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Wedding Ceremony

Updated on September 10, 2011

Who Can Perform A Marriage?

Much attention is paid to planning the perfect reception, but it is actually the ceremony that is the most important part of a wedding. After all, the reception is really just a party to celebrate what takes place at the ceremony: when two people pledge to spend their lives together. There are many details that go into coordinating a ceremony, and this guide will help you to pull everything together into one beautiful and meaningful marriage ceremony.

There are many different approaches to take when planning a wedding ceremony, but they will all have certain elements in common. From the largest cathedral service to the most intimate private ceremony, there are a few things that will be the same. The first thing needed is an officiant. Whether the service is to be religious or secular, the person who presides over the wedding will need to have official standing with the state. It could be a priest, minister, or rabbi. An officiant can also be a justice of the peace or a judge. Sometimes a friend of the couple wishes to officiate; a common way to be granted the legal standing to marry two people is to obtain a quickie ordination through an organization like the Universal Life Church. However, not all states or jurisdictions will consider the marriage to be valid when performed by a ULC minister, so engaged couples must carefully check the law in the jurisdiction where their wedding will take place. In cases where the ULC ordination is insufficient, that person can co-officiate with someone who does have official standing, such as a justice of the peace.

A long standing myth is that a ship's captain has the legal authority to perform marriage ceremonies. In most cases, this is not true. To have the standing to preside over a marriage, the captain would also need to be a justice of the peace or a judge. In fact, the whole notion of being married at sea is largely a romantic myth. Even on the cruise ship lines that have specially licensed captains, most ceremonies are performed while the ship is docked. Be careful about this type of ceremony, as in some instances, the marriage license needs to be issued by the port of call, and in other cases by the home state of the bride and groom.

The Marriage License

Speaking of the marriage license, that is another key element of a wedding ceremony, since without one, the marriage is not legal. The laws about obtaining marriage licenses will vary from state to state. In general, they need to be obtained in the location in which the wedding will be held. Many states require the bride and groom to appear together in person to apply for a marriage license, which may pose an inconvenience when planning an out-of-state wedding. There may be a waiting period after obtaining the license before the wedding can take place; usually it is just a few days. In Nevada, there is no waiting period, part of the reason why Las Vegas is such a favorite destination for elopements. Keep in mind that marriage licenses will also expire, so it does not pay to get it too early. Around 60 days is average, but the length of validity does vary by state, anywhere from 30 days in Utah up to a year in Nevada.

Blood tests in conjunction with the issuance of marriage licenses are extremely rare these days, although a few states do still have specific requirements, such as a blood test for rubella for all brides under the age of 50 in Indiana. A new requirement that is starting to pop up is pre-marital education. The state of Georgia requires six hours of it, and Florida will give a discounted rate on the cost of the license to couples who have completed pre-marital education. Other regulations apply to issues such as marriage between cousins, the marriage of minors, and same-sex unions.

Every state requires positive identification at the time of application, such as a driver's license and a social security number. Divorce decrees or death certificates showing how a previous marriage was dissolved may also be necessary. The cost of the marriage license will vary, and in many counties, it must be paid in cash. After the wedding ceremony, the newlyweds, their officiant, and their witness sign the license, which is then returned to the county clerk by the officiant to make the marriage official. Couples who wish to have a copy of their marriage certificate may have to pay an additional fee to the county clerk.

Not All Processionals Are Solemn

The Wedding Processional

Once the legal aspects are handled, the bride and groom can turn their attention to the particulars of the ceremony itself. As the guests arrive, they will be greeted by ushers, who will either escort or direct them to their seats, with the bride's family on the left of the aisle, and the groom's family on the right. During this time, the organist or other musicians will play soft music along the lines of Vivaldi's "Spring". The groom's mother is seated with her family, and finally the mother of the bride is escorted to her place of honor in the front left pew. This is the signal to all present that the processional is about to begin.

The musicians will then begin to play the music for the processional. Traditional choices include "Canon in D" by Pachelbel, "The Four Seasons" by Vivaldi, and "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" by Bach. Non-traditional processions are becoming more common, such as the sort of choreographed antics that are so popular on YouTube. The groom and best man make their entrance from the side and stand at the altar during the processional. First to march are the ushers or groomsmen, followed by the bridesmaids, the maid of honor, the junior bridesmaid, the ring bearer, and the flower girl. Traditionally, the flower girl scatters petals before the bride's path, but not all venues permit this. Alternatively, she can carry a small nosegay or basket of flowers.

Bridesmaids and ushers can either proceed single file or in pairs, depending on the size of the wedding party. A rehearsal the day before is an excellent idea as it allows all of the attendants to learn their roles for the ceremony. The bride and groom should determine the order in which they would like each bridesmaid and groomsman to walk. It is often as simple as shortest to tallest, or the determination can be based on how couples will pair up for the recessional (ie, if a bridesmaid and usher were a couple, they should get to walk together during the exit march).

Then comes the big moment. The musicians will stop playing the processional music to allow a little bit of drama to build. Then the door to the church opens, the "Wedding March" begins, and the bride is escorted down the aisle on the right arm of her father. The bride's grand entrance is one of the high points of any wedding, and the guests rise to watch her walk down the aisle. Everyone wants to see the bridal gown, wedding jewelry, veil, and the bride's bouquet! The best way for the bride and her father to march together is for him to link his arm through hers, so that she can have both hands out in front of her holding the bouquet.

Small Jewish Chuppah

The Jewish Wedding

 In a Jewish wedding ceremony, the processional will be slightly different. The bridal party will march up the aisle as described above, however the entrance of the bride and groom will not be identical. If it is an Orthodox service, the bride may be escorted by the two mothers, and the groom by the two fathers. In Reform or Conservative synagogues, it is customary for the groom to be escorted down the aisle by his parents, followed by the bride with her mother and father. In either a Christian or Jewish ceremony, when the bride and groom arrive at the altar, she will stand to his right. At a Jewish service, the couple will stand under a Chuppah

Catholic Wedding

The Wedding Ceremony

Most ceremonies will have a momentary pause when the bride and her father arrive at the altar. The minister may ask, "Who gives this woman in matrimony (or marriage)?", at which time the bride's father will answer "I do" or "Her mother and I do". When the bride's mother and father have both escorted her, the response is "We do". At that time, she will be symbolically "given away" to her husband. If the bride is wearing a blusher veil over her face, her father will lift it to give her a kiss before officially giving her away. He may return the blusher over her face at that point, or it can remain pushed behind her for the rest of the ceremony. Some brides like to have their fathers practice moving the blusher to ensure that all goes smoothly on the day of the wedding.

Now it is time for the officiant to begin the wedding ceremony. He or she will usually open by welcoming the assembled guests. Depending on the religious traditions being followed, if any, the next step will be a call to worship or a prayer. This is the time that the first reading will be done. It can be religious or romantic in nature. The readings may be lead by the officiant, although many couples will honor a close friend or relative by asking them to do a reading. This can be a good way to include someone in the wedding who would not be an appropriate person to have in the bridal party. Catholic couples will select the first reading from the Old Testament and the second from the New Testament of the Bible, such as this popular verse from I Corinthians:

"Love is patient; love is kind. Love is not jealous, it does not put on airs, it is not snobbish. Love is never rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not prone to anger; neither does it brood over injuries. Love does not rejoice in what is wrong but rejoices with the truth. There is no limit to love's forbearance, to its trust, its hope, its power to endure.

Love never fails.

The Word of the Lord.

Response: Thanks be to God."

When the marriage ceremony is in a different religious tradition or is secular, the readings may be selected from a variety of sources besides the Bible. Romantic poetry, such as verses by Shakespeare or Elizabeth Barrett Browning are particular favorites.

Between the first and second readings, the officiant may read a homily or offer thoughts on marriage. This is especially meaningful when the minister or other person presiding over the marriage knows the bride and groom personally, and can offer customized remarks about their character and relationship. This is also the part of the ceremony during which a soloist might perform.

The most significant portion of the wedding ceremony is the exchange of vows. When the wedding is being held outside of a house of worship, the couples will have the option of writing their own vows (though not everyone wants that sort of pressure!). Standard vows are still the most common, and they go as follows:

I,____, take you,____, to be my lawfully wedded wife

to have and to hold, to love and to cherish (or to love, honor, and obey)

for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer

in sickness and in health

from this day forward, till death do us part.

The groom recites the vows first, followed by the bride. Couples need not worry about memorizing the traditional vows, as the officiant will recite each line and the bride and groom need only repeat it. A variation on this is when the minister says, "Do you____, take____, as your lawfully wedded wife, etc.", to which the response is "I do".

Once the bride and groom have exchanged their vows, the wedding rings will be given to the officiant, who will bless them, if desired. The best man is usually charged with holding the bride's ring, and the maid of honor the groom's ring until the appointed time. Sometimes it may be more practical for the best man to have both wedding bands together in one box in his jacket pocket, since the maid of honor is unlikely to have a pocket in her dress. If there is a ring bearer, the rings would be removed from his pillow and handed to the officiant. Or better yet, tie fake rings to the pillow and let the best man have the responsibility of holding onto the real wedding bands.

The bride and groom will exchange rings with the phrase, "With this ring, I thee wed". The ring is slipped onto the ring finger of the left hand. For the ceremony, the bride should wear her engagement ring on her right hand. Later on, she can transfer it back to her left hand, where it is worn over the wedding band. If the bride wore gloves for the ceremony, she would remove them and hand them to her maid of honor right before the ring exchange. Wedding bands are never placed over gloves.

Some marriage services will include a symbolic gesture at this point. The most common is the lighting of the unity candle. Three candles are involved – a pair of tapers and one large pillar candle. The bride and groom each take one taper candle and together light the large pillar to symbolize the union of two becoming one. There are many variations on this, such as pouring two vessels of sand or water into one. Presenting a family medallion to the children of a blended marriage may also be done at this time.

Following the unity candle, if any, the officiant will make the pronouncement. It is something along the lines of, "By the power vested in me by God, and the State of New York, I now pronounce you husband and wife" (contemporary) or " and wife" (traditional). "You may now kiss your bride!". At which time the newlyweds share a kiss that is hopefully passionate yet tasteful. Then the officiant may add, "It is now my privilege to present to you for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. _____". The couple should be sure to inform their officiant if the bride will be retaining her maiden name or if the newlyweds intend to create a new hyphenated surname, so that the introduction is correct.

The Wedding Recessional

There is applause from the guests, and then the musicians will strike up a joyous song, such as "The Wedding March" by Mendelsson or "Ode to Joy" by Beethoven. Unlike the processional, which should be conducted at a stately and dignified pace, the recessional is usually quite brisk, as all of the participants joyfully march back down the aisle. The newlyweds come first, followed by the flower girl and ring bearer, then the groomsmen and the bridesmaids. The groomsmen stand to the left of the bridesmaids, and they walk arm-in-arm in pairs. If there is an odd number of men to women, the best man or maid of honor can walk singly ahead of the other bridesmaids and ushers. The wedding guests should wait to exit their seats until the recessional is complete.

            Jewish wedding ceremonies will have several additional customs that take place. One of the best known is the smashing of the glass at the end of the service. Meant to symbolize the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the fragility of a marriage once broken, this is one of the key moments in a Jewish wedding. The glass is wrapped in a cloth to prevent broken glass from flying everywhere, and the groom stamps on it with his foot. Once the glass breaks, the guests all shout, "Mazel Tov!", which translates roughly into "good luck!". After the recessional, the newlyweds will retreat to share a private moment together, a custom which is called Yichud.


End Of The Wedding

 The final moments of a wedding ceremony usually take place right outside of the doors of the church, synagogue, or other venue. The guests assemble to cheer for the newlyweds, and may throw something like rice (a symbol of fertility), birdseed, or confetti. If church bells are rung, it is not only to announce the joyous news, but also to scare away any evil spirits that may be lurking near the bride. When the couple hops into their car decorated with "Just Married", the clatter of the cans on the back is also there to scare off evil creatures (a common theme behind many of our standard wedding customs). The couple may opt to have their receiving line outside the venue (it is improper to hold a receiving line inside a house of worship, as it is God's house, not the newlyweds'), or it can be done at the reception venue. After that, the ceremony is complete, and all that remains is for the newlyweds and their guests to celebrate the new marriage at the wedding reception.


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