I’m a writer by trade, so I thought writing my own secular, civil wedding ceremony would be a piece of cake.
It wasn’t (but it was worth it).
There aren’t many blueprints for how to write a ceremony that still feels traditional, but isn’t traditional. I’m sharing mine in the hopes that it makes your ceremony writing journey smoother.
To set the scene for you, our wedding ceremony was small, with 16 attendees and no bridal party. It took place in a public park in the middle of Halifax, Canada, where people don’t normally have weddings. It was a pop-up ceremony, so the only equipment we had with us was 16 shiny gold chairs, some giant white balloons, an iPhone, a portable Bluetooth speaker, and a small table (for signing paperwork on) that we piled into the back of a van.
Everyone wore sequin heart pins because I love that scene in the Julia Childs movie where everyone is wearing big red hearts on their lapels on Valentine’s Day (you know the one, Meryl Streep looks perfectly adorable in it).
Since there weren’t that many guests, we arranged the chairs in a semi circle, so there was no aisle per say for a processional and recessional.
WHERE TO BEGIN
There’s no rules for how a secular ceremony should look, which is both liberating and terrifying. I wrote mine by following the outline normally followed in a traditional ceremony, but changing it to make it more relaxed and comfortable for us.
Since my favourite part of weddings is seeing the groom see the bride for the first time during the processional, I kept that part. Our ceremony was in a wide-open field, so to make sure my husband didn’t get a peek too soon, we had him face away from me as I made the long-ish walk towards our ceremony set up. I hid behind a lone tree while my processional song was cued up (Sweet Disposition by The Temper Trap) and when the music began I walked towards him as he turned around. It was perfect.
We DIY DJ’ed our wedding ceremony and used the My Wedding DJ app for iPhone and a little portable Bluetooth speaker. It worked wonderfully. The app cues up all your ceremony songs and arranges them in an easy to play format, so you can hand it off to a helper, and fades the songs in and out, too.
We were married by a Justice of the Peace, who was gracious enough to allow me to write the ceremony and choose its direction. Our Justice of the Peace said a few welcoming words thanking us for asking her to be there, and then we had her say:
Before we begin, the bride and groom have requested that you do not use your cameras or phones during the ceremony and are instead fully present during this happy occasion.
N.B.: Some family members ignored this request (you know who you are!) but it turned out we were thrilled to have the candid shots discreetly caught on our loved ones’ iPhones anyway. Sometimes family knows best!
WORDS OF WISDOM
Our Justice of the Peace provided me with sample ceremonies, which provided a good starting point for deciding what should be said aloud on my wedding day. Normally during this part of a traditional ceremony, prayers and readings would be said. Instead, we had our Justice of the Peace speak about the institution of marriage and what it meant to us. Here’s a sample of what was said:
This is a solemn and important occasion for each of you. In marriage, you not only acquire legal obligations and legal rights with respect to each other, but you each entrust your whole future to the other and join his or her life, with all its joys and all its burdens, to your own. By giving yourselves in marriage, you undertake to live together as married partners to comfort and support each other, and to be faithful to each other until death parts you.
It is, therefore, a decision not to be entered into lightly but rather with great consideration and respect for both the other person and oneself. The bride and groom have invited us to share in this celebration as they affirm their love before us, pledge themselves to one another and enter into the joys and privilege of marriage. Love is one of the highest experiences we can have and it can add depth of meaning to our lives. The day-to-day companionship, the pleasure in doing things together or in doing separate things but exchanging experiences, is a continuous and central part of what a married couple who love each other can share.
Marriage symbolizes the intimate sharing of two lives, yet this sharing must not diminish but enhance the individuality of each partner. A happy marriage is one that is continually developing while growing in understanding of the other person. By growing together in love, it is possible to share not only the joys of life but the burden of sorrow as well.
In every marriage, there are strains and sorrows. It takes courage and generosity to withstand the troubles and trials of married life, but, if you will love each other patiently and generously, you will be able to bear them and you will even find happiness through them. Indeed, generous, unselfish love is happiness and you will attain it in no lesser way.
A NOTE ON READINGS
Since we had such a small wedding, we didn’t want to pick favourites and have only one mother or one sister do a reading for us. So we chose a poem we loved, one that we felt reflected our relationship, and printed it on our program instead.
Our Union, by Hafiz
Our union is like this: You feel cold, so I reach for a blanket to cover our shivering feet.
A hunger comes into your body, so I run to my garden and start digging potatoes.
You asked for a few words of comfort and guidance, and I quickly kneel by your side offering you a whole book as a gift.
You ache with loneliness one night so much you weep, and I say here is a rope, tie it around me, I will be your companion for life.
I really wanted to write my own vows, and my husband didn’t. Not because he didn’t want to publicly declare his love, but because he worried he would choose the wrong words (I’m a trained writer, he’s a trained accountant). To compromise, we settled on a format: Less than 500 words and each statement starting with “I promise to…” Since our vows are quite personal and dear to me, I don’t want to share them in their entirety on the Internet, but our “I promise to” statements included things like:
I promise to be financially responsible
I promise to support you when you need help, and turn to you when I need help
I promise to face sickness with you, hand in hand
I promise to love you completely, and let you love me completely
Our vows were perfect. I cried, he cried, everyone cried. And then we smiled. All day.
THE LEGAL PART
We opted to intermingle the legal words that had to be spoken during our ceremony with our own vows. These included things like “I do solemnly declare I know of no lawful impediment why I may not be joined in matrimony to…” and of course, the I do’s! (But you could also say ‘I will,’ or ‘Yes,’ or whatever else you want to.) In the province we were married in, these have to follow a particular legal script. Your officiant can tell you if the same applies in your province or state, too.
During this part of the ceremony we leaned more towards tradition, because I’ve always loved how these words sound (and I’m a former history student, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to use the word ‘thee’ in a legitimate setting).
Justice of the Peace: This ring is a symbol of your marriage and a symbol of your life together. Please place it on the fourth finger of your partner’s left hand, repeating after me:
Us: “With this ring, I thee wed. I shall love, honour and cherish you, and this ring shall be the symbol of my love.”
After the ring exchange we were pronounced husband and wife! And we kissed, just like they do in the movies. Twice, because I forgot you’re only supposed to do it once.
Where most people would have a recessional, we queued up our recessional song (Sexual Healing by the Hot 8 Brass Band – it’s amazing and so fun!) and signed our marriage certificate and paperwork in front of our wedding guests. Afterwards we mingled in that beautiful grassy field, and had group photos taken. It was perfect.
So to recap our secular, civil wedding ceremony outline was:
ADAPTED PROCESSIONAL (Bride)
WELCOMING WORDS (Justice of the Peace)
WORDS OF WISDOM (Justice of the Peace)
VOWS (Bride and Groom)
LEGAL STATEMENTS (Bride and Groom, repeating after Justice of the Peace)
RING EXCHANGE (Bride and Groom, repeating after Justice of the Peace)
PRONOUNCEMENT (Justice of the Peace)
ADAPTED RECESSIONAL & PAPERWORK (Bride and Groom)
Questions? You can find me on Twitter!
Also, I’d love to know, what did you include in your ceremony? A special reading? A new-to-you ritual? A fun song? I find wedding ceremonies endlessly fascinating. Comment below and tell me all about yours!
// Images by Halifax photographer Evan McMaster //