What I Learnt In My First Year As A Wedding Celebrant

Just call me Steff, licensed to marry.

Feb 28, 2013 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

"It's hopeless," sighed my friend Tarah as she slumped down on the couch beside me. "I can't find a celebrant that I feel comfortable with."

I guess I shouldn't be surprised about this. Tarah is covered in beautiful comic-book-inspired tattoos, and has a love affair with Lip Service clothing and spiked heels. With her husband Tim -– a drummer in a heavy metal band –- she was planning a Victorian Gothic wedding on doomsday, 21 December 2012. She had interviewed a couple of celebrants, but found the little old ladies couldn't stop staring –- or frowning in disapproval -– at her tattoos.

"Well," I said, "why don't I find out what you need to do in order to become a celebrant?" And thus began my foray into officiating alternative weddings.

In New Zealand, like many other things, marriage laws are relatively relaxed. You can marry pretty much anyone pretty much anywhere. We don't have same-sex marriage, but we have something called a "Civil Union" which carries the same legal rights as marriage.

And becoming a marriage celebrant is easy: I filled out a form explaining how my "community" would benefit from my services as a marriage celebrant. (How many other alternative celebrants could there be?) I recruited two friends to write testimonials.

The Births, Deaths and Marriages office invited me for an interview. My interviewer was a metalhead, and we spent most of our allocated time comparing music. I wasn't surprised when I got my official letter in the mail three weeks later -– I could now legally marry people. I admit that the urge to run outside, start pointing to random people on the street and shouting, "I now pronounce you …" ala some bad wedding celebrant horror film did cross my mind.

While I still had a year before Tarah's wedding, another couple I knew was getting married in November. They had lined up a celebrant, but that fell through, and after I announced my appointment on Facebook, they asked me if I could perform their wedding.

They used to play in a metal band with my husband, and they were having their wedding ceremony on the stage at our best local music bar where they had played so many times before. Awesome? Yes. Nerve-wracking? Also yes.

Despite the fact that the registry pen didn't work and I didn't quite speak loud enough, the ceremony was a complete hit. The couple wrote it themselves, and I got to pronounce them married by the powers vested in me "by the Gods of Heavy Metal." Not many celebrants get to say that!

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Officiating at Tim and Tarah's Victorian gothic wedding. Photography by Jess Manning.

After that wedding, I performed a ceremony for my sister-in-law, then for my two closest friends (a medieval picnic wedding with 150 people), and two other lovely friends (a Lord of the Rings wedding) and word started spreading that I was doing these unique ceremonies.

Now I have a few weddings under my belt -– and several ceremonies booked for the next couple of years –- I have a few lessons learned from my time in the wedding trenches.

Lesson 1. Men really do want to help

That stereotype that men don't care about weddings is bollocks. Most of the men I've talk to have wonderful, creative ideas, but felt they were being nice by stepping back and letting their partner take care of the preparation. They think this is what women want. And when we do ask their opinions, it tends to be about things they don't care about, like table linens, thus further perpetuating the myth. 

But if you take the time to talk to them about what they think would make an awesome wedding, they have some seriously cool -– and usually sweet and romantic –- ideas. Tarah's husband Tim designed and commissioned a statue of three parts that the couple joined together in their ceremony to represent their union. Another groom wrote vows so beautiful they reduced the entire party to tears. My husband designed our rings, chose our cake and composed most of our photographs.

It might be a function of working in the alternative market –- where weddings are all about overtly reflecting the personality and interests of the couple –- that the men I work with seem to get a lot of say over their weddings. I guess it's much easier for a man to get excited about choosing his wedding sword than it is about chair bows.

The men are also great at keeping things in perspective. They get excited about the things that to me seem the most important -– they want the ceremony to be meaningful, and they want to throw a wicked party. But they don't care so much if the seats are symmetrical or if the tablecloths match the bridesmaids' sashes. They're not running around making sure every guest's whim is individually catered to or worrying about what so-and-so will think about this or that.

Weddings would probably cost a lot less and be a hell of a lot less stressful if we all took this approach.

2. Other people's families and friends are weird and fascinating to watch.

Weddings are really thinly veiled family reunions -– and after the ceremony is over they become much less about the couple and much more about catching up and sharing news with folk you probably haven't seen since the last family wedding.

When you're working with a couple on their wedding day, you are exposed to both sides of their family, and all the systems and rituals and personalities that seem perfectly normal to them are, to you, completely bonkers. I've seen arguments about cocktail sausages, tears over ceremony readings and been told many, many lascivious stories about the bride or groom or the bride's or groom's mother by well-meaning, tipsy relatives.

At a wedding, you see all the elements that make a person who they are come together, and as an outsider, it's completely fascinating to witness. You see family feuds play out, dramatic friendships explode and even new love blossom. At one wedding, two guests who'd never met before had sex on a picnic blanket under a tree in full view of the rest of the party!

3. Write your own ceremony.

I'm surprised just how many couples begin discussions about their ceremony with, "Can you show us the standard wording?" There is no standard wording for secular ceremonies, and even if there were, I don't think that's the right place to begin.

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Steampunk wedding shoot, photography by Jess Manning.

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Steampunk wedding shoot, photography by Jess Manning.

I am a firm believer that a couple should write their own wedding ceremony rather than follow a template or service they find online. A wedding ceremony is a highly personalized thing, and it should reflect you and your partner’s ideals about love and commitment and friendship –- not some meaningless wedding bloggers'.

All the couples I’ve worked with have sent me basic working and an order of service, and I’ve helped them choose wording and write introductions and describe their rituals and beliefs in a simple, meaningful way. You don't have to be Shakespeare -– words are more powerful when they are your own.

Your vows are the most important part of your wedding ceremony -– even more important than the signing of the register (which is the legal bit). The vows are the promises you make to each other –- the way you articulate your commitment and your life going forward.

When you say your vows, speak to your partner. Look them in the eye. Speak only to them. Don’t worry about the people watching. Your celebrant will pronounce everything loudly and clearly so your guests can hear, but don't worry about them –- you are making your promises to your partner.

4. Someone will forget the marriage license.

When I got married, my husband left our marriage license at the house, and had to drive back for it with minutes to spare. The first wedding I performed was held up for 45 minutes while the best man drove back to the hotel in rush hour traffic to pick up the license. At yet another wedding I arrived at the venue only to discover that no one there knew anything about the license.

Misplacing the license isn't actually the worst wedding disaster. If you or the person in charge of the license either forgets or misplaces it -– which has happened at some stage during every wedding I’ve officiated -– don’t panic. Usually, we can locate someone with a car to drive back and pick it up. If it is somehow destroyed, the registrar's office can issue a copy with enough notice.

The worst-case scenario is that we go ahead with the ceremony sans register signing. And at some point later in the evening we send a relative out to retrieve the license and you can sign it before you break into the champagne. 

Expert Tip: Don’t let 18-month-year old children near the marriage license. One of my couples had the corner chewed off theirs, and attractive dribble marks through the middle. And it was a bit creased. 

Luckily, best friends forgive celebrants who accidentally leave their marriage license on the floor at the friend's house where said 18-month-old resides. Reason 102 why it is awesome officiating your best friend's wedding.

5. Celebrants have wedding lust.

Ever since I started officiating at weddings, I see all venues, dresses, events and people as potential future weddings. We visited Hobbiton recently, and I couldn't help but walk around thinking, "Gosh, I wish someone would ask me to marry them here!" I read an article about poly commitment ceremonies, and now I'm dying to officiate one. I'm currently building my own off-grid home, and I catch myself looking out over our land thinking, "I hope my children decide to get married right here."

We also feel personally invested in the future of the couples we marry. It's an honor to share such an intimate moment with a couple, especially the type of weddings I perform where so much of the couple's personalities and souls have gone into the wedding event. You feel like you've played a part (however small) in getting them to the point of "I do." And you want them to succeed -– it's a matter of professional pride.

I haven't been in the celebrant game long enough to experience my "first divorce." I can't think of a single person I've married who I think will be back for a second round, but more experienced celebrants shake their heads knowingly when I say this. "Just you wait a few years," they say. "Being a celebrant is ALL about the repeat business."

Have you ever officiated a wedding before? What were your experiences –- good or bad? Would you ever get ordained or become a celebrant to officiate a friend's wedding? What would you want from your wedding celebrant?