When I talked to Celia, it was obvious that she loves what she does and works closely with couples to create a ceremony that fits them exactly. Read below for advice on crafting a ceremony and finding the right officiant.
What three points would you stress to a couple planning their ceremony?
1. The ceremony is not just the gateway to the reception; it’s the reason for the celebration. Nothing is worse than having 100 people enthused with the grandest, happiest expectations of a poignant moment only to be rewarded with the same old ceremony that’s been recited by rote over and over again. Yawn. Every ceremonial choice a couple makes, from the way they arrive at the ceremony space (Will they walk together? Will the bride be escorted by her dad or other significant relative? Will she walk alone?) to the readings (biblical? poetry? hand written?), to even their placement (together facing their guests? facing each other? on each side of the officiant?) expresses a subtle window into the individuality to their relationship. All these choices should be woven together, by a competent officiant, into a joyful and individual service that really expresses the personalities of the couple.
2. Remember the settings that surround the ceremony; it does not exist in a vacuum. If you’re in a beautiful garden, the ceremony should refer to the bounty and beauty of nature. If it’s in the fall, in a winery, it should refer to the harvest of effort, time and growth. At a beach? The nature of shifting sand and the reliable comfort of our anchors; our family, our partner, our friends. There are reasons that each couple picks their setting, and the ceremony should at the very least, present a nod of understanding to that setting and give their audience another way of insight into their particular partnership.
3. Get an early and firm grip on the fact that something will not go as you planned. The three year old flower girl will have a nuclear, face down on the aisle runner tantrum. The chuppa will list sharply to one side. The musicians will start playing the recessional as your officiant is still talking. The photographer will fall into the fountain. (Not that any of this has happened to me……': -) All of these occurrences are events that are uncontrollable, and in many cases, add a note of fresh reality and welcome humor to the tableau. With the expectation that something is going to surprise you, try to plan out everything that can be planned not to surprise you. Allow plenty of time for your guests to find the site and get comfortable. Take into account that stiletto heels and grass don’t mix. (I almost lost a couple of maids of honor on various golf courses last year…). Don’t give the four year old ring bearer the real rings. Send clear direction in your invitations, including parking details and logistical glitches (New Jersey shore traffic during the summer…..) that may factor into your guests’ plan.
What is a “must have” in a wedding ceremony?
Well, legally, that is kind of a thin list. The couple needs to take vows, and the officiant needs to make a pronouncement. Beyond that, the “must haves” are really up to the bride and groom. As an officiant, I’ll try to offer ideas that will work, depending on the family and couple’s situations, but the bare minimum would be a welcome of some sort, vows, pronouncement, and leave taking reading.
What traditional aspects of a wedding ceremony could be left out of the “unbride’s” ceremony?
All of them, really. I almost never see, “Who gives this bride on this day?” although sometimes, I will say “Who presents Angela on this glorious day? Who presents Gary on this glorious day?” Kind of levels the playing field, and adds a note of tradition.
I don’t think I have ever, ever used the phrase, “honor and obey”. My clients just are not into that. There are other ways to promise cooperation and partnership with more gracious wording.
What was the most novel aspect of a wedding you’ve participated in?
Novel… wow….there are so many; vow renewals at Yankee Stadium; a wedding at a dairy farm where the entire wedding party and 100 guests walked down a dirt road to the ceremony space; a giant spreding elm in a cow pasture (accompanied by several free range cows and the farm dog…..). It’s really hard to pick one. One of the most interesting, however, was a wedding between an American man and a Chinese woman. Her mother had done the Chinese astrology and decided that they needed to get married on March 23d, before noon, south east of Secaucus. We found a beach in the right location, (without a permit of course) and at ten minutes to noon we all stormed down to the sub zero beach front and did the ceremony with a Sake sharing, keeping an eye out for park rangers…..in the photos we all look really,really happy but really, really cold!
What questions do you recommend asking the celebrant before making a final decision?
1.How long have you been doing this and what is your training. In this day of internet ordinations, not everyone has the skills to do this work well. It is a combination of people skills, writing, performing, and a maniacal devotion to details. You should be working with someone who is dedicated to their work and your ceremony.
2. How are you legal in my state? (you’d be amazed how few people ask me this, and it is becoming an issue in many areas…)
3. Can we meet with you in person? (if this is geographically possible….you will get a vibe from the officiant’s personality and get to see whether they show up on time, whether they are prepared for your meeting, etc. One of my trainers says that the way you do anything is the way you do everything, and the meeting or long initial phone call can tell you a LOT about the way your ceremony will be…)
4. Why do you love doing this work? Your officiant should sound like they really,really want to be present at your celebration and make it a memorable occasion. If they don’t sound enthusiastic and fun during your phone conversation, (which is really the easiest part of the process), they are NOT going to be any more enjoyable at the ceremony, and it is really important to be surrounded by people you like that day.
5. How is our ceremony created? In my humble opinion, sending a couple 26 pages of readings and ceremony chunks for them to choose and then have strung together does not a personalized ceremony make. You should feel that your ceremony is going to be written with care, with your input, and with resources that match your philosophies and wishes.
6. Can we include a sand ceremony, ring warming, broom jump, dunk tank? If you are interested in including ritual elements, you of course, want to work with someone who is happy to research and write them. The process is, afterall, a collaboration. Rigidity is a bad sign.
7. How much do you charge? Does that include travel time, parking, waiting time, extra consultations? You want to know, ahead of time, what that number is going to be. There are so many ways for your budget to spin out of control that whatever pieces can be booked as a flat fee will be a real asset to your planning. In most cases, the only thing that may be up in the air is waiting time, and this is an important factor not only regard to your ceremony, but also to your reception planning. In some cases, your reception venue or your officiant may not be able to wait a half hour for Aunt Betty, who is always late, to show up. There are many ways and reasons to assure that your wedding happens on time, and a pro celebrant should be able to work with you on containing this cost.
8. What is your cancellation policy (if the couple has to cancel or move the date)? What is your policy if you, as an officiant have to cancel? These are both important questions. If you have to cancel, timing may be all in the decision to refund your deposit or not. (I personally, try to be as flexible as possible, but if I have turned down three other couples for that date, I may not be able to be as fluid as I’d like. In the case of family tragedies, I always refund the entire amount.) If the officiant has to cancel (death in the family, abducted by aliens, etc….) you should make sure your contract stipulates that you’ll have your ceremony script back several weeks before the date of your wedding, and that your officiant will help you find a competent replacement. You should not incur any expenses, and you should feel comfortable with the alternative arrangement.
9. Will you work to coordinate with my photographer, florist, banquet manager, do, band, etc? The only answer is YES
What was your wedding ceremony like?
Oh, mine was a hoot. It was 8 minutes long, and the photographer didn’t ever get out of the balcony in time to photograph any of the ceremony on “ground level”…..(I always let my photogs know how long the ceremony is so they can pace themselves!) Our flowers were run over by the church secretary, the cake arrived on the dashboard of the delivery van, and the bagpiper got toasted and danced with everyone there. Wouldn’t change a thing!
Celia Milton is an ordained inter denominational officiant based in New Jersey and New York (though she is happy to do destination weddings on any island location, and she is certified as a scuba diver for those festive underwater occasions). Prior to starting her practice as a civil Celebrant, officiating at weddings, civil unions and the many other milestones that punctuate our lives. She lives in northern NJ in a tiny house with a giant dog and way too many wedding books….