Your Ultimate Guide to Planning a Personal, Meaningful, and Official Wedding Ceremony
While everyone might be looking forward to the great band you've hired or the food at your reception, the marriage ceremony is the real reason your friends and family have gathered here today. Every culture does it a little differently, but they all share a handful of traditions. We mapped out how to make yours personal, meaningful, and, above all, official.
Find an Officiant
Your options: religious or civil. For a religious ceremony, choose a priest, minister, rabbi, imam, or pandit. If you're getting married in a place of worship where you're a member, good news—the resident clergyperson comes with the territory. If not, ask a friend or your planner for a referral, or contact your religion's national headquarters. To set a less specific but still spiritual tone, consider a Unitarian minister. If you and your partner are combining faith traditions, two religious leaders (or a religious one and a secular one) can share the role. For a civil ceremony, book a celebrant, justice of the peace, or notary, or have a friend or relative get ordained online and do the honors. This person will set the tone for the day, so if you're meeting for the first time, make sure your personalities (and priorities) align.
You'll want to book your officiant 9 to 12 months ahead of your wedding date, and budget for their services. These typically cost anywhere from $300 to $800. To find one certified by the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, the industry gold standard, go to celebrantinstitute.org. Once you've hired your pro, start drafting your vows. You should aim to do this about two months in advance, so you have time to refine and practice them. They should each be three to five minutes long.
Make It Legal
A month before the big day, call the county clerk's office where you're getting married to ask what official documentation you'll need to provide. They can also tell you when to get your marriage license, and what else (i.e., a blood test) is required. Tying the knot outside the U.S.? Check with the government bureau a few months in advance.
After the ceremony, be sure to sign the marriage certificate; you'll need two witnesses to do the same. Your officiant will file the marriage license. This all needs to happen within a certain time frame—ask the local clerk or bureau for specifics.
Plan the Pacing
A Jewish or Christian ceremony typically lasts 30 minutes; a Hindu one can go for three hours. For a secular ceremony, plan for 30 minutes max, says Pushkine. In that half hour, your officiant will welcome your guests; tell your love story; guide you through the declaration of intent, vows, and ring exchange; offer a blessing or closing remarks; and pronounce you married. Feel free to intersperse readings or unity rituals. A half hour generally allows time for two readings or a unity ritual, says Tongg. A note on readings: People get nervous about speaking in public, so allow time at the rehearsal for them to do a full practice round, and slate them at the beginning of the program so they can relax and enjoy the rest of the ceremony.
Cue the Music
Hire a local harpist or string duo, or enlist a few members of your reception band to play at the service or cocktail hour. Musicians who need less setup time can often do double duty.
Pick a Processional
Opt for a piece that's about four minutes long. Classic options include "Canon in D" by Johann Pachelbel of "Prince of Denmark's March" by Jeremiah Clarke. For something a little more modern, try "A Thousand Years" by Christina Perri and David Hodges. "This one is giving Pachelbel some competition," says celebrant Alisa Tongg.
Fold in Everyone
Here are four easy ways to get loved ones—young, old, and furry—to play supporting roles. Kick off the program by introducing and recognizing your parents, says officiant Annie Davis. Want to include your beloved pet? A well-behaved four-legged friend could be a ring bearer. Have a maid or groomsman walk her down the aisle. Don't forget to honor those you love who can't be with you. Have your officiant offer a remembrance of relatives on both sides who have passed away. Last but not least, think beyond the wedding party. Pals can also pass programs, do readings, sing, or lend Grandma an arm.
Consider the Backdrop
In a church, the altar is the built-in focal point. In other spaces or outside, you may need to create one. A ceremony marker—like an arch of flowers behind you—will draw all eyes to the front and appear in many important photos.
If the day is hot—or cold—set up a self-serve drinks station so guests can help themselves. (Save the booze for cocktail hour.) Water with fruit and herbs is quenching on a sunny day. Warm cider beats the chill on an alfresco fall one.
Personalize Your Vows
These words are the heart of the ceremony. Your officiant will guide you, but what you say is entirely up to you. Tanya Pushkine, founder of the Vow Whisperer, offers this advice: Don't make promises you can't keep. "Even something as small as 'I pledge to never go to bed angry,'" Pushkine says. "You can't promise that! Avoid the words always and never." Show, don't tell: Rather than saying your partner is sweet, tell a story about the time he took your mom to get her hair done. Stay mostly serious, but sprinkle in humor. Skip inside stories or jokes. And keep it forward-looking—this is the moment to talk about your future. Traditionally, the groom goes first, but do what feels right to you. To prepare, Pushkine suggests writing your vows by hand and saying them aloud to yourself or a friend a few times, to get familiar with your words and phrasing. That way, you'll know precisely when to breathe, look up, lock eyes, and smile.
Speak Your Truth
Bible verses blend seamlessly into a traditional Christian or Jewish ceremony. Otherwise, select a passage that resonates with you and your celebration. For Pushkine's own wedding at a winery, a friend nailed it by reading "Marriage, a Tender Vintage," a poem about love and wine by Reverend Lisa Zaro. Or have readers recite dialogue from a favorite film, TV show, or musical, suggests Tongg. An excerpt from Justice Anthony Kennedy's 2015 majority Supreme Court opinion protecting same-sex couples' right to marry is another meaningful choice.
Seal It with a Symbol
The ring exchange and kiss are two rituals most couples include. But there are worlds more: A folkloric custom popular now is handfasting, in which the officiant wraps your joined hands with ribbon, says Tongg; at a small wedding, it can feel special to pass the rings around to each guest before you exchange them. You can also craft symbolic moments to fit your interests, date, or venue. Celebrant Leora Willis officiated a wedding on August 8, 2008, for a couple who wanted to kiss at exactly 8:08 p.m. Her timing was impeccable.
Rock the Recessional
End on a song with bounce to set a party mood. If it makes you smile, it's a winner; so are these classics. "Air on the G String" by Johann Sebastian Bach, "Wedding March" by Felix Mendelssohn, "Ode to Joy" by Ludwig van Beethoven, and "Best of My Love" by The Emotions.
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