of Will.’  For a re-cap: in this custom a couple is given a bell as a wedding gift, to be used to call a halt to arguing in the marriage. The sound of the bell ringing is to remind them of the gleam in their eye on their wedding day. Your officiant can ring the bell for your first kiss as a married couple at the conclusion of the ceremony! Tiny bells can be given to the guests as well – to help you ring in your new beginning. 

Similarly, there is the Irish Loving Cup, a cup with two handles, used to share the cup of life. You may recognize the style as the one given out as a trophy. Like the bell, the cup can be saved as a keepsake.

Bagpipes– I truly do love them. I especially love it when a piper leads the wedding party down the aisle – procession, recessional, or both. There is plenty of Irish music that can be incorporated into your wedding, and anything from the Irish Harp, to fiddles, tin whistles, accordions, and a range of styles from folk to rock, playing jigs, reels, waltzes and polkas. Irish music continues to evolve, with bands like the Chieftains. Any of this can add some Irish soul to your big day.

One of the most popular Celtic ritual is ‘tying the knot,’ or ‘handfasting’which is thought to be one of the oldest symbols of marriage. There are different versions of this and different explanations, but the basic idea is to wrap cords or cloth around the couples’ wrists to bind them together. Historically this may have been for a trial marriage, much like an engagement would be today, but in more modern times it is most commonly used as a symbol of the marriage itself.

In referencing Anam Carayou are using the ritual language that speaks to the joining of two souls and calling upon the ancient spiritual connection to the elements – fire, water, wind and earth.

Photo credit: Rhinehart Photography

Kilts!I adore them! Scotland is primarily associated with kilts, and for their wedding men are excited for the opportunity to wear their kilt. A kilt is made from the family tartan (wool of a very specific pattern unique to each clan) or perhaps they just wear the tartan as a sash. But Irish men also wear kilts. The groom may also pin or place a sash of his family tartan on his bride as a symbol she’s joining his clan. If you don’t have your own tartan, many people don’t, you can still wear a kilt.

There is, of course, great literature associated with Irish culture, there are several versions of the Irish and Scottish Wedding Blessings. 

There are also special wedding rings that include Celtic symbols such as squares, spirals and circles, and knots; they all have specific meaning.

These are just a few of the many wonderful Celtic traditions, and there are many more, and that is probably why I love them. With so much to choose from it’s easy to find something that matches every Celtic couple’s personality.


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There are three major milestones in the journey of life, at least in my way of thinking. They are birth, death, and marriage. These are times when you need to stop and reflect – whether celebrating or grieving. 

Every week I try to share something interesting about weddings, but a friend recently asked if I’d write something about funerals (since I also officiate them).  I replied, the column is called Pocono Wedding Talk– but if you’re reading this it means my editor let it happen. (thank you!)

I approach creating any funeral, memorial, celebration-of-life, or simple graveside ceremony almost the same way I approach weddings. I create it with attention to the details, learning the specifics, the deceased beliefs (as understood by loved ones, naturally) with focus and sensitivity to the family’s needs and beliefs as well. This is similar to engaged couples who want their ceremony to accurately reflect their world-view and still take into account family members who might think differently. The deceased persons interests and hobbies, passions and general outlook on life will also inspire the script and ritual actions.

I might explore including music, candles, and other familiar rituals, because a funeral is more of a time to lean on the familiar and make the connections with the past. Funerals contain oft-repeated rituals because they provide continuity in a time of great and difficult change. This is why funeral homes still look so old-fashioned. People just want it to be the way they remember it.

The obvious difference is that the deceased can’t speak for him or herself, so I have to accept what the family is telling me. Unless, of course, I have met with the person before they died and talked this over – which I have done from time to time. Besides, as the cliché goes, these services are really for the living, not the dead. Still, ethically, it’s important to me that I respect and stay true to the deceased worldview. 

It’s sad to attend a funeral service of any kind and feel that the person is misrepresented. In fact, this was the one of my main motivations in becoming a celebrant.

Death makes us not only sad, but uncomfortable. I am interested in having conversations about death and dying and thinking about all it entails. Green funerals interest me, as does a return to a more natural way of caring for the dead. This is difficult in our society, but there is a small movement in this direction. It is rare for me to think that old ways were better, but in this case I do.

The best part of any memorial service is when family and friends speak about the person. I cannot possibly capture someone’s life and character, especially if I never met them. Officiating for someone you knew is different, of course, and I’ve done that fairly often. But my job is really to help people attending the service to understand that death is hard for the living and we are here to lean on one another through the worst part and acknowledge the continuing loss. I am keenly aware that grief doesn’t end with a funeral, that love doesn’t end, and I’m am there to validate the mourners’ feelings in an authentic way.

For those who do not follow a religious path, death rituals are problematic. There really are not many who choose a service without the religious component. Consequently, people wind up choosing notto have a service because they don’t know what to do. I think that’s a mistake.  I’m not saying you have to hire someone like me. You can create your own ceremony, even an informal get-together, something that works for you and your community.

Recently I suggested to friends who were intended to skip a funeral, that they simply meet, light some candles, share stories and just set aside a specific time to talk about their loss in an intentional way. They didn’t want that ‘service’ thing but skipping it all together I felt was a mistake. They took that advice and it worked out well for them.  I was glad I could help with just that simple suggestion.

Sometimes, as a funeral celebrant, I am in the role of an ‘MC’ – a master of ceremonies – just doing introductions and keeping things moving along. These are some of the best services, when people other than me have lots to say! 

For many it is more difficult to opt-out of tradition when the pressure of the funeral comes up – after all – these are short notice affairs, unlike long-planned weddings. It can be worthwhile to consider alternative options. If a house of worship is the right place for you, then there’s no problem, but if not, it helps to think about this in advance so when death occurs, you have prepared in some way.

A celebration of life, sometimes as much as a month after the death, is another option, giving more time for planning and more time for people far and wide to travel to be a part of it. There are more choices today than ever, so don’t be afraid to break from tradition, if that tradition doesn’t speak to you. 

Life’s biggest milestones are the times we get to step out of time and really explore our feelings and beliefs, and support one another on this crazy journey called life.

Lois Heckman is a certified Celebrant officiating in the Poconos and beyond. She writes about creating meaningful weddings, focusing on ceremony, ritual, and diverse traditions. Find her on Instagramfacebookand website: www.LoisHeckman.com  

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Ring Those Bells!

Bells have meaning all around the world, and we are all certainly familiar with church bells, where it all began for weddings. They are also rung for funerals; any big life event can be announced to the community through the ringing of bells. I’ve used them for both funerals and weddings. And we ring out the old, and ring in the new.

Before everyone had an apple watch or even a clock, bells marked the time of day and united a community – and they still do. Bells are, of course, used as a call to prayer.

Ancient Chinese bell

Church bells can be traced back to 400 AD and became common in Europe by the Middle Ages. Bells were believed to ward off evil spirits, which is why you often hear car horns honking and lots of noise when a couple leaves their wedding ceremony. But on the positive side bells are also supposed to grant wishes and were considered a sign of good luck.

From a practical point of view the sound of a large bell is important. For example: ringing the dinner bell to call the cowboys and ranch hands, or to alert people to respond to a fire, are just a few ways bells are used. 

Ringing bells at weddings was popularized in the Celtic tradition, one of my favorite sources of wedding inspiration. I love the Irish tradition of the ‘truce bell’ which I’m sure I’ve written about before. A bell is given to the couple on their wedding day and meant to be rung if the couple has a disagreement in their marriage – reminding them of ‘the gleam in their eye’ on their wedding day. This is still done and it’s fun to have a special bell with your name and wedding date engraved upon it.

A ‘truce’ bell for a wedding

We can’t forget about music. Bells are one of the oldest percussion instruments and found in ancient China,  spreading across Asia, and probably came to Europe from there. Bell choirs, or hand-bells, are still a somewhat popular way to use bells musically.

The sound of bells evokes a range of emotions – from peace and happiness to sadness or danger.  When a meditation or ‘savasana,’ the final resting pose in yoga is concluded, the leader rings a ‘tingsha’ bell, singing bowl or small gong to signal the end.

We often see bells used as the very symbol of marriage, and the image of two bells tied together with a ribbon is ubiquitous, yet many of us have never thought about the origins of this custom.  Songs, movies, books, invitations and decorations all depict wedding bells! Even the color of the bells has meaning – with silver bells for a 25thanniversary and gold for the 50th. And Silver Bellsis of course a popular Christmas song.

Church chimes and ropes in hand of bell-ringer on belfry of Trinity Cathedral,
Ukraine, Donetsk, April 28, 2019 year. (BIG STOCK)

A really unusual custom in Guatemala involves a white bell placed at the entrance of the home where the wedding reception will take place. The bell is filled with rice, flour and other grains to represent abundance and prosperity. When the married couple enters, the groom’s mother breaks the bell, freeing the grains, as a sign of best wishes for the couple.

I was fortunate to have an up-close experience with carillon bells – which is a keyboard instrument that triggers bells – the many tones of the bells are ringing the music the keyboardist is playing, something way more complex than bells could normally accomplish. While on tour with my band in a Belgian town, the mayor took us to experience this, and the carillon player played ‘Take Five’ on the carillon in honor of the music festival. What an amazing experience – and the bells sounded amazing, too!

One of my favorite musicians, Robbie Robertson writes in his song ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ 

…people, people
Can you hear the sound
From every village and every town
Let the bells ring out (ring those bells)
Hear the bells ring in
Let the bells ring out (everybody)
Keep them ringing, ringin’

At a wedding ceremony you may find little bells distributed to ring at the conclusion of the service. As you ring them, now you will know why.

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The Wedding’s Off !

I try to stay positive, in this column and in my life. But stuff happens. After all the years of officiating there have been a few times when I got the call: the wedding is cancelled. I feel so sad hearing this or reading the email alerting me to the news.T

Unfortunately, most of the deposits couples have put down, whether on the venue or other vendors, are non-refundable. And there are several reasons for that. The most important one is that another wedding could have been booked for that date. My deposit is ½ the total fee, so I am losing ½ my expected income for that date.  Additionally, I may have already put a lot of hours in and even have the ceremony completed. But honestly, I don’t care about that so much, at least compared to what the couple is going through. No doubt there was pain coming to this difficult decision. 

I’ve heard several upsetting stories, although I am not usually privy to the details, but one bride told me her partner simply informed her he didn’t want to marry her. She said, to her, it came out of nowhere. She was completely shocked and incredibly sad. More often when the couple comes to this decision, it’s not a surprise to them but a relief. Clearly it’s better to call of the nuptials than to go forward simply because you don’t want to disappoint people, or because, well… it’s all planned. 

The best reason to break it off, no matter how close to the wedding date, is violence, the threat of violence, controlling behaviors or other signs of abuse. Period. Get out!If he is showing those tendencies now (and it is statistically most often men who are the abusive partner in a heterosexual relationship) it will likely get worse once he ‘has’ you. Again, this is statistically true. Anecdotally I’ve heard many stories, back when I worked on the hotline, that back this up completely.

According to a survey conducted by WP Diamonds, who polled 1,000 people between ages of 20 and 60 acrossthe US, many more engagementsare called off than weddingscancelled. About 20% of engaged couples break it off, usually before their plans went too far and money put out. So, this happens more often than people might realize – just  not necessarily before the wedding day, or even at the altar. That ‘stood up at the altar’ is mostly the stuff of movies. Oh, it happens, but I could not find statistics on the frequency of this, and I suspect it’s pretty rare.

Etiquette experts tell us that you’re supposed to return all of the engagement, shower and wedding gifts you’ve received, even presents that’ve been personalized (like monogrammed towels). Obviously If you’ve used any of the gifts, it’s okay not to send them back, but everything else should go.

Cancelling a wedding at the last minute is the worse case scenario. In this situation each guest will need to be carefully contacted – probably called – because you can’t trust that they got your email. Many people spend a lot of money to attend a wedding, on clothing, gifts, and sometimes travel and accommodations. 

If you are cancelling the wedding you don’t have to tell people WHY you made this decision. It’s obviously a difficult one and you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Calling off a wedding in and of itself speaks volumes.

Conflicts might ensue about debt accrued. Depending on the circumstances this can go a number of ways. But if you’re not in high conflict mode, the debt should be shared, unless the person calling it off, is doing so because of a transgression by their partner. In this situation I think you could make the case that the transgressor should pay. 

Sometimes it isn’t even that you don’t love your partner. Love is complicated. It might be that you’ve come to realize you see life too differently and are headed in different directions. Marriage is about a lot more than love – its about all aspects of life – finances, children, careers, your world-view, and definitely friendship.

If you’re feeling doubt before your wedding, it may just be pre-wedding jitters. But if you’re feeling reservations based on significant differences on major issues, you should listen to those doubts.

If you went through this situation you probably got a lot of advice, especially that it’s not the end of the world. It isn’t, but it sure feels like it at the moment.

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