Making A Traditional Wedding Service Your Own

Time-honored does not mean boring


Periodically on APW, someone accuses me of being anti-tradition, and I get really sad. I talk about how we have a church weddings section. I talk about how we have a lot of brides wearing white. I talk about how I make sure there are posts supporting whatever choices you want to make, wherever they are on the spectrum.

Then I always point out that no matter how indie our wedding looked (the hip look was partially just good photographers, partially the fact that I wore a short dress), our wedding service was very traditional. We had *the* traditional Jewish service, with lots of Hebrew, lots of God-talk, the seven blessings in their original form, the traditional vows in Hebrew, the works. When you ask our wedding guests, they will describe the service as “very traditional,” but most of them also describe it as “very emotional.” People seem to see those things as diametrically opposed, so what gives?

I started to see the real answer when I was talking about this with Danae in the comments. She said:

“You think APW is pro-tradition because your definition of “traditional” is something along the lines of “we thought a lot about it and decided that we wanted to echo the centuries-old tradition of our cultures and beliefs,” and when someone else defines “traditional,” they mean, “we did what everyone expected us to do.”

And I was like, “OH! Right! Of course that’s what I think traditional means! Of course!” and then “Oh my god, that’s not what everyone else means when they say traditional? I didn’t get that.”

So. I thought maybe it was time to have a chat about having a really traditional ceremony (because that feels right to you) and rocking the hell out of it (because, of course!)

So first of all: traditional ceremonies do not have to be boring. Period. We need to just wipe that idea off of the face of the earth. I’ve seen so many brides approach planning their service by saying, “Well, it’s traditional, so you know it’s going to be boring and there is nothing I can do.” Whenever I hear that I want to grab said bride’s shoulders and shake her, and say something like, “You want a traditional service because that’s part of who you are, right? So stop belittling yourself, and start seeing your amazing self-worth. Who you are is awesome. And if having a traditional ceremony is part of who you are, your traditional ceremony is going to be AWESOME.” Or, in short, there is no quicker way to make a ceremony boring than to have the bride and groom think it’s boring. That sort of prophecy is always self-fulfilling.

So, how do you approach a traditional wedding service and make it something that you feel like you can live inside?

I mentioned a while ago, when we talked about constructing a wedding service, that it’s good to start with a structure of some sort, and that you can often use traditional services as a starting structure to create something not-super-traditional. Well, when you’re working within the confines of a more-traditional service, I like to think of the age-old structure as a vessel. It’s something that you’re going to fill up, you’re going to fill it up with emotion, you’re going to fill it up with your personalities, you’re going to fill it up with family, you’re going to fill it up with the love that you have for each other. And the older the service, the stronger the vessel, by my reckoning.

I figure, if a service has been around for a really long time, that means that it’s survived because it’s been meaningful to generations and generations and generations of people. That, my friends, does not make it boring in a, “Yawn, we’ve totally heard this before,” way. That makes it amazing in a, “My parents and my grandparents and my great grandparents found this meaningful,” way.

For example: some of you may have heard of (or know by heart), the Jewish prayer The Kaddish. You probably know The Kaddish as the prayer Jews say in memory of the dead. Which it is. But it’s actually a lot more than that. The Kaddish is actually just a prayer praising God, and it exists in a bunch of different forms. There is the Reader’s Kaddish, the half (Hatzi) Kaddish, the full Kaddish, and the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer is used all over the place in a Jewish service, as a transition. You can say this one simple prayer five times in an hour and a half. Why is that? Well. The real reason is, literally, that it’s a crazy beautiful prayer. Crazy, crazy, beautiful. So over thousands of years, people liked it so much that they started adding it in where ever they could, “Oh! Let’s do one here. I mean, it’s so beautiful, why not?” That makes The Kaddish the definition of super traditional. Does that make it boring? No way in the world. It makes it this amazing vessel of words and tune that has been loved for generations, and you can fill up with whatever emotion you need. That’s pretty special. So think of a traditional service like that.

So. How do you fill up your wedding service? How do you take a bunch of words that you didn’t pick, and make it your own? Well, allow me to give you a small list of ideas:

  • Intention. Why are you having a traditional wedding in the first place? Chances are, there is a really good reason. Maybe it’s important to you personally. Maybe it’s important to your parents, and you’ve realized that honoring them is an important part of who you are. Whatever the reason, think about it, and talk it through with your partner.
  • What does it all mean? Next, start looking at the service together. It’s really easy to gloss over words you’ve heard a million times, but stop doing that. In the Jewish vows you say the phrase, “I sanctify you to me…” Part of our pre-marital preparation was thinking and talking about what it meant to us to sanctify our relationship. There is no right answer to these kinds of questions, but you’ll be surprised what you learn when you dig through your thoughts. So look at the words of your service and talk about them. One of the primary rules in acting is that if the actor doesn’t understand what he’s saying, the audience won’t understand it either. But if the actor has real meaning behind the words, that meaning is communicated to the people watching. That sounds hippy-dippy, but it’s dead true. If your wedding service just seems like a bunch of boring words to you, it’s going to put your guests to sleep. If your wedding service is a bunch of really meaningful and specific words, you’ll make your guests cry.
  • Thoughtfully add music and readings. Almost all traditional services have room for you to add and subtract readings and music. When the bulk of your service is set, it’s important to really think about your choices for readings and music. Every so often a reader complains to me that they are limited to picking Bible verses, and I think, “Honey, have you read The Bible? Because it’s a virtual repository of awesome.” I’m rather partial to Psalms and Song of Songs myself, but there is so much rich and amazing material to choose from that you could spend a lifetime picking. I feel the same way when people complain about being limited to “church music.” With a repository stretching from Gregorian Chants to Baptist Hymns, I’m pretty sure everyone can find something that speaks to them, if they look hard enough.
  • Value your choices. Stop writing your wedding off as “boring” or “traditional.” If you fill up the vessel of tradition with yourselves, I’m pretty sure that’s as good as it can possibly get.
  • Show up. If you show up, if you’re fully emotionally present, if you’ve thought carefully about the choices you’ve made? Well. I’ll be the girl in the back bawling.

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  • Lisa Foster

    Absolutely brilliant article. So eloquent and so well written – well done

  • Totally true too

  • ElfPuddle

    Thank you, Meg.

    I’ve always thought of traditional as being an homage to the people who came before me and did it right…my parents, my grandparents, my great-aunt whose wedding band is my engagement ring…

    It helps that I’m going to marry a wonderful, very conservative and traditional man. (I lean left, he leans right, and we meet in the middle.)

    More than anything else, to me, the whole point of having a “wedding” instead of a civil service is to bring in all that old, glorious, tried-and-true ritual that so many of us need in our lives.*

    *Which is not to say that a civil service and complete lack of what I would recognize as ritual is not right. It just isn’t right for my fiance and I. Your mileage may vary, of course.

  • Esther B

    What a lovely, inspiring, helpful post.

    Would it be too far from the purpose of the site to spend time, at some point, talking about Biblical readings? I loved the posts we had a little while back about secular readings, but you’re right that many wedding services require one (or more!) reading from the Bible. And that, for me, was the. hardest. part. of picking readings.

    The irony: I’m a PhD student in Hebrew Bible. So it’s not that I don’t like the Bible, or find a million reasons to fall in love with its texts! The problem is that most readings fell into some combination of “clichéd,” “problematic for marriage of equals,” or “irrelevant to marriage.” Song of Songs is beautiful, but it’s about sex, not marriage. The Psalms are beautiful, but they’re about worship of God, not marriage. Yes, it’s okay to include those things in a wedding, because sex and religious beliefs will be part of the marriage too! But I really struggled with finding a passage that felt like it would speak to the specific commitment of marriage. (FWIW, we eventually settled on Proverbs 31, the song of the mighty woman.)

    Anyway, just my two cents on something that I would’ve found helpful in my planning (and something that I trust APW to do thoughtfully and well!).

    • KD

      There were some “words to read when you wed” posts a bit ago that were really interesting. People shared readings and such in the comments. It’s probably harder for you though since I can look at a verse out of context and do a pretty good job not thinking about what it actually means contextualy. I think that’s what the posts were called though and there was one where people talked about religious readings. I found it super helpful.

    • Stacie

      Yes, please! We’re having a mostly secular service, but our officiant suggested we consider including a Bible verse somewhere as a nod to the more conservative/religious members of our families. She pointed out that it would be a sign to them that “hey, this is legit,” and would help them relax into the rest of the service. I’m having an awful time, though–Corinthaians feels *so* overdone, and everything else is just…not quite right either. I’d love some more suggestions.

      • Sarah

        When it comes to Corinthians, for me at least, it totally depends on who’s reading.

        On the one hand, you can have someone who basically recites the words, because they’ve read it so many times … and it just sounds monotonous.

        On the other hand, you can have someone who really feels all of the words, and let’s that come out through their voice. At which point it can be deeply meaningful.

        Either way, if it means something to you … use it. Who cares if everyone-you’ve-ever-seen-married has used it. This time, it’s about what matters to you. I doubt one person would think “oh, THAT again?”. They’d just see that it was powerful to you.

      • That was actually our original plan — though to appease that side of ourselves, not just conservative relatives, as our reasons for having a secular ceremony were a little different than not being religious — and in the course of trying to find biblical readings that we both liked and both felt reflected us and were appropriate for the occasion, we ended up remembering why we weren’t having a religious ceremony in the first place. (Mostly that I am a champ at feeling conflicted about things! It was still pretty damn traditional, and the structure etc. were definitely rooted in the same religious traditions we came from, but the talk was definitely more about love and support and community in a non-religious context, and while our officiant is I think technically still a priest, he’s on pretty much permanent leave and performed the ceremony as a justice of the peace.)

        I think if we’d really wanted to we could have found something that worked, because there is a LOT of material available in those books, but because we had the freedom to use non-biblical readings, we just went the simpler route and used a poem that was already a favorite and a Madeline L’Engle passage we’d come across and liked. Then we incorporated a series of prayers (mostly adapted from the Book of Common Prayer’s marriage rites, and originally designed to be read “by a deacon or other appointed person” i.e. not part and parcel of the sacramental part of the service) as the way to bring in our faith traditions. If having biblical readings isn’t important to you personally, and you’re having a hard time finding ones that speak to you, maybe the approach of incorporating prayers (possibly even inviting some of those family members to read/offer a prayer) might work in your context?

      • I’m also using a Bible reading in our ceremony, mostly out of respect to my Christian family. I also felt that Corinthians was so overdone, and therefore was planning to use a reading from Ruth instead. My fiancee is not Christian and was pretty content to leave the Biblical reading choice up to me, but she mentioned that she did prefer Corinthians. After reading a previous post on APW about incorporating tradition, I re-read those verses from Corinthians and was reminded of how much I loved those words (particularly how much I loved them back before I knew how often they were used in weddings). And I started crying. And then I figured, eh, if that particular reading is used over and over in weddings, it must be because those words are meaningful to others too. So my advice: don’t necessarily give up on something just because it’s used a lot–perhaps you can find strength and inspiration from the fact that it’s been used before.

        • Amy

          I think the original post touches on this beautifully, but thoughtfully using a reading that is “so overdone” is very different than randomly picking it. We used Corinthians in my wedding, and you’d be surprised how few people have heard the whole reading (the bit before the love is patient, love is kind part). It was also a special experience to hear that reading again at another family member’s wedding and be taken back to hearing those words at my own wedding. And knowing that they’ll continue to be used at weddings because they say something so meaningful about the nature of love.

          • Kibbins

            I agree that the parts outside of verses 4-7 are the real meat of it. The other thing to consider is this: in the original text, the word that was later translated to “love” was “agape”. This is not romantic love or brotherly love — this is unconditional, Christ-like love. The love that we should be striving to model our marriages (and our whole lives) on. However, not everyone knows that, and if you don’t tell them in one way or another, then it might sound like the same old passage that EVERYONE reads at their wedding. But if you tell people what it means, and what it means to you, then it will be … wait for it, meaningful ;-)

            Here are the passages that I “narrowed down” our choices to, in case it helps with someone who is trying to choose:
            Romans 12:1-2, 9-18
            Song of Solomon 8:6-7
            1 John 4:9-17
            Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
            Matthew 22:35-40
            Colossians 3:12-17

            I think Ecclesiastes is a good one if you’re really looking for a “couple” theme. Most of these talk about love, but not necessarily love-y love. But that was important to me: to say, we’re going out and living our lives together and we’re going to really try to show love to everyone every day.

      • Liz A

        To weigh in on the Corinthians discussion, the Sunday after we got engaged, that was a reading at mass and the priest talked about how it’s read at a lot of weddings, but that’s not what it was originally intended. In the historical context of when it was written, it was about the radical idea that Love was for everyone, not just the elite or the special people. And how at that time it was a revolutionary idea, and scary for The Man to have out there. He related that back to current issues, specifically gay marriage and how we have to fight now to make sure Love is for everybody.

        It made the reading new for me in a really wonderful way.

        • Wow, thanks for sharing this–it just makes me even more excited about using this reading at our wedding. And I think it’s so awesome that your priest brought it back to gay marriage. Love it!

        • KD

          Wow – that does make it extra heart warming!

    • meg

      I will at some point, but it sounds like you won’t like my picks very much ;) I’m not huge on Readings About Love. I feel like by the time you’re at a wedding, you’re way beyond that. We had stuff from Song of Songs (Yay sex! Plus yay sexy love!), and stuff from Psalms about God. Then we used other verses about values. Basically, stuff we wanted to root our marriage in, not stuff about mariage.

      • Cara

        Yes. Exactly. Readings are about setting the foundation for your marriage – they don’t have to be about your love. We did biblical readings that reflected our values. My favorite of which was Romans 12:9-18 … let love be sincere, do not grow slack in zeal, bless those who persecute you, weep with those who weep, do not be haughty but associate with the lowly, do not repay evil for evil, if possible live at peace with all.

        • Some of my very favorite verses about God and love and continued love come from 1 John. And oh, the Psalms!

      • Esther B

        Hah, fair enough! I still look forward to the post very much, since you’re always so wise and thoughtful, whatever you’re discussing.

        I feel like our difference in perspectives is touching on a big bundle of unstated social assumptions about what a wedding is “for.” There’s the view (which seems to be the mainstream here on APW?) that the wedding is about setting the foundation for the marriage to come: laying the cement bed of what you want to build your marriage upon, then making it concrete with a ceremony. And then there’s the view that the wedding is about the transition itself: a celebration of the joy and passion that culminates in that day, that marks a major life transition for many people. Of course, I’m presenting them as mutually exclusive, when they’re absolutely not. It’s just a question of where you set your priorities.

        And I’m realizing as I write this that I kinda wish I’d taken more time to think about that question, early on in my wedding planning.

        • meg

          Huh. It’s an interesting question, and not mutually exclusive at all. I think our wedding was about both. But even being about the transition, the words that we chose to ease that transition were words about things much bigger than the two of us – our core values, really. That’s always what I turn to in difficult or joyous moments of transition, so that’s what I turned to on my wedding day, as well.

    • Class of 1980

      Isn’t Song of Songs also about longing for the person you love? And then there are these verses …

      “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.

      Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.”

      • meg

        Thsoe were our english vows, so there you go.

        • My bf and I are interfaith, so we’re having a Catholic / Jewish ceremony presided over by a priest and a rabbi (yay, double the religion, double the tradition!). We’re using part of this Songs of Songs verse plus a couple lines of the more standard stuff that the Catholic side will all be familiar with (I take you in good times and bad…) for our vows. It’s one of the elements of the service I’m really excited about!

      • We used this reading, as well, and our officiant based his homily on it.

        In choosing our passage, we borrowed an idea from my brother and sister-in-law’s wedding. Since Song of Songs is written with two perspectives (the Lover and the Beloved), we chose verses from each perspective and asked my brother and sister-in-law to read them together, almost as a conversation, a back-and-forth. When I saw that done at their wedding (by a couple whose marriage they respected greatly), it gave a new beauty and depth of expression to the words that I had never seen before. I love that we got to honor their marriage by asking them to do the same reading at our wedding.

    • Liz

      your degree is EXACTLY why you found it so difficult, i’m sure. and like someone below, i don’t entirely see song of songs to be about sex as much as about healthy desire for someone you love. which is. nice. because that’s a pretty big reason why i got married. (we ended up using, “i am my beloved’s and he is mine” and “many waters cannot quench love” on our programs, so there’s that)

      another less cliched one (though from the new testament, not the old) is colossians 3:12-17. it does mention christ, so it makes it a bit more specified in who may want to use it.

      • meg

        I’m gonna make an example of Liz because she loves me anyway, and nix the use of the word cliched in the comments. Because that’s kind of what I’m talking about here – I think that word is not too helpful.

        Plus, Liz just called my vows cliched (nice Liz!) so that’s another danger :P

        • Liz

          haha, i totally didn’t! i was responding the author of the comment who used those words!

        • Liz

          ok, ok. i reread and i get it. i meant “another less cliched” as in “this is ALSO not cliched, just like the song of songs passages are not cliched…” but yeah.

          consider me duly smited.

          because this post is all about how the traditional is NOT cliched, if it’s soaked with you-ness and thought. right?

          • Alyssa

            The baby made you do it.

          • meg

            D*mn baby.

        • Esther B

          Thank you for pointing this out — it’s totally fair, and I’m sorry to have been careless in my original comment. “Cliché” is like “tacky” — one of those words you use to describe “stuff I don’t like and my friends shouldn’t.”

          Really, I suppose it comes back to the subject of the original post: there’s a difference between doing something (e.g. reading 1 Corinthians 13) because Everyone Does It, and between looking it over, deciding that it really reflects the ideas that you want, and embracing it as something with truth and beauty. So while I don’t like the idea of accepting certain passages just because they’re “the classic marriage passages,” it’s a totally different (and great!) thing for people to decide consciously that they’re classics for a reason.

          • Amy

            And ask your partner :) I totally wanted to do original songs for our wedding, but when I asked my fiance what he wanted, he picked very traditional choices. To him the bridal march and trumpet voluntary *meant* wedding. That was a really visceral reaction for him, and something he really wanted to feel on the day.

    • I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, but if you’re having trouble finding verses right out of the Bible, you could use secular books with allusions to Christianity and religion, as well as marriage and some of the foundations you’re looking to establish in it.

      I used an excerpt from the The Little Prince in my vows. There’s allusions out the wazoo in that book.

      Good luck :)

    • Rachel

      I’ve been a devout Christian most of my life–raised in Sunday school, attended youth group, went on missions trips, etc. But when it came to the wedding ceremony, I gave the pastor free reign to do whatever he wanted.

      My pastor was SHOCKED. He said most brides come armed and ready with *exactly* what they want said. But, you know, he’s a pastor, and I just felt that he would be far better suited, even with my Bible knowledge, to pick something beautiful.

      And, oooooooh boy, did he deliver! He said my willingness to hand over reins enabled him to explore lesser-known or -used messages of love and faithfulness.

      From that experience, I now recommend to people that they trust their pastor like they trust their vendors (because he/she kind of is one). They’ve worked their whole lives for this, and they can probably surprise us with what they can make of something we didn’t know or see as “fit” for our wedding.

      • meg

        And THAT is why you want a good officant. This works beutifully with someone rad, and um, if you have someone you don’t really know who is maybe not clergy or maybe not familar with who you are? This can go terribly wrong.

        Which is why I always vote for trying to find someone experanced who will take the time to get to know you both.

      • We did this to some extent, too, because our officiant is a Pastor who has known us for almost our entire lives, and we trust her to know us and express us.

        We gave her a lot of leeway and she basically whittled things down to two or three options for each part for us to choose from. We’re getting married in two weeks and are so excited about how the ceremony has turned out.

      • I’m going to totally disagree with this. I would trust the pastor/church leader/officiant person if you know him/her and have reason to have faith in his/her abilities to choose readings that are reflective of you and your fiance and your mutual beliefs, but if you don’t, go armed! And make sure you confirm that he is actually going to do what you asked.

        At my first wedding, we used a minister who was not familiar to either of us (he was a friend of my dad’s but unknown to either me or my ex). We had a couple of simple requests: (1) we wanted him to use the King James version of the Bible because that was the version that both my ex and my family used; and (2) we had three poems/readings we wanted the minister to incorporate (we went over the ceremony schedule with the minister and organist so the readings were specifically listed in the ceremony schedule). All three readings were fairly traditional (a sonnet, a psalm and a beatitude). At our meeting with the minister, he agreed. At our ceremony, without telling us he planned to do this, he used some wacky modern-day interpretation of the Bible that was completely unfamiliar to either of us and our families and lacked the poetry of the King James version, and then he read two lines from of the two readings that I had painstakingly chosen, and didn’t read any of the others. Our ceremony lasted 5 minutes because he cut out so much of the ceremony we asked for. We might as well have gone to the courthouse.

      • This is a good point.

        In our case, we did make some changes to our service – mostly with small wording choices and the like — but our Reverend performed a homily during the service, and did an amazing job tying in the service to the two of us specifically. I’d actually wanted to find a way to say that our home is wherever we both are, but couldn’t find a way to put that into the ceremony where our vows were already prescribed. Would you guess that she found a way to almost say those exact words without my mentioning that to her at all?

        It really pays to take the time to know your officiant, if at all possible, in the months leading up to the wedding. I think it would’ve made a big difference in the tone of the ceremony if she didn’t know us and what we were about.

    • Marina

      We found some really amazing English translations of Biblical passages, and in a few cases wrote our own. We just had to look at the original non-English versions, and in some cases ask not only what the literal translation was but what the cultural translation was for the people who originally read it. The “traditional” English translations everyone is so familiar with are just that, translations.

      • Esther B

        Absolutely! We decided on Proverbs 31, which is often called “the virtuous wife” passage, but another totally legitimate way to translate “eshet hayil” is “the kickass wife,” or “the mighty woman.” Choosing the translation carefully can have a huge effect on tone and implications.

    • Anon

      Ack! WHY did noone tell us about Proverbs 31?! We are using 1 Corinthians (because you know what? It is beautiful), but Proverbs 31 would have been so lovely. Expecially given that I spin and knit to clothe our family, and sew, and cook. Many people might not have understood what a distaff is, but I would :)

      This is the problem with being raised with a little bit of Church, but not quite enough.

  • KD

    “And if having a traditional ceremony is part of who you are, your traditional ceremony is going to be AWESOME.”

    Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

    As someone who has witnessed tons of wedding of friends and strangers, all I can say is the thought behind things is what is so much more important that what is being said/done sometimes.

    It’s similar to the fact that people look so beautiful on their wedding days because of the joy that’s being radiated from their entire being – when people are acting with intention, love and sincerety it’s touching. Seeing anyone go through the motions regardless of if it’s something unique or uber traditional is when things are boring.

    There are some things I’d personally thought of as downright wacky in theory that when they happened were beautiful and made me tear up because of the intention…

  • Rose

    Lovely. Filed under “Stuff I wish I’d read BEFORE I got married”

    • Alyssa

      Absolutely. We just trusted our preacher with the ceremony because it never even occurred to us that we had the option of tailoring our ceremony. We figured it was either write your own vows (which the thought of made my husband want to vomit) or go with what the officiant said. I mean, he asked us what we wanted and all we did was shrug our shoulder and then nod like bobble-heads when he suggested Corinthians.
      I barely remember the ceremony, but when I asked my man of honor about it, he was like, “It was awful Jesus-y. And not YOU kind of Jesus-y, just generic Jesus-y.”

      Rose, if you figure out how to hit the reset button and get a do-over, you let me know! :-)

      • Rose

        Oh yes, ditto! Our service wasn’t overly traditional or religious (as we wanted) but there were a couple of things the minister said and did that were probably not what I would have chosen had I thought fully and deeply about the ceremony like so many APWers have

      • I think it’s really important for people to know that they have the option (in most cases) to personalize it because, as you found out, Alyssa, it might end up being “not very you” otherwise.
        We had planned on being married by the retired minister of the first church I ever felt at home in (the one I’d get up early throughout high school to hear his sermons before going to the later high school-aged kids’ RE group). I couldn’t imagine our wedding with anyone else, and when we met with him it seemed fine… but then we got the initial ceremony draft and it was so, so not us at all (and he was not open to changes*) that we ended up making the very difficult decision not to have him officiate.
        Luckily a beloved family member has been ordained & performing marriages since the 70s, and we were able to write something (basically from scratch, but with inspiration from other recently married couples) that was perfect for us. And the fact that it was not traditional was the right decision for us, but I did worry that those in attendance would think it less of a “wedding ceremony” since it didn’t use the traditional words. Happily, many people told us it was touching because it was so personal, so it seems they were sufficiently distracted from the lack of traditional words!

        *Hello, we’re Unitarian Universalists… there really should be no “not open to changes” going on here! :P

  • Margaret M.

    We had a tricky challenge: I consider myself culturally Christian but I do not believe in God, and my husband refused to get married in a church. But I needed to feel tied to my family’s history – I yearned for tradition. So we asked my cousin, a minister, to help us write a ceremony that felt like a pretty traditional Protestant ceremony but without mention of God or the bible. We did not write our own vows – we exchanged very traditional vows. We had a homily and the passing of the peace (which people liked so much I thought they’d never stop gabbing) and other things that felt very traditional to me and very right, but also there was the absence of things that did not feel true to us, as mentions of God or Jesus would have.

    When my dad was asked about where the ceremony came from, mostly from people who noted the lack of God talk, he said it was about values.

  • We had such such such a traditional Roman Catholic wedding. We picked out some Latin ordinaries and old english hymns and had my brother and his sister do readings and carefully selecting each prayer out of our option and said the vows that we wanted to say (I meant ‘as long as we both shall live’ so I said it) in front of our family. While some of our friends have come up with their own ceremonies that were gorgeous, I felt enormously freed by being able to use the ceremony that my grandparent’s used and their parents and their parents. I felt like I didn’t have to come up with something meaningful or amazing, or manage to express in my own words what it meant to me or what I intended to do, the Catholic ceremony and the vows I said seemed very much a gift from our church to us tying us into all the marriages made in our church since 1862 and all the marriages made since the beginning of the rite.

    • “the vows I said seemed very much a gift from our church to us tying us into all the marriages made in our church since 1862 and all the marriages made since the beginning of the rite.”

      This is a really powerful and beautiful way to explain the value of a traditional wedding ceremony. As someone who wasn’t raised with any religion, and felt a little overwhelmed trying to come up with something ‘amazing’ for our ceremony, a part of me would have loved to have been part of a faith that tied my people together through the ages, with ceremonies and rituals that were powerful because they were also part of our family’s faith, history and culture.

    • Amy

      Its funny – I didn’t expect to find as much meaning in our very traditional Roman Catholic ceremony as I did. I’ve got so pretty big issues with the RC Church’s views on women’s rights, LGBTQ issues, etc. but on the day of the wedding I was shocked at how much I was moved by having the same mass that I’d participated in for many many years being celebrated for me and my husband by our family and friends. And knowing that it was the same ceremony so very many of our family members had participated in for generations. And seeing them react to their own memories of that mass as we celebrated our own wedding was really beautiful. Not to mention, the catholic church does give you lots of opportunities to include family members as readers, bringing up the gifts, even acting as altar servers. And being able to write our own prayer of the faithful to bless all of the family there with us was something I didn’t think I’d be allowed to do, but was! And it was really special to me.

  • Thank you for the super sneaky peak at heretofore unreleased ceremony shot de toi.

    • meg

      No lady, that’s released ;) I never release new ones! You know that!

  • the danger of having a long URL is spelling it wrong

  • Mattingly

    This post made me very happy on numerous levels. But it also brought home to me that there is in the indy wedding world a sense that the Bible in it’s most traditional (and by that I mean original, as understood by the people who wrote it, and who selected the books that are in it) interpretation is somehow opposed to female equality. And that is in fact not the case! There have certainly been portions of Christendom that have interpreted it that way, and years (perhaps even centuries) of abuses that use certain passages of Scripture as their excuse, but that is NOT how those passages were intended to be read!! Here is a lovely explanation found in the Eastern Orthodox study Bible notes (yes it’s lengthly, but it’s sooo worth it!):

    “In modern society, as well as in Christendom, a recurring debate concerns the tension between equality of the partners in marriage and office or order in marriage. Often, this tension has turned into a polarity between men and women, and sometimes even breeds hostility. Two elements in the Orthodox service of marriage serve to heal such tension, while making clear the teaching of the Church on the twin themes of equality and order concerning the husband and wife.

    As to equality, during the ceremony crowns are placed on the heads of the bride and groom. This act is symbolic of their citizenship in the Kingdom of God, where ‘there is neither male nor female’ (Galatians 3:28), and of their dying to each other (the crown is often a symbol of martyrdom, see Revelations 2:10). The words of St. Paul on marital equality are clear: ‘The wife does not have authority over her own body, the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.’ (1 Corinthians 7:4). Husband and wife belong to each other as martyrs, they belong to God as royalty, and they are called to treat each other accordingly.

    But within marital equality there is also order. The epistle passage read at the sacrament of marriage is Ephesians 5:20-33, and exhortation to husbands and wives that begins with a call to submit to each other (verse 21). The husband is to serve God as the head of his wife, and Christ is Head of the Church (v. 23). The wife is to be subject to her husband as the Church is subject to Christ (v. 24). There is nothing here to suggest that the wife is oppressed in marriage any more than one would call the Church oppressed in relationship to Christ. He who calls us ‘brethren’ (Hebrews 2:11) and ‘friends’ (John 15:15) exhorts the husband to love his wife, to nourish and cherish her as He Himself does the Church (verses 28, 29).”

    The one thing this passage doesn’t make as clear as I would have liked is just what that relationship with Christ and the Church is– totally sacrificial! The priest who my husband and I worked with during our marriage counseling made the point that if you really think about this passage then, it means the husband is called to do ANY thing, and EVERY thing for his wife, to care for her, do what’s best for her, love her more than himself, even be willing to die for her. While specifically telling the wife to just be submissive to that. Now, if all was right in such a relationship, how could a woman not want to do what her husband tells her if he is in fact doing all those things!? It would not be very empowering for a woman to demand so much independence that when her husband asks her to do something that would in fact be best for her she refuses because she didn’t come up with it/ because he said it!

    Of course, life isn’t perfect. Men and women aren’t perfect. Thus, this ideal does not always play out as it should. Husbands do not always perfectly love their wives, and we wives are not always going to perfectly respect them. There are certainly times when relationships are broken to the point where for a woman to submit to the will of her husband/man would be harmful to her, her family, etc. But those would also be the very relationships where the man is not doing anything remotely like what he is called to do. Thus the balance called for is upset, and I would venture to claim this “contract” of sorts has then been broken.

    BUT if both partners strive to love more perfectly, doing more often what is best for the other, then that’s what makes a great marriage. And that is precisely what this, often tricky, misinterpreted, and maligned, passage in the Bible is really talking about.

    • What a great comment. It kills me that so many people dismiss Bible verses and traditional Christianity because they see certain words and verses without taking the time to explore the meaning or historical context. So often do passages become so much more balanced and loving and giving when you make that effort.

      • I know for me, part of the challenge in selecting readings was that we wanted things that could stand on their own while being shared with a broad audience, some of whom were very well-versed in the history and larger context, but many of whom would not be more than superficially familiar and could have easily misunderstood and even felt excluded by or offended by the language in some of the selections we were looking at if their own resources only allowed them to take it at face value. There’s definitely the option of ignoring that and focusing on what the reading means to the two of you, or of taking the opportunity to provide some explanation of that context (perhaps even just a couple of introductory sentences by the reader before launching in to the reading itself, or in program notes), of course, but there can be some tension there even for people who do take the time to really think something through and examine it.

    • Sarah

      Mattingly, thank you for this. I love the breakdown and explanation. =)

    • Arachna

      I think what you describe is a very nice take on the Bible and meaning and certainly you write about it beautifully.

      But there’s a faint suggestion (to me) in what you write that what you say is universally desired/desirable.

      The marriage you describe as ideal – what would be if men and women were flawless – sounds like nothing I would want. I just want to make the point that its beautiful for you but… not what everyone wants at all and it sounds like what you want and need but is by no means a universally good and satisfying marriage and marriage roles.

      We are all different. We all have very different and awesome marriages.

      • Mattingly

        “But there’s a faint suggestion (to me) in what you write that what you say is universally desired/desirable.”

        Huh. You’re totally right. I was assuming that… I guess I saw/see that as a very broad description of a ‘desirable’ marriage. What about that description isn’t appealing to you? I’m genuinely curious! =)

        • Carreg

          I don’t know what Arachna finds unappealing about it, but I guess it wouldn’t appeal to me because it’s still one sided.

          “it means the husband is called to do ANY thing, and EVERY thing for his wife, to care for her, do what’s best for her, love her more than himself, even be willing to die for her. While specifically telling the wife to just be submissive to that. Now, if all was right in such a relationship, how could a woman not want to do what her husband tells her if he is in fact doing all those things!?”

          That’s beautiful in a way, but it doesn’t seem to leave much room for the wife being in the protective, supportive role. Also if the bloke is going to do what’s best for his wife, he has to _know_ what’s best for her — sometimes she will know better. My idea of an ideal marriage does not involve one partner always obeying and being looked after and the other always providing and protecting. I’d prefer to take turns.

          • Mattingly

            Ok, I see that. I suppose I just don’t see it as one sided then… Because you’re totally right, give and take is very important. As is mutual nurturing. I certainly know that when my man comes home after a really hard day of work I’m the one taking care of him and saying things like ‘you sir need to not deal with ____ right now and just go to bed’ etc. I’d say that comes under, sometimes what is best for the wife is to be nurturing. And some times it’s to be cared for. And sometimes it’s to go to grad school, and sometimes it’s to stay home and raise kids. Different for every woman.

            Plus, there’s nothing in the Bible that says the woman can’t tell the man what’s best for her. Like you said, he might not know. But if he really loves you he’ll sure as heck listen to you to try and find out! As a woman with serious plans for grad school and hoping for a career in science, there has definitely been discussions of him moving with me, going where I need to go. And that’s good! And Biblical! lol. So I guess all I’m saying is that I certainly don’t find this passage to be restrictive, and I just wanted to share that with the APW community.

        • Arachna

          I’m not sure an in-depth discussion of what I don’t like would be appropriate to this blog (we could go to email?) but something that I think would sum it up is that I very much want to be called on to “even die for him”. The idea that he would for me but my responsibility is just to accept that – horrifies me. Because my offer of protection, heart deep, is as valuable and amazing as his and should be valued the same, its not an afterthought or a “me too” it’s fundamental and all about what love is. That he is called on to do this but… me doing the same is maybe accepted – does not seem equal at all. I want to fight for him, not just accept that he fights for me. There are other aspects as well. I feel that it is my responsibility to guide him to become the best version of himself. I feel strongly that he must love himself in order to be a good partner. Etc. Etc.

          • Mattingly

            (I’m responding here again… I hope this isn’t too far off from the purpose of this blog! If you’d like to move to email I’m more than fine with that though!)

            Wow. You are quite eloquent, and I love your descriptions of how you desire to love you husband. My hat is off, lady. I hope I can live up to such sentiments in my own life! As for defending them biblically, I’d just delve a bit deeper into that same passage above. I talked mostly about how the man relates to the woman because that’s the side of it I’d heard so angrily critiqued by some friends/ other sources. But if you look back where it says the wife is to love her husband as the Church is subject to and loves Christ, that encompasses everything you said so beautifully. How many people throughout all of history have died for their faith? How many centuries of persecution did the Church undergo (and in places still undergoes!!) for Christ? Thus, the wife IS called to love and sacrifice for her husband just like you said.

            I’ll just conclude with one more comment… about guiding him to become a better man. Well, again AMEN!! There is a great emphasis on this in Orthodoxy- the idea being that two souls are being joined together for mutual benefit and spiritual growth. The priest who married us presented us with a book entitled “Marriage as a Path to Holiness”, and much of our counseling with another priest focused on ways to aid each other in our spiritual journeys.

            All in all, no afterthoughts! Our love for them is just as valuable. I think it’s still ok for there to be slight differences between them, but much slighter than are sometimes depicted. And I do think there will be variations from marriage to marriage, and that’s ok. =)

    • meg

      Wait, WHAT? I didn’t say anything about the bible and women’s equality. My mom is published feminist biblical scholar, girlfriend. I wouldn’t say anything on that subject unless I was going to write you a thesis. PLEASE don’t make assumptions about what you think I believe because you’ve decided that I’m “indie,” whatever that means.

      • Mattingly

        WHOA!!! I totally didn’t mean APW as a whole in this comment. I’ve seen how careful you are to include every angle on this site. I was simply responding to a *small* trend I’ve seen in some comments, and from experiences on other blogs and in conversations with other people!
        I’m very sorry if you took this as a direct attack on anyone or on APW in general! I stated right up front that I loved this post, and I totally do! Your explanations of the various definitions of ‘traditional’ are spot on, and as someone who loves what you consider the definition of Tradition, I really appreciate that. I was just giving a shout out to a some times misunderstood passage of NT wedding text. There’s been some discussion in these comments about wanting more ‘appropriate’ readings for weddings, and they reminded me of conversations with other people/friends who didn’t like this passage. So I put the two together and came up with this little comment.

        That’s all I promise!

      • Sarah

        You’re right, you didn’t say it. And when I really think about it, it’s never been mentioned on APW. However, you CAN find it in surprising numbers in other blogs. And among the comments, and really, just everyday conversation.

        Heck, I had this conversation with my sister at my bridal shower … our mother gave me a bible with those verses highlighted. My sister took HUGE offense, saying “what, Jon gets to be in charge and Sarah just has to submit? Seriously, Mom?”

        This seems to be a pretty commonly held belief regarding what the verses mean. And on top of it, there’s been a huge bucking of “tradition” lately that includes “women’s equality” because you CAN look at these verses superficially. And because it comes from The Bible, it’s considered “traditional.”

        The post highlights the misconceptions and misunderstandings when it comes to “tradition” … I think Mattingly was continuing that train of thought, not calling you out on anything. =)

        • Mattingly

          *HUGS!!!* That is precisely that I was trying to do!! Thank you so much, Sarah. I’m sooo glad you understood me! =)

    • Beautifully written – thank you for that.

  • Amy

    Thank you for this. The part of APW that I appreciate the most is how this community validates everyone’s choices.

    I knew going into wedding planning that we were going to have a traditional ceremony–between our super tradtional, conservative families and my husband’s love of the liturgical, there was no getting around it. What surprised me was how committed I ended up becoming to the concept. It really resonated with me that I was saying the same words as as my parents, grandparents, and several generations back. I felt really moved by that connection and by how much it solomnized the promise we were making.

  • After going to several wedding this summer (including mine), I’ve been amazed by the multitude of ways people can make the same rite completely different and meaningful to them. By rite, I mean rite of passage, not necessary doctrinal rite. I’ve been to full church weddings with songs composed by the bride or biblical passages translated by the groom. My college roommate’s wedding was at the camp where she met her husband and they incorporated one of the camp’s rituals of tying wishes to balloons and then releasing them. My non-religious husband didn’t want to get married in a church or he himself say anything explicitly religious so one of our readings was e.e. cummings “I thank You, God, for this most amazing.”

    At the core of a wedding is two people, pledging themselves to each other and to the future. And isn’t that steeped in tradition, in millions of people making the same commitment throughout history? Don’t we all, in some small way, echo the traditions before us by promising to live in a rite, an institution, which has been (and currently is) flawed and hurtful to so many people? The act of marrying is traditional in and of itself. By that measure, we all have traditional weddings. The variation and room for expression is just how we choose to honor what’s meaningful in our lives.

  • Sarah

    There’s a lot of meaning inherent in “doing what everyone expects”, too. It’s like — I do a couple of types of folk dance. Going to a wedding that’s all-new — it’s like going to a new style. Interesting, educational, beautiful, and obviously meaningful to the people involved — but I’m also spending a lot of time not tripping over my own feet. At a dance where I’m familiar with all the pieces — some people might call that boring, or ask what’s the point, but the point is when everyone knows where they’re going (or most people do and the few who are new can be carried along), you can transcend worrying about your feet and concentrate entirely on adding flourishes and spinning your skirt out and making eye contact and mock-flirting and all sorts of little pieces that take the whole experience to a new level of being present.

    For the record, we had about as traditional a wedding as you can get with two atheist/agnostic types, one raised culturally Jewish and one raised culturally Protestant.

    • meg

      Just speaking personally, I’ve been to weddings where ‘doing what everyone expects’ becomes sleepwalking, and it feels like no one is present (the couple included). That is where it doesn’t work for me, and that’s the differentiation I’m making. It’s all about intention, to me. Don’t do it because it’s expected, do it because it’s in your heart.

      • I’ve been to those weddings too, and the common thread seems to be the bride and groom didn’t put much effort into thinking about the ceremony. They do it because someone tells them to or because they don’t want to be troubled with planning a ceremony. Your distinction is important — do it because it’s what’s important to YOU. And don’t let yourself be ambivalent about the ceremony — search your soul until you figure out what’s important to you.

        • Alyssa

          Having been one of those couples, I’ll say that it was mostly because we really had no idea that we COULD shape our ceremony. We knew that we could write our own vows or pick readings, but we wanted a religious traditional ceremony and it never occurred to us that we could alter that. Totally our fault for not examining it more, but nobody let us know and wedding sites don’t discuss that much…

          I will say also that had we belonged to a church or been more involved in our own spirituality (we’re still working on that) we would have been more conscious of the decision we made regarding our ceremony…

          • Liz

            and alyssa, didn’t you say you didn’t have premarital counseling? that played a major part in our ceremony choices. not that the counselor discussed them much with us- but really emphasized the idea that there were options.

          • Alyssa

            Liz – No, we didn’t! We planned on doing secular counseling, but never did. The closest thing we had was an uncomfortable 20 minute meeting with out preacher to see if he’d agree to marry us.

            SEE, LADIES?? I’m a big giant Don’t.

            Go to prematiral counseling, and put down those damn favors and pay attention to your vows!!!

          • Liz

            alyssa, i didn’t mean you’re a DON’T! i mean you have an EXCUSE because you didn’t have someone to teeeelll you there are options. sillypants.

          • Alyssa

            You didn’t mean it, but I totally said it. I AM a Don’t because even though I had the opportunity to learn these things AND more (i.e. premarital counseling, talking more with people about my vows, talking to the guy that was going to marry us more instead of being uncomfortable with him…) I didn’t take it. So I’m owning this one, I’m a Don’t.

            Besides, if you were calling me a Don’t, you would have done it in more eloquent terms and in such a way I would have never known you were doing it….cause you’re smart and sneaky like that. :-)

          • I can’t fault you for not realizing you could personalize things! I meant that more in regards to people who willfully choose to not thinking it out. All the more reason APW is needed to spread the word!

      • Sarah

        Hm. I was trying to say more than that — that sometimes, what’s expected is OK just because it’s expected. That it doesn’t have to be sleepwalking — that it can be dancing — even if the ceremony isn’t about “what’s in your heart”.

        For us, one example was the processional/recessional. There were things one or both of us didn’t want (Wagner, Pachebel, using the organ), but other than that we didn’t care beyond traditional. The reception music we cared greatly about, and I spent quite a while tweaking my playlists. The ceremony? Eh. So we grabbed the musician and said “help!”. And ended up with some Bach pieces I probably couldn’t identify today (a month after the wedding) if they came on the radio, but they fit the bill. And I have no regrets, and I wasn’t sleepwalking up the aisle.

  • Thank you for this, Meg. The only thing I knew about my wedding from day before meeting my future husband was that it would be a traditional Catholic wedding. My ex-boyfriend dismissed the idea of a Catholic wedding — even though he was devoutly Catholic — because of that very sentiment that traditional was boring and even off-putting to some people. Fortunately my fiance understands how meaningful it is to me and how cool it is to honor traditions.

    This post actually gave me the idea of seeing if our officiant would explain as much of our ceremony as he can as we go through with it so everyone in attendance can appreciate what it is we appreciate from the ceremony.

    • Mattingly

      I can vouch for that idea! Though instead of having the priest explain we had little booklets at our wedding that had the whole text, so everything the priest said and everything we said in return, all printed out with the music in it’s proper places, etc. Plus, there were little explanations sprinkled throughout that sort of explained what was happening (ex: what’s with the crowns? and ‘why the little procession?’ lol). We got all sorts of great feed back from family members from other religious back grounds saying how wonderful it was for them to know what was going on, and why. They said it made them feel much more involved!

      • That is exactly what my parents did at their wedding. The program not only included the words being said, but also brief explanations about what was happening and why. My mom said the nonCatholics really appreciated it.

      • I think this is a great idea. We wanted to do the same thing, but for opposite reasons: we wrote our own ceremony and it was not very traditional at all and we wanted people to know what was happening and why. Unfortunately, that was one of the projects that didn’t happen, but I still always love it when other people do it!

    • FM

      I so agree with this! I love, love, love when people put explanations of the ceremony parts in a program. I know it’s extra work and totally get that lots of people wouldn’t choose to add this project to their to-do list, but nerds like me appreciate it and it really does make it more meaningful for me when I know what’s going on and where it comes from! We actually put the explanations both on our website and in programs at the wedding. Some people (like my husband) are totally not into reading that kind of thing, but a lot people told us they thought it was super interesting reading about it (before on the website even! I was kinda shocked that people actually looked at it.) and it helped them follow the ceremony. For the record, our ceremony was a very traditional conservative Jewish ceremony with tons of non-Jewish guests and lots of people would have been like – wha? why is she walking around him a billion times right now? and what is up with all that wine drinking? and what is that dude singing about now, because that is so not English? and other confusions.

      I’ve seen this a lot in Jewish weddings (including interfaith with Jewish + Christian elements), but not as much in the Christian or not-so-religious weddings I’ve been to (which describes all the types of weddings I’ve been to). I wish more people would do it! I want to know what’s going on and why! Even for other Jewish weddings I love reading this stuff – everyone picks different ways of explaining the same or similar traditions and I love seeing those variations because they reflect what that tradition means to the couple.

  • Mallory

    Thank you for this post, Meg. My partner and I are just at the beginning stages of planning and have thus far completely avoided the conversation of the ceremony, not because it is unimportant but because I have absolutely no idea how it’s going to work. His family is very Catholic and mine is varying degrees of Protestant (from agnostic cousins to a minister uncle). We are not really bound to any particular church and will also be marrying 800 miles away from our current home so even if we were church goers we’d be somewhat out of luck. As with many couples, no matter what we choose for our ceremony we’ll probably disappoint someone in our family. It will definitely be a struggle when the time comes to plan it.

    I guess what I’ve taken away from this post is that no matter what happens or where we get married we can make it meaningful and our own by committing to that ceremony. I plan to keep this in mind as we begin to discuss our ceremony options.

  • Kashia

    Oh Meg, this was lovely. Exactly what I needed as I struggle with our choice to have a traditional ceremony because it feels right, and the expectations of my generally non-traditional family. Thank you.

    On a slight side note, regarding the conversation here about “the bible doesn’t have much about marriage in it”. I had that conversation with my priest the other day while discussing which readings we are going to have. He echoed something to the effect of what Meg said earlier, that it’s about the values that you want to ground your marriage in, and love is love, so it’s okay to use readings about love even if they were not written about love within a marriage. (That said the Biblical scholar in me is still having a hard time finding a gospel reading.)

  • Anna Thaler


    LOVELY post. So eloquent.

    I love what you wrote about the Kaddish, and I think it applies perfectly to this subject of adapting oft-used texts to individual and unique purposes–just as the Kaddish is used in the service for several purposes, so can very structured services from any religion be used for different couples and mean different (and wonderfully special) things.

    I wanted to share something about the Kaddish that I learned from my rabbi at Yom Kippur. I often cry during the Mourner’s Kaddish, thinking of my mom. I was feeling sad when I turned the page in my prayer book and saw it there, when the rabbi made a wonderful introductory comment: “You may have noticed that this prayer, the Kaddish, isn’t overtly about death or mourning, but rather about praising God. One interpretation says that the reason for this is that just as we are diminished by the loss of a loved one in our life, God is too. The Kaddish, full of praise for God, replenishes God after the loss of a person who was important in our lives.” It may be selfish of me, but it was very meaningful to think that God is diminished by the loss of my mother from my life.

    Of course, (you may be thinking) my mom is still in my life, just in a different way. But in the two weeks since getting engaged, I have been feeling diminished by not having her here. I am really glad to be planning a traditional Jewish wedding–not only because it is meaningful to me but because my Judaism helps me feel closer to my mom (and to God–where she is).


    • Rose

      That’s beautiful, Anna

  • I appreciate your definition of traditional, Meg, because “what you’re expected to do because it’s always been done” doesn’t apply to my family. There is no one religious belief, and I think the only constant in family weddings are the after-dinner-mints. Part of me finds a lot of joy in thinking about designing a ceremony that fits exactly what I think and feel and believe at this moment, but that will change, and the other part of me finds strength in repeating words that generations have said, and imbuing them with my meaning. And then personalizing in the little ways.

  • DIDI

    The catholic priest who officiated our wedding gave us a booklet from which to pick a biblical passage. To my amazement: the booklet also contained the liturgy for 4 versions of a catholic wedding ceremony. 1 incl. Mass, 1 w/out Mass, 1 for couples with different religious backgrounds and 1 for weddings where one half of the couple does not believe in god. I was so (positively) shocked that there was any flexibility in a traditional service. Yay!!! So after some ‘negotiations’, we got the ceremony that we could identify with and that was meaningful to us and our families (and it didn’t even matter that the priest mispronounced my name the entire service…).

  • As an independent wedding officiant, I often encounter couples who initially want to opt out of anything even remotely resembling “traditional”. However, once the meaning and intention of these traditional rituals are explained and explored, many of these very same couples embrace these rituals.

    The Unity Candle, for example, is often initially rejected as being too traditional. Yet, once we talk about what it symbolizes–two lights joining together to form the stronger, brighter light of their combined being (“and the two shall become one”), representing that the couple is stronger together than they are alone–many couples can’t wait to include it in their service.

    I agree–it’s all about intention. Great post.

    • meg

      Just a note here – the Unity candle was invented by soap opera writers in the 1970’s. I know lots of people like the ritual, and if you find meaning in it that’s great, but I think it’s mis-representation to call it traditional. It was invented by the wedding industry. Also, interestingly, it’s not compatible with Catholic/Episcopal dogma,. Within those contexts lit candles represent the light of Christ, so you can’t light them/ blow them out at will.

      Personally, I’m not terribly fond of the two-become-one symbolism, because I’m more a two-become-two girl. But that’s just me.

      • Wow! That’s so completely interesting – I had no idea! hmmm… learn something new every day! Thanks Meg!

      • Stacie

        HA! That’s actually kind of awesome to know. Back when we first started talking about marriage, I mentioned liking the idea of the Unity Candle. My then-boyfriend (who has been married before) casually said “Yeah, we had one of those at my first wedding…” To which I snapped, “Well, then, never mind, we’re NOT having one.”

        It’s been that way with our vows, too. I like the idea of being tied by tradition there and saying the same vows that have been said forever, but they used them at the first wedding, and I kind of feel like they’re tainted for me now.

        Maybe we need a post sometime about how the fact of a first wedding informs a second, or dealing with emotions that brings up? And oh, my, did I just nominate myself to write it?

        • meg

          You diiiiiiid! Congratulations!

      • ElfPuddle

        I have similar issues with the Unity Candle, Meg. (The first wedding I saw it used in ended with her flaunting her affair and him broken-hearted.) However, I’m nearly desperate to do the sand version…in part because the fiance has two kids from his first marriage, and I want to make it obvious and official in our ceremony and in my vows that I’m taking him for my husband forever, and them for my children, forever. I’m lucky …I get to marry a family and change it with my presence.

        • Michelle

          The unity candle is often the first thing that comes to mind when I think of “traditional wedding” – but I mean the other meaning of traditional, the “everybody does it so you do it too” WIC version of tradition.

      • Class of 1980

        Thank you for this.

        It was MY generation that this “tradition” first got going and we knew it wasn’t a tradition. It was a very new idea at the time. I’ve always been surprised that it kept going this long!

      • abby_wan_kenobi

        I instinctively pulled away from the unity candle ceremony for our wedding. It just didn’t speak to me, the two-become-one symbolism felt… untrue for us.

        Later my mom told me about her and my dad’s unity candle. During a move a few years after their wedding my mom found a shapeless mound of wax in the bottom of a moving box – the sad remainder of their unity candle. My mom had never displayed it (she thought the frilly, fancy wedding candle looked tacky with her 70’s decor) and at some point it was stored somewhere hot. She said she felt horribly guilty for about a decade thinking she’d cursed her baby family.

        That sounds like exactly the sort of thing that would happen to me. We decided to do a ring warming ceremony, with all the symbolism explicitly in two families becoming one, and as a way to honor our roots and bring the blessing of our loved ones into our union. Now when I look at my ring I remember all the people who touched it on our wedding day and all the love I felt. Plus there’s only like a 3% chance I’m going to lose it :)

  • Mary

    Thank you for writing about this. I got married last month, and we had a traditional church ceremony, but really shaped it and made it ‘ours’. I am a classical musician and play probably 20-30 weddings a year, so I’ve seen a lot of usual (Pachelbel) and unusual wedding choices (a bride walking down the aisle to a Journey song played on the cello in a Catholic cathedral? Check.).

    I think since I play so many weddings and know that there are a lot of things that everyone does, we stopped worrying about making it unique and ‘different’, but just concentrated on making it meaningful for us. So we had music that is calming and centering for me (it wasn’t music traditional for weddings) played by dear friends. We had secular readings, but we had the go-ahead from my pastor to do that.

    And speaking of pastor, having a great officiant makes such a big difference in making a traditional service feel like your own. My husband is not affiliated with the church where we got married, and I’m not that religious either. But the pastor is a man I have known for about 15 years, and he is lovely and liberal and offered to marry us anywhere, not just in the church. He took the time to get to know my husband and told us he viewed the service as a reflection of _us_, not an opportunity for him to give us a lecture (his words, not mine). So if you are marrying in a church in a traditional way and have an officiant who makes the day about your relationship, that’s a huge thing to make the service _yours_, not someone else’s.

    We had such a lovely ceremony. It was magical and peaceful and centering and it felt like us. There was crazy stress involved in a lot of the planning of the reception and the invite list, but the ceremony was actually very easy in hindsight, and my favorite memory of the day.

    • meg

      Excellent point on the officiant! A good one can be wonderful, and a bad one (or one that’s not a good match) can be… what’s the word… less wonderful. Achem. :)

      • Mary

        Heh, yes. I’ve heard some really amazingly brash things said by officiants who were following their own agendas, not the couple’s. Once the bride actually started shaking with laughter at the altar because the minister was being so sexist and she finally just found it funny.

        • meg

          I think I would pay money to be able to go back and time and be at that wedding. Except I’m a sucker for laughing. If the bride lost it like that, I probably would have started laughing so hard I started crying. Which, awesome or awful? So hard to tell….

          • Mary

            Seriously, it was an epic occasion. :) This was actually my second cousin’s wedding, and I was so horrified by her minister before I saw her laughing. It was totally contagious though- once she started then her parents were laughing, my parents were laughing, everyone was pretty much. This was a homily along the lines of “and Amy….you will bring Tom his slippers when he gets home. And you will cook for him and keep house and obey him as the woman in this marriage, blah blah blah….” Terrible!

            And Sarah, I would have laughed at your pastor’s opening line too. :)

        • Sarah

          I actually busted out laughing during our ceremony.

          The pastor was from my parents church, and a lovely man, though we did not know him well (we live across the country from my parents). During his welcome he said something along the lines of “You each have searched for your perfect partner … and I’m here to tell you today, you’ve failed.”

          ::cue the stunned looks, and then a shout of laughter from me::

          He went on to give an absolutely lovely message that talked of love and partnership … we honestly couldn’t have written it better (for us) ourselves. He, however, didn’t realize his opening line was funny.

          ::shrugs:: Different people!

        • YES! I was at a wedding recently that went pretty awry — the couple was Roman Catholic, but their guests weren’t religious, so the couple opted not to do a full Mass (with Eucharist/Communion). The priest, however, either forgot or purposely overlooked their preference and launched right into the Eucharistic rite. I would have been super ticked off, but the couple just went with it.

          • Liz

            our officiant started reading the wrong vows. not in the ceremony- only in the rehearsal. but i said, “NO! wrong vows!”

            and the “bridezilla” jokes were rampant for the rest of the night.

      • ElfPuddle

        My dad’s parents are divorced. Grandpa remarried shortly before my parents got married. The priest who was the minister at Mom and Dad’s wedding not only wouldn’t let Grandpa (the best man) sign the marriage license, but used the homily to blast the evils of divorce and illegitimacy of remarriage. niiiiice.

        • Liz


          • ElfPuddle

            I’m sure if my parents had a choice of priests, he wouldn’t have been chosen. At least the priest marrying my fiance and I isn’t so…lovely. (And neither are almost all the priests I’ve met. It just goes to show that if you can shop around, you should.)

      • Cara

        Oh I was at a wedding recently where the Imam’s cell phone rang during the ceremony … and then *he answered it*. Seriously. I almost fell off my chair.

    • Mary, I think you bring up a great point: the couple’s relationship with the person officiating the ceremony, be it be pastor/priest/rabbi/officiant/whomever. Because the legal parts were done by my husband’s brother, who was our officiant, and the rest was done by one of my closest friends, who ran the service as the pastor (but who was not legally able in Canada to marry us), the pastor and I were able to construct the ceremony together. I emailed her ideas, and she sent me the word-for-word draft of the entire service. Then we made changes and revised until we got it like we wanted it. At first I worried that since I would know what was going to be said before the service, and maybe it would be less special, but I think it was the opposite. Every word was chosen with intent, and I knew about it before and so I was able to really focus on the meaning of it all in the moment. And there were no worries that there would be some unpleasant surprise of something said in the ceremony. So I highly recommend working with somebody who is open to approaching the ceremony in this kind of way.

      • Mary

        Jenny, absolutely, I totally know what you mean about how choosing your words with intent beforehand feels so meaningful during the ceremony. And having someone you know well who makes the ceremony a true reflection of you both is so amazing when you’re in the moment, isn’t it?

        • Exactly. Plus, I wanted to be extra careful since we were trying to create a combined civil and religious ceremony that felt right for me (a Christian from a Protestant background), and my husband (an Agnostic from a Catholic background) as we started our bilingual/bicultural marriage so we def didn’t want any surprises in things that were being said! :) Thankfully our pastor is amazing; she was super-careful to be inclusive. :)

  • MNBride

    To me, marriage being a sacrament was/is a big deal. I’m not Catholic but I know enough to know there aren’t many things classified as sacraments, a holy, sacred act, so the ones that are (baptism, communion, marriage) are really important. When we met with our officiant, I talked about the hugeness of being a part of a sacrament and he asked us what kind of ceremony would reflect the hugeness of that. And we went from there. We said the vows generations have said and used a traditional order of service (minus the unity candle since it didn’t didn’t mean anything to us). But we picked our own readings and verses, incorporated the step-kids, and recessed back down the aisle to “Walking on Sunshine”. It was heartfelt, honest (why pretend there weren’t kids involved?), emotional, familiar but uniquely us and people are still complimenting us.

  • Caitlin

    We had a totally un-traditional ceremony… but this post almost made me wish we had gone the traditional route! What was surprising to me during the planning process was how difficult it was to create a ceremony from scratch. I found myself reaching out to wedding tradition, because I wasn’t sure how else to go about things… (I’m not trying to get myself in trouble here, and we didn’t ‘borrow’ things from any particular tradition in a way that was offensive or anything– I don’t think– I just mean we said “okay, yeah, there should probably be a walk down some kind of aisle” and “maybe a reading would be nice” and “vows and a blessing would be cool, too”. That kind of stuff.) In the end, our ceremony was mostly written by our officiant’s amazing wife (a friend of ours and a writer!). She put things in like the consecration:

    “Seeing that no moment is without meaning, no undertaking is without significance, no individual is of such quality as to be diminished by even so important an enterprise as marriage, we ask that you both, together and as your irreplaceably special selves, be honored and expanded by the promises you are about to make, the marriage you are about to create.”

    It was awesome, even though we didn’t technically write it ourselves. But even such an untraditional ceremony has it’s roots in tradition, I think. And the same rules apply to filling up your service. Especially to show up, be present, and live that moment to its fullest.

    ** in case it’s not obvious by the consecration, there was no unity candle that day. for reasons besides the fact that the wind would have blown it out. :)

    • Chantelle

      That is such a beautiful consecration! Any other advice on how you shaped the ceremony?

      • Caitlin

        Well, it was actually one of the wedding projects we left until the end, because we were having so much trouble with it. I found that it was really hard to write something in advance that sounded true to our emotions, since we had no idea what our emotions would be like during the real thing. Input (not from TOO many people, just a select one that had experience with this kind of thing) was really helpful, although we worked on the vows as just us two. We went with a basic format (welcome, reading, consecration, statement of intent–the ‘i do’s’, vows, rings, conclusion, benediction), which sounds long, but the whole thing was about 15 minutes. I don’t think it matters whether you craft the ceremony yourself, have help from others, or go with a traditional ceremony… the important thing is that you are true to who you are as a couple. Like Meg said, as long as you’re feeling it, everyone around you will, too. Hope that was helpful!

  • I would often wonder if having a religious ceremony for traditional reasons was insulting to the Church. We are having a church wedding in six weeks time and we both knew that this is what we wanted for different reasons. Although my fiance has no belief in any kind of God, he believes profoundly in participating in a tradition/PLACE that defines him culturally, as an Englishman. I, on the other hand, feel like crying at the very thought of having a Godless wedding, yet I don’t feel I can be rightly pigeonholed as Christian, or at least as exclusively Christian. By that I mean that I believe in that thing which the Christian God represents but I am not limited to this singular perception. The Church (as a place AND entity) falls within my spiritual stomping ground, it’s very familiar territory and the particular spiritual refuge of most of those nearest and dearest to me, and for these reasons feels like the right WAY to be married,. I used to feel that these reasons pertain to tradition, not religion, which I found troublesome but have come to realise that in some instances tradition and religion are so intriniscally bound that it’s pointless to try and seperate the two. Afterall, tradition has served religion VERY well and it seems only fair that religion at times should serve tradition too.

    We are determined not to have a wedding full of empty words. Or what I should say, is a wedding full of empty SPOKEN words….air that has been given form but not meaning. I wish for every word to be uttered by each person with a consiousness engaged fully and I’ve asked the minister to try and prepare the congregation and ourselves for this in his homily. We are lucky in that we are able to incorporate secular readings that have particular resonance to us as a couple and our beliefs, but I’m glad too that we are required to incorporate certain religious readings and prayers because I feel like I have been reintroduced to the bible with a newfound fervour and curiosity. We don’t in any way feel limited in our expression by choosing a traditional ceremony, it’s very nature infact is able to express aspects of ourselves that we would have trouble communicating any other way.

  • Abby C.

    I don’t think APW can really be read as one way or the other. For me, it’s all about authenticity. If your faith is important, then authenticity for you is religious tradition. If not, then indie/self-authored is the way to go.

    The important thing is that we Practical Brides are true to ourselves.

  • Rachel

    I had a totally traditional ceremony with a pastor, lots of Bible talk, a LOT of praying, and a white dress. I also wrote a poem for the reading, my wedding gift to my husband. And afterwards, several people said it was the most honest, touching, and emotional ceremony they had ever seen. Dan and I are traditional, so the ceremony fit us, and it showed beautifully.

  • Eulistes

    I can’t say this enough: THANK YOU for this post. I’m a long-time lurker, but had to respond to this one. We just got married in June, and our wedding was super-traditional by most standards: church, communion, choir, cathedral-length veil, the “giving away”, the works—*because that’s what we wanted.* It was one of the most solemn yet most joyful experiences of my life, because my husband and I have spent years singing in church choirs and studying about the power of ritual. For anyone else it might not have been meaningful, but for us it was. And we totally rocked it: one of my favorite parts was processing in—all of us, from the incense-bearer to the flower girl, my dad, and me—to Lully’s “Marche pour la ceremonie des Turcs”, a march originally used at the court of Louis XVI.

  • Benny

    Thanks for this post, Meg. My partner and I are beginning to deal with this in a really round-about way, since we’re a. serious Catholics and b. both ladies. (And yes, our situation is a small subset within a small subset within a nearly non-existent minority.) Since a priest could literally be defrocked for participating in any sort of marriage/blessing ceremony of ours…we’re trying to figure out other ways to celebrate, honor our catholic tradition, not totally freak our families out, and honor our relationship.

    We are considering getting married in an Episopalian church. There are several near us that offer to marry gay couples who are in traditions that do not do so, but we struggle with how authentic this would be for us. It’s a variation of some of the questions above, I suppose: how far can you go from your own tradition before it becomes in-authentic? And when I say tradition, I mean both religious and non-religious tradition, whichever applies.

    Also, I have to say this just to get it out: I’ll admit I’m insanely jealous that have a choice between having a “traditional religious ceremony” and not. I would give almost anything to be able to make that choice.

    • Benny

      um, yeah. that should say, “I’m insanely jealous that SOME COUPLES have a choice.” I even proofread, for crying out loud.

    • meg

      Go Episcopalian, lady! You can get close to what you need, plus you can be a bad *ss an support a church that has taken so much cr*p for doing things right, and ordaining openly gay clergy. If you get someone knowledgeable, you can talk a lot about the differences in the Catholic and Episcopalian liturgies, and how you want to bridge that gap, and if you want to make an overt statement of why you’re not in a Catholic church or not, and on and on.

      I don’t know where you are, but if you’re in the LA area, email me. I have suggestions….

      • Benny

        Thanks meg, and everyone! I’m in Boston, if anyone has specific leads. But these were some really great suggestions. Above all, this whole blog community is really important to me, and has been pretty incredible in our engagement so far. Keep up the awesomeness, ladies:)

    • Do you know if there are any liberal convents in your area? One of my parents’ friends (who is coming to my lesbian wedding at a UU church later this fall) is an 80+year-old Catholic nun who has officiated at same-sex commitment ceremonies in the past. Obviously she wasn’t officiating a full mass, but it might be worth it to check if there are any liberal Catholic religious orders near you. You could also check with the nearest chapter of Dignity USA to see if they know of any local Catholic resources.

    • Mel

      Wedding graduate post to come? I hope so. Best wishes.

    • Liz A

      Oh, do go Episcopal! That’s what we’re doing, since money and living together barred us from the Catholic church we both grew up in. It’s very similar to the Catholic mass, both for the wedding sacrament and for regular old Sunday mass. Except everyone’s welcome, LGBTQ, lady priests and married priests.

      I know (semi)-regularly attend Episcopal services and it’s really wonderful. I still sometimes struggle with the whole Irish Catholic guilt pangs (I’ve got ancestors rolling over in graves somewhere), but it’s just more authentic for me and has enough of the same tradition that I grew up with.

    • Kate

      Benny, there are a lot of clergy, some with a lot of experience, who would consider themselves within the Catholic tradition but aren’t celibate male priests within the hierarchy. Off the top of my head, check out (regular male priests who left, usually to get married, but still consider themselves priests and celebrate sacraments), Roman Catholic Women Priests, and Intentional Eucharistic Communities (google it), who would be able to put you in touch with liturgically and theologically trained Catholics in your area who would be equipped to do weddings (possibly legally if that’s possible where you are.) Oh my gosh, there are such a wealth of options. And talk about supporting people who are doing the right thing–these folks are working on changing church structures from the bottom up. I’m involved in Call to Action, which is a national organization of Catholics working to get the Catholic church to be more just and inclusive. That would be another good group for you to check out–if there’s a chapter in your area the members would definitely know someone who could do an egalitarian Catholic wedding for you. Best wishes and I agree, would love to see wedding graduate post!

      • Aine

        Um, can I point out that if you want your marriage to be recognized by the official hierarchy, this won’t count. But if what you want is your connection to your faith and its traditions, without compromising your values, then go for it.

        I don’t want to be a doomsayer, but I just wanted people to be aware that if you go this route, you could have lots of administrative problems with the Roman church.

        • Given that the original commenter is in a same-sex relationship, she doesn’t really have an option for a wedding that’s going to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. ;)

          But I do think it would be awesome if other Catholics who are supportive of same-sex relationships used some of these resources when planning their weddings. Like Meg’s recent post about being an ally, there are lots of ways to show support for LGBTQ relationships. For some straight couples who are Catholic, having the recognition of the church is paramount. But for some Catholic couples, this might be a way to get married within the Catholic tradition but still reflecting their values (and making a statement in the process!)

        • Benny

          Aine, I’m very aware that nothing my partner and I can do will allow our marriage to be recognized by the official hierarchical church. Our wedding is going to take place in a religious gray area, unfortunately. Thankfully, places like apw exist to remind me that this is okay, and even beautiful!

          • Aine

            *facepalm* I beg your pardon, that was idiotic of me. I’m so sorry!

    • We got married in an Episcopalian church as well — himself is Catholic and I’m Protestant, and we kind of thought the “motto” of sorts of the church (“Protestant, yet Catholic”) was quite fitting for us!

      Anyway, definitely look into it . . . when we attended services the months leading up to the wedding, a lot of it was familiar to both of us, although there were parts that himself didn’t know (and I knew) and parts that I didn’t know (and himself knew). Our Rev mentioned as well that many people in that particular congregation were Catholics who, for whatever reason, had started coming to services and said that they felt more comfortable there (even though they would still classify themselves as Catholic). It’s quite inclusive, from what I gathered.

  • april

    Awesome post today, Meg.

    I think what I love most about weddings (besides the always adorable couple, and – naturally – cake); is the ceremony. And most weddings always make me cry. One of the things my husband and I love most about our ceremony is that we were both *THERE*. Hearts, brains, bodies – you name it – THERE. It was and still is so real in my memories, I remember every detail of it! We spent quite a bit of time before the wedding day along with our officiant (whom we flat out adore to the ends of the earth) creating a ceremony into something that felt honest and real for us, and inclusive of our family & friends. Oh, and we exchanged “traditional” vows. Which, were in no way boring and I still bubble up just thinking about them.

  • Leona

    I struggled for a long time in deciding what kind of ceremony would have meaning for me. I’m Christian and deeply spiritual so I want our ceremony to be emotional and deep in a soulful way. In examining other structures for a protestant wedding, I wound up creating a whole new structure built solely on what I believe are the roots of marriage.

    Instead of having a bridal party or attendants at the altar with us, I opted to have them seated in the front row. I felt like the ceremony was a transaction between my partner and I and God and I wanted the “altar” (we’re not getting married in a church so the altar is metaphorical) to be a visual representation of that.
    I chose a close family friend and Reverend for our officiant and he gave me total freedom in coming up with a ceremony that suited us. He’s been great about working with what we want and he’s someone who’s known me since I was a kid and actually knows my fiance pretty well too.
    The Reverend will give a short message as an introduction centering around the idea of “Bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” This particular part of the genesis story is really meaningful in our relationship and sums up the way that we feel about each other. I’m also commenting on this idea in my toast.
    I hated the idea of repeating pre-made vows to each other so I opted to have that portion of the ceremony self-conducted. We’re saying our vows to each other without being prompted by the officiant and the vows are constructed to reflect the covenant that is being formed between us. They’re basically a list of promises that forecast our roles and expectations in the marriage. This is one of those things that I’ve never seen before but when I tell people, they’re all, “That’s so beautiful! I didn’t know you could do that!” Well, I don’t know if you can, but we are.
    The ring exchange is prompted by the Reverend but I chose to say, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” It felt the most endearing of the sayings but I think “With this ring I thee wed,” is more traditional for Christian weddings.
    Finally to end things, I chose to have our immediate families and members of the wedding party stand and make a simple pledge that goes like this: Reverend: Do you promise to accept and protect this marriage through prayer and encouragement, faithfully loving (our names) as your own family? Family and friends: We do. Afterward, there will form a prayer circle to signify unity and protection and the closing prayer will be said. Then we can be announced and kiss.

    It was hard for me to settle on this format because I know that there will be attendants who are not religious and are, in fact, vehemently against Christianity. I hate to make anyone uncomfortable but in the end, I felt like I had to stay true to what I felt we would remember most fondly and what, I believe, will set the most genuine foundation for our marriage. So, while I love tradition, I don’t think you really need to follow any certain example to imbue meaning in the ceremony. I think you just have to think creatively and seriously about what is most important to you and the best way for you to say that.

    • meg

      True! But I already have a welter of posts about modifying traditional ceremonies to suit your needs (see links in the post above).

    • Rachel C.

      Regarding your last paragraph… yeah. Huh. I’m not worried about the ceremony being personal– worried, instead, about it being so personal that it’ll be inaccessible or repellent to our guests. We want a really Gospel-rich and Scripture-driven ceremony lead by the pastor of our church, but a lot of the guests– especially my older friends– are pretty hostile to our beliefs. I -know- people are going to be antsy if we use certain passages or talk about Jesus or sin and grace. Those are the things we can’t compromise on, since the ideas in, say, Ephesians 5:22-33 are what we want our marriage to be about.

      A lot of my friends are worried that their families and friends will be offended if they do untraditional or nonreligious things– I have the opposite worries. Ah well! I’m trying to see this as an opportunity to learn to stand my ground in the face of other opinions, and I suspect that this is a worthwhile lesson, whatever traditions or lack thereof you’re using in your wedding.

      • Either way it’s pretty miserable, huh? I really hope you can sink into the ceremony and be present instead of worrying what the guests will be thinking. (I know that’s one thing I really struggle with, so I’m projecting my hopes onto you!)

      • Mattingly

        Well, if ever there was something to stand up for, it’d be your faith! Also, perhaps (as has been mentioned in other comments) you could have some sort of explanations about what you’re having read and why/what it means to you, to try and help those other family members understand you and your beliefs more. Maybe this is just the opportunity they’ve needed to see how much your beliefs mean to you, and what they really are (and not what they THINK they are).

        • Rachel C.

          That’s what we would like to do, Mattingly! As a random aside, I suspect that a lot of our pastor’s message will be influenced by Tim Keller’s sermon series on marriage, which I would suggest to anyone. It’s beautiful, challenging stuff.

          Jolynn, here’s to us BOTH being present during our ceremonies! I wish you well. :)

  • Marina

    Our wedding service was traditional in that there was lots of Hebrew, rather more God language than we expected, candlesticks that were at my great grandparent’s wedding and every family wedding since then, and words said that have been said at every Jewish wedding since Jewish weddings have been recorded. Which is a really, really, seriously long time.

    It was not traditional in that we didn’t feel tied to tradition. We did not use literal English translations of traditional Hebrew blessings, but focused on the meaning and what resonated with us. We tied strings of brightly colored paper cranes to the huppah. We found appropriate roles for all our family who wanted to stand up in the ceremony, which meant some traditional roles were unfilled and we made up some other roles.

    Because that’s who we are. We are people who have deep ties to our families and to our values and to our culture, who like to think critically about it all and then go our own way. :) The weddings where I am uncomfortable and/or bored are the ones where it doesn’t feel like it’s the person I know up there getting married, only an archetypal Bride or Groom. I felt like a bride when I got married, but mostly I felt like me–the most me I’ve ever felt. Triple distilled essence of me. And like Meg so astutely points out… my family and my culture are very important parts of me. I’m glad I didn’t exclude them.

  • Tmonster

    Longtime lurker, first-time commenter. Love this blog, and just wanted to thank you this amazing post. We decided to have two weddings — one private secular ceremony at SF’s beautiful City Hall (done!!) with just our immediate families and a larger (although very small by Indian standards!) religious ceremony (still to go!!) within a week of each other because both of them spoke to us in different ways. The City Hall ceremony was more intimate and gave us a chance to address each other while delivering the vows and reflected our American upbringing. The Indian one gives us a chance to celebrate our heritage and our community, though admittedly I have been concerned that the ceremony part might be a bit staid. I am going to forward this post to my guy and suggest we discuss it — I found it very thought-provoking.

  • Kaydence

    Thank you for this!!!

  • Meg B

    Meg, it’s like you were in my living room last night. My fiance and I just had this discussion, a rather heated and emotional discussion about our own traditional ceremony. I am Catholic, was born Catholic, baptized Catholic and received my First Communion. I have always wanted to get married in the Catholic Church, it’s something that’s not only important to me, but also important to my family.
    I am actually printing out this article to show him, to show him that while I may not go to church every Sunday, I can still be traditional and want to follow in the footsteps of my parents and my grandparents and get married in a Catholic Church.

  • katie

    Fantastic post! (And perfect timing, my fiance and I hunker down and write our ceremony tomorrow night!)
    To echo the posts about having a great officiant, what first came to mind was a friend’s wedding a few years ago. She had the classic church wedding (unitarian) white gown with huge train, readings, hymns, etc. Her officiant made it THEIR wedding – at the welcome and other intermitent parts he spoke of personal experiences with the couple. They have only lived there for two years but he took the time to get to know them. The main moment I remember from the wedding was him retelling the humorous story of when they first said “I love you” to each other (and he wasn’t reading it, it was in his head!) Beautiful. I know catholic friends who’ve gone through pre-cana and had local priests say their ceremony, but nothing compared to that officiant and his very apparent positive investment in the couple and their wedding day.

  • When we first started our wedding planning, I was the least excited about our ceremony. We’re having a formal, traditional ceremony in the Roman Catholic Church. I agreed upon a Catholic ceremony because my fiance is a devout Catholic & it’s so important to him. I was raised Catholic but rejected it years ago for many, many reasons & only step foot in a church for marriages & funerals. I’ve worked with many couples who declared they couldn’t wait for the ceremony to be over so they could get on with the party. I was pretty sure that would be me.

    Now we’re about 3.5 months away from the wedding & my excitement for the ceremony is growing & growing. I don’t wish it away so I can get on with the party; I hope it goes slowly so I can cherish each & every moment. I’ve let go of the church setting bothering me & I’ve embraced what will be happening- saying our marriage vows surrounded by family & friends.

    • Don’t wish the ceremony away! I have been to a couple of church weddings in the past couple of years where the couple cut out as much as they possibly could – I swear one ceremony came in under 10 minutes, and as a guest I was left kind of going “Hey, where was the ceremony? We’re done already? But… I want more!”

      • Wow, 10 minutes! I used to think short & sweet was the way to go. Now I realize, for us, it’s not. It’s going to be a traditional, full mass plus the marriage ceremony. It’s not what I envisioned for myself but it’s going to be beautiful. We’re doing our best to make it ours- adding Filipino traditions, my godmother is singing, etc. Every moment will be special & I hope to cherish every last moment.

  • This discussion is so helpful. My fiance and I have been discussing our ceremony some, though we have yet to come to any conclusions. He spent his childhood at his mother’s church and how considers himself an “Agnostic Heretic”. I was never remotely involved in a church, but the traditional speaks strongly to my beliefs. FMIL would like to have a minister officiate, but I feel like it would be sort of hypocritical of us and disrespectful to the minister since neither of us is involved with a religion (I wasn’t even ever baptised, so… would it even be allowed?!).

    One idea we had was to ask our immediate family members to all choose something that is meaningful to them (in the context of marriage) and read it as part of the ceremony. I would also like some significant action, but the unity candles and unity sand and other unity ceremonies I’ve found so far don’t speak to me at all. Maybe the readings will be enough.

    • Sarah

      As an idea – We struggled to find a ritual that would involve all the guests and involve a “giving” that I feel is involved in the Communion I grew up with. My Mr. actually came up with the idea, and I tweaked it: We’ll have a big vase on the table; our brothers will put stones in the bottom, then both sets of parents will pour water into the vase (like a candle/sand ritual). We’ll ask everyone to come forward (like at Communion), at which point they can hug us (like a receiving line), then one of us will hand each family a flower, which they will place in the big vase as a symbol of their blessing and integral support of our marriage. Then we’ll have the vase in our home to remind us that we committed to our whole community, and they committed to support us.

  • “Or, in short, there is no quicker way to make a ceremony boring than to have the bride and groom think it’s boring.”

    Clear back when I was student teaching, my supervising teacher gave me this advice:
    If you’re bored, your students have been bored for a long time.

    I’ve never been bored teaching. I might have had a student or two who got bored, but the whole class has never dropped off.

    I love how you’ve applied that same advice to a wedding. If you’re bored with your wedding or aren’t enjoying it, it’s just going to make it awkward for everyone else.

    Our actual wedding ceremony was about five minutes long. There were no readings. There was no music. And the actual entire ceremony is entirely scripted. No deviation at all. But because it meant so much to us, because what it represents is such a huge part of our existence, because it ties us to so many others who have been married to those exact same words before, because of the emotion we brought to it, it was our ceremony. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

  • Aine

    This post is just what I needed right now- I’ve been going through a booklet of suggested readings (and a fill-in-the-blanks order of ceremonies, insert reading here!) and its kind of depressing sometimes because I am kind of really religious almost by nature, but no longer believe in God.

    I did go through our Catholic bible, complete with apocrypha, to find some more (specifically Ruth “Wherever you go, I will go” reading, which I have loved forever) and stumbled on teh book of Sirach. Anyone remember All inthe Family? Well, Sirach reads like Archie Bunker wrote a book of the bible. Its so weird its hilarious- lots of complaining about women, such as “an angry wife has an expression that looks like a bear, and her husband will have to go eat dinner at the neighbor’s house”. I’m tempted to put some of it in my wedding to put some laughter in with all the crying (my family are all BIG criers)

    um…I’ll stop rambling now. I jsut never thought I’d find anything funny in the bible.

  • I hate the notion that the ceremony has to “entertain.” I mean, most of us are/were worried about guests being taken care of and catered to at the reception; making sure the food is good, the music is good, the booze is good, the location is good, and on and on and on. Dammit, the ceremony is not there for everyone else. Vows aren’t meant to be entertaining. Meaningful, heartfelt, sincere, even, yes. But I hate to hear that people are worried about the ceremony being boring. It means what it means to you, and if people are effectively bored by it, then they can suck it.

    I mean that in the nicest way possible, it’s just that we feel the need to be entertained every minute of every day as it is, it just kind of irritates me that it applies to a traditional – often religious – wedding service as well.

    (Also. Gregorian chanting? Sooooo gorgeous. If you haven’t listened to it, find some. Just sit a listen for a while. It will take you to another place.)

    • rosie

      yeah! this is a great point. the WIC tells us that our weddings are a prime opportunity to impress people and show off and prove something, which really adds awful stress and pressure to the whole thing and especially can’t be the point during the ceremony lest all meaning be stripped away.

      • Wsquared

        Yes. There’s a reason for why the Catholic Church has certain restrictions– must be married in a Catholic Church, for example, and can’t have any secular music. This is meant to keep the focus on where it needs to be– the sacrament (and the couple’s free consent to be married that makes the sacrament), and not on “worldly distraction.” It’s one of the reasons why they discourage wedding coordinators. So there are good reasons for them; they are not *specifically* designed To Deprive You Of What You Want.

    • ddayporter

      I don’t reallyyyy think she’s saying you need to entertain people during the ceremony. “it doesn’t have to be boring” seems like a message specifically for the bride and groom, not the guests. the whole point is that if You, the bride and groom, are really into what’s going on in the ceremony because you put a lot of thought and effort into it and it reflects who you are as a couple, and You don’t look bored/glazed over, your guests will feel more inclined to pay attention and be present with you.

    • Liz

      i don’t know that you and i have the same definition of “boring” ceremony.

      boring, to me, is the sense that the bride and groom are not involved and are not reflected.

      harp music, bible readings, other traditions are not under my definition of “boring.” but a couple just standing at the front, enduring service IS. and not in the sense that the ceremony should be intriguing or entertaining for everyone. but in the sense that it should mean something.

    • meg

      Um. I never used the word entertain (nor would I). I would hope, however, that we all want our ceremonies to be meaningful to us. When they are meaningful to us, they are meaningful to those who love us. When we don’t show up emotionally, we do ourselves a disservice, and yeah, our guests get bored. Guests getting bored is a symptom of the problem, not the problem.

      • rosie

        yes! i totally agree that there are no specific traditions or aesthetics or components or readings or musical instruments or whatever that all fall under a category labeled “BORING.” i don’t think i’ve ever been to a boring wedding myself, but i would certainly imagine that a bride&groom feeling bored and uninvolved in their ceremony would be disheartening to watch.

        so, yeah – i definitely was not implying that meg or APW or anyone here was advocating the notion of entertainment as the purpose of a ceremony. i was intending to echo a separate but related point: that the WIC tells us to impress our guests, and that thinking about that when crafting a ceremony is yet another way to compromise your own values and experience of the ritual itself. the bottom line is the same: the ceremony should mean something for you and your partner, however that looks to anyone else.

  • I had always assumed I would/ wanted to get married in the Anglican church. Culturally Anglican, but spiritually… non-specific :) My fiance never stepped foot in a church until I took him one Christmas. What I have found interesting is all this talk of finding the right priest. While noone has specifically said (or even meant?) this, ‘right’ could be assumed to mean ‘flexible’ or ‘bends the ceremony to make you happy.’ Our ‘right’ priest is not letting us have everything the way we want it – she is very orthodox when it comes to the ceremony. No skipping out on the Godsy bits, must be a bible reading, not a chance of changing the vows. She nixed my fiance’s request for a ring-warming almost comically “Those rings are your sacred vows to each other made manifest! Why on earth would you want everyone else’s sticky fingers all over them?!” But our ‘right’ priest is also a gay woman. She believes firmly in a non-gendered God. We are ditching the Bible greeting and replacing it with a line from the writings of Julian of Norwich (first woman to write a book in English, and who, in the 14th century, understood Jesus to be both male and female simultaneously/ interchangably. Radical). She is quite, quite insistent that a handfasting be part of the vows on the basis that it is a Christian tradition (I have my quiet doubts; and I have never, ever seen a handfasting in an Anglican wedding before, but the idea is great so we’re running with it). Our ceremony is not easy because not everything is ‘our way’. In fact, I find the thought of the ceremony daunting/ difficult. But she has made us examine every part of it and ourselves and I think that she is very WISE.

    Our other experience in planning a church wedding is being forced to examine spirituality for the first time (which, naively, I hadn’t given much thought to when I insisted on a church wedding). Fiance and I have sort of floated about, a bit non-committal. Then we moved in next door to a very, very lovely couple who happen to be fundamentalist evangelicals, around the same time we had to start looking at a church wedding ceremony and undergoing (secular) pre-marital counselling by our priest. Whew. We have just been beaten about the head with spiritual concerns and being asked to actually make a call on what we believe, and I think it has been a very good thing for us. Albeit horrible and difficult and scary for someone who prefers the phrase ‘culturally Anglican.’

    • Marina

      Our “right” officiant was also a very active participant in the process of structuring our ceremony. She was very upfront with saying, “Here is what I will do in the ceremony, no compromises” and also very upfront with letting us know where she was flexible–she gave us a list of 16 different translations of the Seven Blessings and resources to find even more options.

      Our officiant was not an invisible passive member of the process. But neither were my husband or I. I think the “right” officiant is the one who’s values match yours enough that neither you nor the officiant are doing anything you feel honestly uncomfortable with.

    • meg

      No one said finding the “right” officant was finding a flexable officant, I think you’re asking people to read things between the lines that is not there. I’m PRO tradition, as I said over and over in this post. Being pro tradition means I’m pro old-school inflexable services (when that’s right for the couple).

  • This is a great post!
    We had a traditional Anglican service. We thought about writing our own vows (our vicar said we could) but ran out of time. And in hindsight I am glad we did because I love that we used the same words to make our promises to each other as generations before us. That was beautiful and meaningful to me.

    In the Church of England, we have parishes (don’t know if you do this in the US?) and to get married in your parish church you must have your “Banns of Marriage” read over three Sundays before the wedding. Then when you have been married, your names are entered into the parish marriage register. The one in our church is over 600 years old!! Incredible to have our names written in the same book as generations of couples from my home village.

  • Steph

    found you via Kim at brave bride. Thanks so much for this post! It describes my traditional wedding ceremony and my relationship to it perfectly!

  • Thank you for writing this. As one half of a secular couple who had a religious ceremony for some non-traditional reasons, a lot of it really resonates with me.

    Basically, we are nonreligious (my husband is more apathetic, I am a little more actively not religious for a variety of reasons I would rather not get into as this is not the proper forum for it) but I was raised Christian (Protestant)…not in a “my parents were fundamentalist so I rebelled” way but they are members of what is actually a very liberal, progressive and openminded congregation that, despite all that good stuff, I still didn’t believe in down to the very core of their values.

    However, my parents’ minister is someone I respect deeply as a person, simply because despite my secular belief system, I do respect all religions and I very much admire his liberalism and progressivism especially regarding LGBT rights and women’s equality. I realized early on that I would rather have a religious officiant I know and respect who has known me since childhood than a secular one that I’ve only just met and paid to marry me. (My husband is more laid-back about the officiant thing).

    Add to that a desire to give my parents the sort of ceremony that would make them cry (in a good way), and knowing that that would be a more traditional Christian ceremony, we agreed to go for it despite being handed a ceremony script full of religious references that didn’t really reflect us as a couple.

    I didn’t want this because I felt that honoring the words that meant so much to my ancestors was important to me. I don’t feel that way – in fact, I didn’t have strong feelings about what words were used in our ceremony beyond insisting upon the eradication of anything even mildly patriarchal or sexist because I believed, and still believe, that the heart of our marriage is an emotional commitment we made long before our wedding day and that the ceremony itself may have legalized that commitment, but it did not sanctify it (how could it be sanctified to me in that way if I don’t believe in religion and am very ambivalent on the concept of a possible God?)…so there was no sacred need to have specific language used.

    I wanted this instead because after all my parents’ help, love and support during the planning process, and with how nontraditional our reception, attire, food, music and readings turned out, I wanted to give them one thing with a traditional veneer that they could hold in their hearts warmly instead of looking askance and going “well, it was what *she* wanted, I guess.” Since the actual wedding ceremony was, to me, more just “making legal” what was already true, I didn’t feel that it diminished in importance by giving them this….and if that meant religion in a ceremony for two secular people, well, so be it.

    We did put our own secular mark on it, and this is another reason why I respect our officiant so much. It was in a garden, not a church. The music was secular, not religious (this was allowed). The readings were all secular (a Chinese poem called “Married Love” written by a female Chinese poet, read in both Chinese and English, chosen because we live in Taiwan and I do speak Chinese and I wanted one reading at least by a female writer…Robert Frost’s “The Master Speed” and a Tamil poem called “Red Earth and Pouring Rain” because I’ve also lived in southern India)…I don’t think we could have kept our officiant, as much as I respect him, if he’d insisted on Bible readings as I DO NOT BELIEVE in the Bible, as beautiful as much of it is. I couldn’t bring myself to have readings from a book I feel is half fiction, half embellished history when so many believe that book to be the gospel truth and I do not want to tread on that belief. It was enough of a stretch to decide to OK a religious ceremony. I could not have gone farther.

    Finally, while my father did walk with me down the aisle (he really wanted to and I wanted to honor him, so OK), we took out the part about giving away…another thing our officiant did that has earned my respect. He also changed all the “thou” and “thine” stuff to more normal “you” and “your” to make it all seem more modern.

    In the end, I don’t feel we did anything wrong by creating this traditional-with-nontraditional-trimmings ceremony including a religion we do not follow, and I do hope that anyone who does believe in Christianity would see our intentions for what they are and understand.

  • farther should be “further” above. Oops!

  • Felicity

    Thank you so much for writing this!! It finally captured everything I was thinking but didn’t know how to express. You have made me feel so much calmer about our upcoming wedding. I’m so glad I came across this blog and I’m about to look up your book too. Thanks again!! x