My boyfriend’s an atheist.  That’s the beginning of the story.

He’s not just an atheist – he’s an Atheist, with a capital A.  He’s practically a fanatic, if you can be a religious fanatic in your lack of beliefs.  Before I met him, I always considered myself agnostic – but through his vast knowledge of atheism, I’ve discovered that my beliefs align more closely with agnostic atheist (which means that I, personally, do not believe in God or a higher power, but do not deny their potential for existence).  As Hugh Laurie so eloquently put it – “I admire the music, buildings and ethics of religion, but I come unstuck on the God thing.”*

Whenever we discussed getting married, we always got a little stuck on the ceremony.  Neither of us had been to many non-religious weddings, and weren’t even sure where to start. It was really important to me to have a wedding ceremony – not to elope or get married in the court or anything like that.  Our wedding is something I really wanted to be able to share with the important people in our lives.  I knew that I also had very specific restrictions and ideas of what I wanted in a wedding ceremony, and wasn’t sure I’d be able to find someone who could accommodate.

Lindsey, Ben, & I at their wedding

Lindsey, Ben, & I at their wedding

Oh, sorry, I need to back up a little – I guess that’s not the beginning of the story.  When I was in college, before she was even discussing getting married with her then boyfriend now husband, my best friend Lindsey asked me to officiate at her wedding.  Neither of us remember why or how this came up, or why it became such a steadfast decision.  But, sure enough, we discussed it many times over the next few years, and it was official when she got engaged in 2006.  At one point, I told Lindsey that I would rather be her maid of honor instead of perform her wedding ceremony – and she told me how she really wanted me to perform the ceremony.  And it made sense – Lindsey was raised Lutheran, tended towards Pagan in college, and these days leans a little more towards Judaism.  Her husband is culturally Jewish.

So let’s go back to the “my boyfriend’s an atheist” part.  It’s October of 2007 – Lindsey and Ben have been engaged for over a year, and I had just begun to research and write their ceremony.  Dan [the boyfriend] and I were sitting in a theatre, talking before the show started.  I had recently reached what I had always thought was my ultimate goal of a job – and was incredibly miserable.  But the problem, when you reach your job goals and discover that you’re unhappy, was that I had no idea what I was supposed to go from there, career-wise.

I turned to Dan and said, “What do I want to do with my life?” And he was quiet for a moment, and thought about it.  And then he said, “You want to perform agnostic and atheist weddings.”  And it was a fabulous idea.

I knew there had to be other people, like Dan and I or Lindsey and Ben, who were looking for wedding ceremonies taken without the context of religion.  Full of traditions and ceremonies and elements and love.  But I really wanted to offer this to people who consider themselves atheist or agnostic – to show that you don’t have to have religion to have tradition (something that I think atheists lose the tradition that religion tends to lend to your lives).

The next day, I did some online research, and found the Celebrant Foundation, and the courses and support they offer for lay people who want to officiate at all kinds of ceremonies – funerals, weddings, coming of age, baby blessings, divorce ceremonies.  And, as luck would have it, the semester started that week.  And (this is the crazy part) – this is the only place in the US that offers these classes.  And where were they located?  Literally two blocks away from my former home in Montclair – now about 20 minutes from my current apartment in East Rutherford (how awesome would it have been if I could have walked to my class?).

My Wedding Class at our ordination, April 2008

My Wedding Class at our ordination, April 2008

It felt like it was meant to be.  I graduated in May of 2008, and immediately began performing wedding ceremonies.  In my first six months as a Celebrant, I had the honor of performing sixteen wedding ceremonies – including Lindsey and Ben’s.

I made a good choice.  I love what I do so much – it’s so amazing to be able to do this service for my couples.

Dan and I are in the beginning stages of planning our October 2010 wedding.  And it’s still a very tough decision for me to choose a someone to officiate my ceremony – but for the opposite reason.  Now, I have so many wonderful Celebrant colleagues and connections that choosing the person to officiate at my wedding isn’t an issue of being able to find someone – it’s simply who I should choose!

*I’d like to note that, as a Celebrant, my religious beliefs (or lack there of) are completely irrelevant – I love wedding ceremonies.  I work with my couples to develop fabulous wedding ceremonies that reflect them, and have a great respect for all spiritual backgrounds and religions.  One of my favorite things to do in wedding ceremonies is to reimagine and reinterpret more traditional religous elements and ceremonies in a secular way – Jewish-style ceremonies with Chuppahs, wine, and glass breaking – Christian-style ceremonies with hymns, unity candles, and traditional vows.  Your ceremony should reflect you and your relationship, and that is my ultimate goal.

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Here in New Jersey, weddings have a season – most people get married late spring to early fall – May to October.  As soon as it gets a little cold and there’s that whisper of snow in the area – people just put their poofy white dresses away to hibernate until May.

But there’s always wedding planning going on!  And I think the winter and early spring is an ideal time to begin communicating and contacting your vendors for your summer and fall weddings – for a variety of reasons!

We’ve all heard that the holiday season is the time to get engaged, so the New Year always starts out with a bunch of new brides, ready to start planning their perfect days.  On the other hand, as the new year begins, all of the brides who have been planning their 2009 weddings can finally say – I’m getting married this year! – and fully dive in to their planning (this works for next year brides too – I’m currently planning my 2010 wedding, and have felt so much better about emailing and contacting vendors now that I can say “I’m getting married NEXT year!”)

As I said, this is a great time to start planning because if you have the time, you won’t begin to feel the pressure or crunch of wedding planning.  And when wedding planning becomes stressful.. well, then it’s not fun, and planning the wedding is almost as much fun as the wedding itself.

So if you’re a new bride, or super excited to be getting married this year or NEXT year, here’s a great tip to get you thinking about planning your wedding ceremony:

What do you absolutely WANT to have? And what do you absolutely NOT want to have?

  • Is it very important to have your mom or dad walk you down the aisle?  Do you want to make sure you can write your own vows, or use special ring vows or a reading?  Is there a special ritual or tradition that your parents used that you just have to be able to fit in?
  • Alternatively, have you been to weddings and thought – I don’t know what I DO want, but I can tell you what I don’t want!  Are there certain stories or anecdotes you don’t want your officiant to use?  Certain terms or vows that you are just dead set against?  Rituals or traditions that you’re just not that into and don’t want?
  • It’s a great idea to brainstorm these together before you meet with your officiant, so that you can make sure you’re all on the same page when it comes time to put your ceremony together.  Sometimes, the key is to knowing what you DON’T want!

This fall, I’ve begun to work with many couples who are getting married in the summer and fall of 2009.  And I’ve found many of them have been requested handfastings!


Photo from Flickr

If you’re not familiar with handfasting – it’s, quite literally, “tying the knot.”  Though “handfasting” is often used in Pagan circles as the the term for the entire wedding ceremony, the handfasting I’m referring to is a unity ritual, often going after the ring vows and before the closing of the ceremony.  The couple takes hands (like they’re shaking hands – right into right and left into left).  Their hands are then wrapped with a cord, symbolizing the joining of their lives and hearts.  Each wrap represents a step towards complete commitment to each other.  At the end, the couple remains there, for a moment, and then the cord is removed before the end of the ceremony.


Lindsey & Ben had me wrap their hands, then repeated a simple vow.

Some couples choose to take vows as their hands are wrapped – this is an option as well.

Something fun many of my couples have done is to choose a handfasting cord that really means something to them – if you’re a fiber artist, you can knit, spin, weave, or crochet your cord – or use something that is relevant to your life – a couple I met with recently mentioned using boating twine as they are getting married at the beach!  There are also traditional meanings to the colors of a handfasting cord – so if you want to do multiple colored cords, your officiant can mention what each one means as it is wrapped around your hands.


Photo from Flickr

You can also have a friend, family member, or bridal party member wrap the cord around your hands.  If you have a smaller bridal party, you could have them all come up and do one wrap, as the officiant speaks.  Or your parents could wrap your hands, signifying their support as you enter this next stage in your life.

The roots of the handfasting are in the Celtic countries of Europe – I’ve had couples with Irish backgrounds use handfasting, as it has been the tradition in their families.  Many couples who want to incorporate a Pagan touch to their wedding have chosen a handfasting as well – not only because it is a lovely ritual, but because it’s a nice way to slip a non-traditional element in to the ceremony without scaring the more conservative relatives.

PS: Not that crafty and don’t have a beautiful vintage handfasting cord in your family?  Hit up a fabric store, and buy some beautiful trim or cording and some tassels (in the home decor section).  Attach the tassels to the cord, and you’ll have a beautiful handfasting cord!  Just make sure you get one that is long enough – I’d reccomend at least1 yard and a half long.

I think it’s a beautiful ritual, one that has a fabulous background, and something to think about when putting your ceremony together!

So maybe you do want to write your own vows after all. There are many books and websites and random people who will give you advice, rules, outlines, and other information about putting your vows together.

But you don’t have to listen to anyone.

Your vows, like your ceremony, should reflect who you are, as well as your relationship with your soon to be spouse. Personalizing your vows, or customizing existing vows is a great way to do this.

Here are my top five hints and tricks for writing your own vows.

Something Old: Do you really want to use the traditional “Till Death Do Us Part” vows, or have a specific vow that you heard somewhere that you just love – but you also want to exchange personalized vows during the ceremony? It’s possible. Talk to your officiant about incorporating the traditional vows elsewhere in the ceremony – in the ring vows or in “The Asking” (that’s the “I do!” part of a wedding). You can even incorporate them into your personalized vows.

Something New:
If you get stuck on your vows, or are having trouble figuring out how to finish them, give them to some new eyes to look at. Your bridal party, parents, or officiant are just waiting to offer suggestions and questions to help you create the perfect vows for you. And, if you’re choosing to not keep them a secret from each other, sharing them with your partner before hand can often open up new ideas and stories that you may want to include.

Something Borrowed
: The internet is a great resource for putting your wedding ceremony together. There is tons of information on vows people have used, as well as personalized vows couples have written. Don’t be afraid to borrow liberally from these places – your guests will never know you didn’t write it!

Tom & Jeannie's Wedding.
Tom & Jeannie wrote their own vow, but had me read it to them – and then they agreed with Yes! and I do!
Something Blue: This is the wildcard – What do you love about your partner? What do they do for you that makes you smile, every single time? Don’t be afraid to get specific with your vows! I’ve had couples promise to always make cookies and coffee after dinner or tolerate a favorite television show. Don’t be afraid to personalize it!


Melanie admired Brian’s resourcefulness at tough moments – like when the cat gets locked in the closet, and they can’t find the key – Brian promised to love and support Melanie even on Mondays after a tough day of work.

Writing your own vows is a great and easy way to personalize your own ceremony. As I mentioned in my previous post, even personalizing pre-existing vows can help to create a wedding that really reflects who you are!

When I meet with couples, one of the first things I ask when we’re going over ceremony structure is whether they plan to write their own vows. Sometimes, I get a lukewarm response – “Well.. maybe…” After some questions, and a few suggestions, I usually get it out of them: they would like to have original and different vows, but don’t want them to specifically be vows that they’ve written.

Over my time as a Celebrant, I’ve culled a huge file of wedding vows – some original that I’ve borrowed from couples, some I’ve found in books or on the Internet, some I’ve written myself. I present these to my couples as a jumping off point – a source of inspiration to begin to think about possibly creating their own vows. I find that often people will find vows they just love, and edit them slightly to work for their situation.


Mickey and David each chose different vows to read at their wedding

Another idea that may work if you’re looking for slightly different vows – find out what vows your parents used in their wedding ceremony. Some brides and grooms like the idea of using traditional vows because they are the same words that people have used for generations when they married – the whole tradition of the ceremony itself. If you’re planning an interfaith or multi-faith wedding, you may be able to find wedding vows that are traditional to the specific religion you’d like to honor.


Retta & Jack chose the same vows but chose not to say them
I read them aloud, and they agreed to them with “I do”

The best part? No one will know that you didn’t write these vows yourself! If you choose slightly different vows than the traditional “to love and to cherish, as long as you both shall live…” – most people will assume that you have written them yourself. And, as it is your big day, you can take all the credit for it.

Here’s a very popular vow that I’ve had many couples choose – and I just love it too!

I take you, Dyana, to be my spouse,
my friend, my love, and my lifelong companion.
To share my life with yours,
To build our dreams together,
to support you through times of trouble,
and to rejoice with you in times of happiness.
I promise to treat you with respect, love and loyalty
through all the trials and triumphs of our lives together.
This commitment is made in love, kept in faith,
lived in hope, and eternally made new.