Wedding Ceremony Basics
An Introduction to Officiating Wedding Ceremonies
An Introduction to Officiating Wedding Ceremonies
This may seem like an obvious point, but having a clear understanding of what specifically makes a wedding ceremony a wedding ceremony is helpful when it comes to clarifying your role as the officiant. So what is a wedding ceremony?
The short answer is that a wedding ceremony is the ritual by which two people get married. This answer assumes an understanding of wedding ceremony rituals and what the term "marriage" actually means. You see what's happening here? Basically, beyond the most fundamental definition of "wedding ceremony," it's much harder to pin down what really happens, who it involves, and how. In other words, it's really up to the couple how they define their ceremony. To help do this, we break down some important terms and ideas below.
When you hear the phrase "Wedding Ceremony" certain images probably come to mind. You may picture a white wedding dress, wedding rings, tossing a bouquet of flowers, etc.
Although these things feature prominently in modern western weddings, they are not definitive of a wedding ceremony in general. You can have a perfectly valid wedding without a white dress, or even diamond rings.
That said, they are so common that many people assume these are essential parts of a wedding ceremony. They are not. Let's unpack the components of a modern wedding ceremony, so that you can decide on your own what you want to include in your wedding.
The inclusion of white wedding dresses began with Queen Victoria around 1840. This tradition is one of the cultural hallmarks of the Victorian era. Since then, it has become so popular that the white wedding dress has become the iconic costume of the brides around the world, and ubiquitously associated with weddings.
However, there is no cultural or legal requirement for the bride to wear a white dress. If the bride wants to dress like Lady Gaga in the Poker Face video, that is her prerogative. White is also associated with purity and virginity, and for some brides, projecting these cultural values may not be appropriate. Ultimately, white can symbolize anything the bride chooses.
The diamond wedding ring is an even more modern cultural phenomena. Though wedding rings of various sorts have been used in wedding rituals across centuries and cultures, their popularity was nothing like the modern ring exchange ritual.
This modern ritual was schemed up in the 1940s by the De Beers Diamond company. They literally spent millions of dollars in advertising and marketing over many years to make their rings an essential part of the wedding ceremony. It worked. These days, a wedding ceremony doesn't feel complete without this component, however it's important to remember that a) it's not required and b) you can substitute diamond rings for any other form of jewelry if there is something that is more symbolic to you.
You don't need to have a white wedding dress of expensive rings in order for a wedding ceremony to take place. That choice is purely up to the couple getting married, and it is not essential for the wedding. But what about those other rituals that we've seen in movies, television, and read about in books our whole lives?
If you have ever seen any movies depicting a wedding scene that takes place prior to the Victorian era (that's before 1837), the bride is probably not wearing a white wedding dress, nor are rings exchanged (provided the movie is historically accurate). Think of the wedding at the beginning of Braveheart, or even weddings in Game of Thrones (fictional, I know). No rings…
Modern wedding ceremony traditions have undergone a standardization and homogenization. A wedding taking place in California is probably going to be very similar to a wedding taking place in Maine.
This was not the case several hundred years ago when people lived in more isolated communities. A wedding ceremony in an Irish immigrant town in New York was probably pretty different from a wedding ceremony in a German immigrant town in Pennsylvania. When folks arrive in the US from around the world, they brought their traditions with them. It was only when inventions like television brought the same weddings into households of all background that couples started adopting traditions that we now consider mainstream.
The point here is that it is important to separate the trappings of wedding ceremonies from the defining elements of a wedding. That is, two people getting married.
This leads us to our next point. What is marriage? A short answer would be the life-long legal public and private partnership between two people. However that answer is not entirely correct, as there are plenty of people that get divorced, and others that spend their lives together yet never formally tie the knot. Our goal here isn't to codify marriage, but rather to empower couples to decide what it means to them.
Marriage can be defined as a government issued contract between people that confers certain legal benefits. The wedding ceremony is the ritualization of that marital contract. In other words, marriage is a contract between two parties, and the wedding ceremony is the performative event that symbolizes that contract.
Following on this definition of a wedding ceremony, there is one part of the wedding that is essential, the The Declaration of Intent. The Declaration of Intent is the "I Do" part of the wedding. This declaration can be seen as the spoken version of the written marital contract. You are saying, "I want to enter into the marital contract." This is the most important part of a wedding ceremony.
You can learn more about the Declaration of Intent and the other parts of a wedding ceremony on our page The Parts of a Wedding Ceremony.