Wedding as Ritual

Creating your own wedding can be incredibly complicated, confusing, and frustrating. That said, any ‘wonderful wedding’ experience simply does not happen without a lot of careful planning, and the rewards for creating your own can be immense.

This article presumes that you want to create a wedding ceremony that honors or in some way incorporates the Divine, but not in a way that feels typical (aka, ‘traditional’). So, let’s start with the basics: What makes a good ritual? At its most basic, a good ritual brings together the participants in a way that feels good, shares that positive energy all around, all the while accomplishing a stated purpose. I believe that by keeping this general definition in mind you can create a wonderfully inclusive and special ritual to celebrate your relationship’s transition to a new level.
You’ll want to start planning your ritual as far in advance as possible, it will greatly reduce your stress to have time to pull all of the pieces together.

Starting points
Let’s start at the beginning: when do you want your ritual? As with traditional weddings, timing is a core point that influences many other decisions. In thinking about the date, you may want to consider whether you want to hold the ritual on or near a sabbat, or perhaps a day sacred to your Deity or one linked to marriage. Ostara, Beltane, and Litha all have positive associations for relationships, and I think Mabon and Yule would work as well, although you’d be stretching the symbolism a bit. Deities associated with marriages might include Hera, Juno, Aphrodite, Venus, Demeter, Janus, Freya, Freyr, Frigg, Yue-Lao, Bes, Hathor, Hymen, Kamedeva, Innana, Oshun, and Sjofn. They all have dates that are particularly important, and a little research can produce a nice list of potential dates to look at.

Once you’ve decided when, you’ll want to decide where. The specific location is important, of course, but stay big picture for a moment: indoors or out? By temperament we tend to prefer to worship in nature, but this may not be practical. Are any of your guests elderly, or have special needs that make anything other than a smooth surface unusable? What is the typical weather around your planned date, and how does it affect your planning? My fiancé and I wanted to hold our ritual on Beltane, which in the Seattle area is as likely to have heavy rain or sleet as sun; as well, we both have elderly relatives who are not very mobile in the best of circumstances. In the end, we chose to have our ceremony indoors, but located it in a place with a panoramic view overlooking Lake Washington, thereby bringing a strong sense of nature into the ritual. A friend held her ritual outdoors, but located in a large park shelter in case of bad weather. Another friend held his ceremony in a civic building against tall windows that opened onto a splendid public garden. Deciding on a date and finding a location are two of the most time-consuming decisions you’ll have to make and I believe you can’t get them done soon enough.

Creating the ritual
Having the timing and location elements decided will influence the style and format of your ritual. While not impossible, it feels dissonant to do an elaborate ritual with fifteen props and readings in the middle of a simple stone circle or field. Allow your surroundings to influence your ritual and you’ll start the energy flowing in a positive direction. Similarly, decide early on how obvious you want your ritual to be about how non-traditional it is. Personally, I felt that we were inviting people from diverse backgrounds (including my fiancé’s devout Presbyterian parents, my atheist father, and pagan friends) and creating a comfortable atmosphere for all of them was a very important component. You may feel that this ritual requires a more clearly Pagan look and feel, and of course there are many options along the spectrum in between.

(One note, I do not recommend using your wedding ceremony as a ‘coming out’ statement. People don’t expect weddings to include possibly painful surprises; so it’s far more respectful (and safer) to let loved ones know beforehand. A friend, daughter of strict Catholics, sent pagan-themed invitations, used the word ‘handfasting’ instead of ‘wedding’ and called her parents after they received the invitation. While they were very unhappy about her choice, she was straightforward, and told them “I will understand if you choose not to attend, but this is my wedding.” (They came and they had a great time.) So be prepared to have honest conversations before the wedding if you want to be obvious about your spirituality.)

Start tracking the symbols you feel support your theme. Some people avoid fertility images (eggs, rabbits, etc.) others feel they are a necessary component. What energies do you and your partner want to bring into your new relationship? Wealth? Abundance? Joy? Use images from shared moments in your time together. Feel free to be funny or silly, and to incorporate inside jokes. For us, the images of flying pigs were part of a long-standing joke, so we used them in various ways. Also, I met him when he was leading a D&D game, so our wedding cake ‘topper’ was two minis, hand painted by us, of a witch and a paladin.

One detail that varies greatly is how long the ceremony should be. Based on my decades of ritual work, I would say that anything less than 20 minutes will feel too short to your guests and if it goes longer than 45 minutes they will start to lose focus. A 30 minute ritual is enough to have opening music leading to a processional, a greeting from the officiant, quarter calls (if you have them), three readings, a speech by the officiant, an exchange of vows and rings, some kind of symbolic unifying moment, a kiss and the recessional.

We felt that we needed to call a circle to make our ritual sacred, but didn’t need to get more obviously pagan than that. We each took turns greeting the quarters, and worded them in a way that felt biblical (we were inspired by the Song of Songs) but were entirely our own.

For those with ears to hear and eyes to see, this was clearly a circle casting based on the four elements and in a typically Wiccan framework. For others it was simply lovely poetry. (I later overheard my father telling my mother-in-law that he thought we’d borrowed from Kahlil Gabrain, only to have her tell him that it was from the bible. Success!)

We chose three readings that had great meaning for us, and had other people read them. This allowed us to honor people who are special to us, and gave us a bit of a break out of the limelight. Shakespeare is a wonderful resource, as are more modern poets. A Google search for ‘love poems’ will give you a huge collection to choose from.

By the way, the only way to know how long the ritual will take it to rehearse it, complete with props. You don’t need to read the actual words out loud (if you want to keep your vows private, for example), but you should substitute something similar in length. You can estimate length by planning for about a minute for each 100 words spoken, but nothing beats having a rehearsal — so make sure you schedule one.

Writing your vows
Your vows are the heart of the ritual, the sacred intention you make public, the binding you will voluntarily take upon yourself. They are also damn hard to write in most cases. There are a few things you can do to make the process easier and the final results better. Firstly, you both need to be involved — this is crucial — and decide whether you are writing them separately or work together on one set. Will you want to share them with each other before the ceremony? You will want to agree on a basic format: light hearted or deeply romantic? Completely original or borrowed from other sources? Finally, you’ll want to agree on the structure: just vows, or perhaps a bit of a story to start?

It might be a good idea to schedule a date to talk about your vows. My fiancé and I enjoyed talking about our relationship and what marriage means to us both. Discussing the merits of traditional vows versus writing our own helped clarify what we were looking to say and hear.

A wedding is a performance, so remember your audience. Your vows need to not be so cryptic or salacious that people are confused, or uncomfortable. Reading your vows out loud (to a mirror if not to another person) will help smooth your delivery, catch the places you might stumble, and let you hear the words that may not sound quite right when no longer confined to your head. When in doubt, be plain; the audience always loves genuine feeling.

It’s a good idea to set a deadline well in advance of your ritual for sitting down with your drafts and talking them through. You don’t need to share the exact words, but you’ll want to check in with each other. If nothing else, make sure your tone and approximate length are the same.

Last notes
Be willing to be flexible and allow for things to go wrong. A couple with a romantic dynamic of the knight and his lady between them found a gorgeous location in a local park, complete with medieval style stone tower and grove of oak trees surrounded by an acre of flowers. Two weeks before their wedding a hurricane blew threw and completely destroyed the area, uprooting the trees and destroying the flowers. They volunteered to be a part of the cleanup crew, and were rewarded by being given an alternate location near that stone tower. It wasn’t ideal, but their wedding pictures are amazing, and you’d never know that they had to improvise at the last minute. More importantly, they are still together a decade later.

Creating your own wedding incorporating non-traditional beliefs can be overwhelming, but doing so gives you the opportunity to make sure your guests understand why they were there in the first place. A point which can easily be lost in more traditional ceremonies. Crafting your own ritual can bring you the certain knowledge that what you and your partner have created is the perfect expression of your beliefs, your love for one another, manifested within the positive energy that any good ritual brings.

Zell-Ravenheart, Oberon and Morning-Glory, Creating Circles and Ceremonies, New Page Books, 2013
Everyday Witch Book of Rituals: All You Need for a Magickal Year by Deborah Blake, Llewellyn Publications, 2012
The Witch’s Heart: The Magick of Perfect Love & Perfect Trust by Christopher Penczak, Llewellyn Publications, 2011
Magickal Weddings: Pagan Handfasting Traditions for Your Sacred Union by Joy Ferguson, ECW Press, 2008.
A Romantic Guide to Handfasting: Rituals, Recipes & Lore by Anna Franklin, Llewellyn Publications, 2005
Tying The Knot: A Gender-Neutral Guide to Handfastings or Weddings for Pagans and Goddess Worshippers by Jade River, self-published, 2004 (available through
Handfasting and Wedding Rituals: Welcoming Hera’s Blessing by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein, Llewellyn Publications, 2003

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