Symbolic rituals in weddings – the what, why, how, when, where and who!

Symbolic rituals in weddings have become more popular recently, but they are far from a new idea. Often associated with celebrant weddings and couples who want to do things differently, symbolic rituals actually play a large part in traditional weddings too. For example, exchanging wedding rings is an old symbolic ritual that has been used for centuries, and handfasting is even older, with a history going back thousands of years.

So let’s cut to the chase…

What is a symbolic ritual?

Symbolic rituals in weddings - the what, why, how, when, where and who! ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Liisa and Gareth’s sand ceremony (photo by Fiona Walsh Photography)

In short, a symbolic ritual is usually a physical action (or sometimes words), which symbolises the love and the commitment between a couple. These can be traditional, cultural, religious or creative and personal.

I’ve written about various different symbolic rituals over the years on this blog, so here are some examples:

In the 5th century, St Augustine described sacraments in the church as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace’. Whilst he was talking about religious sacraments (or symbolic rituals), that same idea holds true for non-religious weddings too. Including a symbolic ritual is physically showing an inner change – your hands are bound, you exchange rings, you sip from the same cup… you are united in an invisible bond by an act that people can actually witness.

OK so now I’ve made that sound super dry and serious – but I promise you that symbolic ceremonies can be fun too!

Why have a symbolic ritual in your wedding?

Symbolic rituals in weddings - the what, why, how, when, where and who! ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Milni exchange at Bryony and Bhav’s wedding (photo by Neil Walker Photography)

Well first off, as I said, symbolic rituals can be a fun inclusion in your wedding ceremony. They can also be a good way of combining that witnessable commitment with things that are important to you.

If one or both of you has Jewish heritage, for example, you might want to nod to that with a traditional symbolic ritual like breaking the glass. A wedding I once officiated included the couple’s relatives exchanging milni garlands just before the ceremony to show the union of their families, a ritual from the groom’s Sikh background.

But it doesn’t have to be a religious or cultural tradition. Ring blessings are a lovely way to get all your guests involved, as they pass your rings around and fill them with all their love and best wishes for your marriage. One couple I married recently chose to have a wine box ceremony where they tucked away a bottle of the champagne they’d had when they got engaged along with letters to each other about their hopes for their first year of marriage. The box will be opened on their first anniversary, when they will drink the fizz and read the letters, and repeat the process for the next year and so on.

Couples who like to drink might decide to create their own cocktail right there in the ceremony, combining the ingredients and linking them to their marriage – sweet, smooth, bubbly and so on. Harry Potter fans might do their own take on an ‘unbreakable vow’. Keen cooks might blend a signature mix of spices – and perhaps give bottles of it out as favours afterwards…

There is no end to what you could do IF it floats your boat. As with everything when it comes to your wedding – you don’t have to include a symbolic ritual if you don’t want to. Some couples just want to keep it super simple and that’s great too.

How to include a symbolic ritual in your wedding

Symbolic rituals in weddings - the what, why, how, when, where and who! ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Polly and Jason tie up their wine box (photo by Toby Lidstone Photography)

The most important thing here is not to just ‘plonk’ any symbolic ceremony into your wedding because it seems like a cute thing to do. You will need to think about why you want to include your ritual and what you want it to show – to make it make sense in the context of your wedding and in the context of who you are, as individuals and as a couple.

This is where working with a celebrant really helps, as we can tailor your wedding perfectly to you and insert any symbolic rituals you’d like to include so that they are relevant and personal, even if they are also traditional. We can also, with your input, create brand-new rituals that are totally unique to you. Want to have a sandwich ceremony? Or use bubbles, tennis balls, or your insatiable love of coffee? Let’s do it! It’s all possible.

But how do you personalise a traditional symbolic ritual? Well, first of all, chuck out any wording you’ve found on the internet or you’ve heard a million times in other people’s ceremonies. This is about you two, not about everyone else. The symbolism might stay the same but the wording needs to be bespoke.

It’s not only the wording that is bespoke though – you can change up traditional symbols by discussing between you what you want them to represent. For example, I have done many handfastings in my time as a celebrant, but they have all been very different:

Symbolic rituals in weddings - the what, why, how, when, where and who! ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Laura and Tom with their knitted handfasting cord (photo by Olivia Judah Photography)

One couple knitted their handfasting cord together in their Hogwarts House colours, for example. One couple used a tartan ribbon and a length of lace to show their Scottish and Romany backgrounds. One couple used the scarf they’d found in the pub on their very first date as their handfasting cord. Others have had family members and friends come up with different coloured ribbons. Some have used cords that their friends have got together and made for them with colours, trinkets and messages all woven in. Some have used ribbons to represent the four directions. Some have represented much-missed parents in placing ribbons in their favourite colours. I’ve done Norse-inspired handfastings. And one couple forgot to bring their painstakingly handmade cord so we used the bride’s father’s tie instead!

In each of these ceremonies, the symbolism has been the same – the binding of hands showing their coming together in love and commitment – but each ritual has been super personal and relevant to them.

The same is true of any of the traditional symbolic ceremonies – you can take the symbolism and keep it at the centre of the ritual, but change elements to suit you and your story. Use sands from the different places you come from or have been to in a sand ceremony perhaps, or use different coloured sands and have your children or other family members add to the blending… there’s no right or wrong way to do it.

(That said, please be careful to avoid cultural appropriation. It’s fine to be inspired by a ceremony you’ve seen from another religion or culture but don’t copy a tradition wholesale into your wedding unless it’s something that you are a part of – and even then, make it your own!)

When and where should the symbolic ritual go in a wedding?

Symbolic rituals in weddings - the what, why, how, when, where and who! ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Masha and Matt’s ring blessing (photo by Sacco Photography)

This is another example of ‘there’s no right or wrong’. Where a symbolic element is included in your wedding will mostly depend on where it feels right according to what you are showing and the ‘emotional temperature’ of the moment.

An upbeat, fun element like the Eastern European vodka ceremony is a brilliant inclusion right at the end of a wedding. Ring blessings need to happen before the vows are said, but they can be introduced at the beginning to be passed around whilst other things happen, or be done to music closer to when they are needed. Unity ceremonies like a sand blending or unity candle can be incorporated early on, during the couple’s story, or towards the end. And handfastings fit well around the vows, but can go in other places too.

Who can be involved in a symbolic ritual at a wedding?

Symbolic rituals in weddings - the what, why, how, when, where and who! ~ Sussex wedding celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Stephanie and Bruce’s mothers light their candles (photo by Tarah Coonan Photography)

The beauty of symbolic rituals is that they can be super simple and just involve the couple, they can involve one or two key other people like parents or children, or they can even involve everyone, like a ring blessing.

Again, it’s a question of what you want to show or do with it. A sand ceremony can be a perfect way to involve children and/or to show your commitment to being a blended family. A unity candle ceremony can be a great way to honour your mothers by asking them to light the individual candles. A handfasting, as I’ve shown, can involve just the two of you or all your guests. You can share a sip from your quaich between you or with your close families on the front row…

YOU get to decide. And that’s the beauty of a thought-through symbolic ritual and a celebrant-led wedding ceremony.

Like the idea of including a symbolic ritual in your wedding? Want your ceremony to be tailor-made for you two? Let’s have a chat!