The Heart of the Wedding
Today‘s couples — and the celebrations they choose — come in many varieties. In his book The Heart of the Wedding, Gerald Fierst layers stories, ceremonies, history, and how to tips, so that you and your wedding ceremony are at the heart of your marriage celebration. “An in depth and very practical book,” The Heart of the Wedding has been praised by critics for “forging new and honest territory in the landscape of love”
As a lecturer, key note speaker, trainer, and wedding officiant, Gerry Fierst has reinvigorated tradition to offer contemporary couples a meaningful and fresh voice to express the life passage ritual of marriage.
Fierst has officiated at hundreds of weddings in the NJ, NY, and NYC region. His unique understanding of story at the heart of wedding and ritual has taken him to lecture and officiate at ceremonies across America and around the world. He was a Just Stories Fellow of Angels Studio, Chicago, IL, commissioned to write and perform a storytelling installation on faith and the Abrahamic Tradition and was the Kathleen Hurley Memorial Lecturer, International College of Celebrancy, Queens College, Melbourne, Australia. He is an acclaimed storyteller and has been featured at the National Storytelling Festival, as well as universities and cultural centers across the United States. His recordings of world folklore and Jewish stories of Tikun Olam have won Parent Choice awards.
To check my availability and to learn more about how I can create a unique ceremony incorporating your stories, needs, and traditions, contact me to set up a no‑obligation consultation.
Reviews of The Heart of the Wedding
The Heart of Wedding reconnects the marriage ritual to our twenty-
first century lives. Gerald Fierst, celebrant, artist, poet, and
storyteller, fills chapter after chapter with examples of ceremonies
that show that weddings need not be Victorian relics, but can be
filled with a sense of fun and adventure, as well as common sense.
Acknowledging our multi-cultural nation where people of every race, faith, and heritage meet and marry, this book celebrates the new America, respecting tradition while finding a contemporary voice to say ”I do.“ Gerry brings to this book the same care, precision and artistry, I have seen him bring to all of his projects. By connecting life’s passages with a larger vision of humanity — past, present, and future — Gerry shows us a way to celebrate our families and ourselves.
Susan O’Halloran, author of Storybook Marriage, co producer of RaceBridges.net, Chicago, IL
Gerald Fierst is first and foremost a storyteller—a professional, master storyteller. He brings to this book a profound ability to recount actual examples of couples for whom he has helped shape personally appropriate ceremonies to make their marriage an event that they will never forget. He believes that ceremonies can both reflect who people are and, also, form a foundation for a creative and happily shared life together.
Rev. Martin Bailey, retired minister and journalist, West Orange, NJ
Gerald Fierst, as a storyteller and as the author of The Heart of the
Wedding, brings to mind this metaphor: “The righteous shall flourish like
the palm tree” (Psalm 92:14). The branches of a palm tree grow from its
heart, not like other trees. Like the palm, Gerald reaches out to his
listeners/readers from his heart so they hear the message of the story,
not only with their ears, but with their hearts.
Like the palm, Gerald is also very creative and imaginative. He has the vision and playful love of language that allow him to shape the preparations, the process and the ceremony of a wedding with new dimensions. This book truly illuminates the celebration of marriage through cross-cultural history, folktale, people stories, and ritual, all infused with practical advice and wisdom. It's a book for all seasons!
Peninnah Schram, Storyteller, Author, Professor of Speech & Drama, Stern College of Yeshiva University, New York, NY
Gerry Fierst has written an exciting, valuable book that addresses part of the
confusion we have over marriage. His journey with couples restores the beauty and transformational aspects of marriage ceremony. He plucked the marriage event from its ordinary place of being only public declaration and sharing of taxes and insurance to reveal the power of transformation that draws two people into a circle of love. Poets like Neruda, Tagore and Barrett Browning remind us of the legacy of love language we have as a world culture. Fierst's deep and meaningful work as a Storyteller and Actor/Director of Theatre combine with his growing wisdom to help couples find their unique story to symbolize the Marriage Day. They add their own spice and flavoring but still draw upon the best of time honored parts of the ritual. His cross cutural and cross-gender perspectives leave a bread crumb trail to show how marriage as a ceremony is meant to be inclusive, open to all. I love THE HEART OF THE WEDDING and would recommend it to anyone, but it would be a drink of cool water in the desert to someone contemplating "getting married."
Elaine Wynne, M.A., Licensed Psychologist and Storyteller
Contributor to "BETWIXT AND BETWEEN, Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation",
L. Mahdi, Ed., Open Court
The Heart of The Wedding is a fresh, fascinating look into the heart of
couples and their unique commitment ceremonies. Gerald Fierst is a
master storyteller and offers his very personal, timeless and touching tales of
love and devotion pertaining to the institution of marriage. It's a must
read for all couples who decide to tie the knot!
Wallter Newkirk, Author, memoraBEALEia: A Private Scrapbook About Edie Beale of Grey Gardens
Gerry Fierst has not written yet another “wedding” book. He
has drawn a new roadmap, drawn fresh routes to old oases, and opened
up vistas. In this in-depth, but very practical book, Gerry Fierst is forging new and honest territory in the landscape of love.
Dally Messenger, Civil Celebrant and Principal and Founder of the International College of Celebrancy, Melbourne, Australia
This book is a natural extension, if not a culmination, of the powerful work
that Gerry has already brought into the world as a storyteller and
celebrant. Creating rituals, as I recognize in my own work, is the deepest
way we can come into relationship with the ”Something bigger than
ourselves.“ It asks us to take our place in the larger story, to touch and
be touched by what has come before us, and to awaken to what our own
intentions are in carrying the story forward. I am grateful for Gerry’s
contribution in this area. As a psychotherapist, I will use this book as a
companion and guide when working with my own clients around creating rituals
that are relevant to their own healing and unfolding.
Anne-Marie Benjamin, MA, LPC, Portland, OR
A wise and fine book by a writer who understands that stories are a
connecting tissue which binds each relationship. Shared lovingly in these
ceremonies, story also binds the couple to their community.
Margaret Read MacDonald, Folklorist and Author, Seattle, WA
I've been married twice. Neither one in a church and both with scant
resources available on how to be both creative and meaningful. Maybe if
I'd had Gerald Fierst's thoughtful guide, one or the other might have
fared better than they did. As it is, if I ever want to pledge my heart
till death do us part; this will be mandatory reading for all parties.
Loren Niemi, Storyteller, Minneapolis, MN
Since the beginning of time stories have been told, enjoyed and used, and handed down from generation to generation. I first understood the art of storytelling after hearing and watching Gerald Fierst on stage making the personal into performance and still connecting with every member of the audience. I have been privileged to watch him officiate at two civil ceremonies which turned me from cynical to emotional without even knowing the families involved. Choice is one of today’s buzzwords, and this is as important for life-cycle events, for weddings should they be religious, civil, registry or none. The stories and information in this book connect the reader with the possibilities while entertaining and informing. I am privileged to be able to commend it highly.
Judith Trotter, Education Manager, Ivy House, London, UK
- The Zuni Native Americans believed that ceremonies not only celebrate, but also create life. It is important to get the ceremonies right, without stumbling, since they will exists forever in the universe. Gerry Fierst is an American Master of Ceremony in that great tradition. Read this book and you will know why.
Dr. Frank Hentschker
Director of Programs
Martin E. Segal Theatre Center
The Graduate School and University Center
The City University of New York
Sample Chapter from The Heart of the Wedding
Chapter Ten: Blasts – The Best Weddings
Nationally, the average wedding costs between $20,000 and $30,000. In metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the cost is far higher. I remember attending a wedding on Long Island that I am sure cost close to $250,000. Lavish flower arrangements decorated the ceremony. Expensive bouquets were provided for the eight bridesmaids. The bridal gown alone probably cost more than $5,000. The party started with a cocktail reception and buffet that could have served as dinner. The elegant dinner that followed included choices of appetizer, and main course, and dessert. A band and singers entertained with a dance leader and two dance assistants who relentlessly encouraged everyone to fill the dance floor. The noise was so loud, no one could have a conversation at their table. One was forced to join the party plan or be pounded by sound. Somewhere near dawn, a second set of tables was rolled into the party with more drinks, more desserts, and the option of omelets. At dawn, as we traveled home, we felt numbed by the conspicuous consumption. As we stopped at a traffic light, a beggar came over to our window and stood silently with his hand out. I reached into my wallet and pulled out a bill. How could I not give him something after what I had seen consumed that evening? Obviously, this is an extreme case of wedding mania. Obviously, taste and standards vary from person to person. Obviously, the choice is yours.
Simplicity and Imagination
I am not comfortable with spending in one night the equivalent of a new car (sometimes a very expensive new car) or the down payment on a home. Wedding parties have grown fatter and richer as America has experienced its past half century of prosperity. The wedding industry has connected weddings to extravagance and consumption and has created a perception that the wedding party is appropriately one of the major purchases of a couple‘s life. Ultimately, I believe simplicity and imagination make a stronger statement than pretense. Having seen the preparations for hundreds of weddings, I have come to realize that the commercial wedding industry sells the conventional style of the big wedding party as the dream and will encourage you to spend as much money as you can to capture this dream without really offering anything that reflects the romance, commitment, and individuality of the occasion. I go to dozens of weddings a year. I realize I am jaded, but carving boards, pasta stations, and chocolate fountains, no matter how tasty, are so redundant that I cynically wonder if they aren‘t left over from the last party. The wedding industry will tell you it offers the usual assortment of roasts, and fish, and chicken, and steak, to meet the popular taste and to offer economies to scale. In truth, I suspect the cost is reflective of what the market will bear. My message is Don‘t be afraid to think outside the box.
I make this argument knowing that many mothers will say I want this for my daughter, and many daughters will gladly concur in the romantic vision of the white wedding. I make this argument not to discourage the party, but to encourage consideration of the party as a continuation of the celebration of the ceremony. The point of it all is to share the moment. Your guests are there because they love you. They will fill the simplest celebration with joy. Make yourself available to enjoy the day. Hire an executive assistant, a good wedding planner who will follow your orders. Look for small touches which will make your party distinctive, but don‘t be afraid to think smaller.. Remember, there are no wedding police. Everyone needs to choose their own priorities, and the celebration of a marriage can be made as exciting and festive by an investment of imagination as with an infusion of cash. I understand that the image of the white wedding, the desire to have a traditional ceremony, is strong. I am not urging you to desert what you think makes you and your guests comfortable; but even if you want the conventional white wedding and dinner dance, there are still ways to make your wedding distinctive and to break away from the formulas which caterers and wedding planners will tell you are the only choices. I don‘t admire odd ball weddings. What I do admire is a beautiful wedding with distinctive touches that make everything seem personal. Like a monogram, a few well placed accents change an off the shelf style into a custom tailored choice.
How then to create a party that celebrates who you are?
Play With Traditions
I think the party and the ceremony should both tell a story. Just as a ceremony celebrates a new couple within a community of family and friends and neighbors, so the reason to have a reception and party is to include people. I see that impulse in the eating, drinking, music, and dancing that is a world wide accompaniment to a wedding. Of course, exuberance comes from joy for the new couple. At some point during the party, most of us will want to have some formal time for the first dance, toasts, speeches, and a cake cutting. These forms of praise are akin to magic spells. Like the breaking of glasses against the wall, much of the noise and laughter of a wedding party was calculated to scare off evil spirits. Why not play with the traditions? For instance, the wedding cake comes from a tradition of fertility. In ancient times, a cake or loaf of bread (the staff of life) was broken over the bride‘s head to ensure fertility. In renaissance times, refined sugar was a rare commodity. White sugar icing was put on the cake as a sign of affluence and prosperity. In Victorian times, the tiered cake became popular along with baking techniques to support the weight of multiple tiers. Thus evolved the wedding cake which now can cost several hundred dollars and which is usually inedible. Keep the wedding cake; change the recipe. I have always appreciated the surprise of cupcake and cream puff cakes, carrot and spice cakes, and homemade cakes which offer a reminiscence of the days when weddings really happened in the front parlor. Even an elegant cake from a high end baker need not be a tower. One of the prettiest cakes I‘ve seen was a simple two layer circle with a bouquet arrangement in its center. This couple used a sheath of wheat bound with ribbons recalling the origins of the cake tradition. Tradition evolves from symbolism, superstition, and prestige. With understanding of its origins, however, tradition can continue to evolve to reflect modern attitudes and realities.
Set the Scene
My favorite weddings have beautiful locations. Certainly many catering halls offer gardens I don‘t favor garden weddings unless one can control the weather. If you want a garden wedding, plan on spring and autumn when the weather tends to be temperate. Check the location at the same time of day you plan to have the ceremony. Is it in full sun or well shaded? Be sure to have fans and water for everyone. I remember one particularly gruesome August event held in a garden modeled after Versailles. The rehearsal day brought 105 degree heat. The caterer suggested we rehearse indoors, but the bride fearing that an indoor rehearsal would lead to an indoor ceremony on the next day (and she was probably right) insisted we troop out to the pergola to practice. We successfully completed our work, and, as we stood in the heat, one of the bridesmaids keeled over. The EMS had to be called. Luckily, a bottle of Gatorade cured her heat prostration, and all was well. . . until the next day when the cold front arrived and violent thunderstorms struck. We ended up indoors. Disappointing, - a little; but the ceremony was lovely because the words had been individualized.
The garden goes back to the story of Eden. At a wedding, the couple is, in a sense, the first man and the first woman. The ritual of a ceremony should make us stop and look at the wonder that life is always renewing, and humanity is always starting again. A garden is more than flowers The rich tradition of the green man is found worldwide and includes in its fertility images fruits and vegetables of many kinds. Vines, grasses and leaves as well flowers can be used to create a decorative story of the life force which is celebrated at a wedding If you are making a garden wedding, consider how the setting can be used as more than a backdrop. Have the guests bring a flower forward to create a backdrop of blossoms for the ceremony by placing the bloom in a container that sits at the rear of the ceremonial space. Have seed packets or small container plants as favors so that the guests can go home and plant their own gardens.
The Japanese say that a perfect garden has all the elements of the world- earth, sky, air, and water. Not all gardens are equal. If you want a garden wedding look for a location that is more than out of doors. Do you have a local historic house that is available for parties? Is there a botanical garden or park which provides facilities for a party? These gardens often have fuller perennial plantings and century old trees. In the New York City area, the Hudson valley provides a spectacular assortment of outdoor sites with views of the river. The ultimate garden wedding is framed by trees and flowers with a sublime view of water and hills as a backdrop. This can be pricey, but look around your area. A little exploration and imagination can pay off. One of the most elegant weddings I ever attended was at a small Italian restaurant with a large patio overlooking a pond. Lovely tablecloths, candles and white roses transformed the mom and pop place into a trattoria. Floating candles were launched just before the ceremony which was timed with sun set. As the evening approached, the flickering flames played with the golden light, creating a memorable setting for the launching of a new marriage.
Your Own Backyard
Even a suburban backyard can be turned into a spectacular setting for a wedding. One of my friends transformed his prosaic yard by completely tenting it over with a clear plastic roof. Colored spot lights were hung in the trees which brushed against the tent top and white fairy lights were braided around tent poles and entrances. As evening came, the effect made the guests feel as if we were in a magical tree house. Some of my couples have also cherished the significance of having guests come to their new home for their wedding. Returning to the tradition of the parlor wedding, they made home and family the theme of the party. They have changed their backyards by investing it with high spirits: long tables with checkered table clothes and a country band and a caller; rag time music and kazoos for joining in; strolling musicians playing ethnic and old time favorites.
An outdoor wedding when the weather cooperates is an invitation to enjoy more than a ceremony in the sun. Ask yourself what the setting symbolizes for your life together.
Where else can you find the four elements of a garden? Sometimes not in a garden at all. An acquaintance in Sydney, Australia, performs ceremonies in a helicopter over the harbor. Air, earth, sky and water. I think of this as a stunt wedding, but a setting that is extreme for me, is spectacular to someone else. I am always moved by the extraordinary views of the Statue of Liberty and New York harbor which have been the back drop to some of my weddings. One of my favorite couples was married at a lovely restaurant in New York‘s Battery Park The flowers and food were opulent, but. I was moved by the view of Miss Liberty and Ellis Island, and the story they told of great grandparents who had landed here a hundred years before and whose descendants now enjoyed such luxury.
A Bower of Ribbons
Sometimes an industrial space holds an unappreciated treasure. One couple whose parents came from China and South America used a factory loft for their wedding. The loft‘s windows stretched 180 degrees around three sides of the massive, empty space. One could look from the George Washington Bridge at one end of Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty at the other end of the harbor. Rather than clutter the space with chairs, low banquettes provided seating islands for the ceremony and the ensuing reception. With a path of rose petals winding through the room, we felt like we were in a garden with a view that stretched to the horizon. A bower of red ribbons echoed the color of the flowers scattered across the room and defined the ceremonial space. Red ribbons were then used during the ceremony as guests from all over the world presented them to the couple as a symbol of binding the couple together. Below and around us, the lights of New York with their excitement and glamour made their own testimony to the international story of this couple‘s love and became a sparkling fairy garden as evening arrived.
A Country Feast
I am happy to say, I even follow my own advice. The adage is that the shoemaker‘s children have no shoes, but when the time came for my own son‘s wedding, he and his wife chose a nineteenth century factory building that had been turned into a museum of technology and industry. A small, rural museum, the rental was minimal. The ceremony was set beside a waterfall and creek in the meadow behind the museum. The New England charm of the mill run and of the surrounding woods appealed to them. The bride and groom wanted to emerge from the forest (echoes of the green man tradition). The groomsmen held a canopy over the couple‘s head and the guests stood in the forest clearing except for those who needed chairs because of age or disability. When the party moved inside, the museum building provided drama with tall ceilings and large open rooms, as well as wonderful glass cabinets filled with tools and gears. Who would have thought that machinery is beautiful, but the antique gears and wheels on display were like a gallery of folkart.
We decided to follow the style of the space by creating the ultimate country picnic. We provided an elegant country feast with artisanal bread and cheese as well as charcuterie and pate. We invited family and friends to bake a speciality cookie for desert, supplemented by heirloom pies. We decorated white cardboard picnic boxes with stamped designs and gave them to the guests as favors; everyone filled the boxes with leftovers and took home some of the sweetness of the day. We created that wedding on a very modest budget. Many government and non profits organizations try to make income from renting their space. Often an alternative space can be had for the cost of covering the insurance. My sister in law rented a park pavilion from the State of New York. A friend used a boat house in a local New Jersey park. One of my couple client‘s used the amphitheater of their local high school, and colleges often have hidden landscape and architectural treasures on their campuses.
For those with the means, art museums often open their galleries to parties. One of my couples made their vows in a classical courtyard of columns and fountains. The party was in the great hall of the museum mansion and the centerpieces were reproductions of Greek vases and statuary. Old department stores often have similar settings as they were designed as temples of commerce, and some of the most delightful and colorful spaces I have seen are in children‘s museums and sculpture gardens. Perhaps the most spectacular example of the later is in Seattle where the new downtown sculpture walk combines views of the Puget Sound with monumental, outdoor sculpture by leading twentieth century artists.
Setting a wedding in the midst of art tells the story of new perspectives and wonderful transformations. A wedding is a celebration of creativity and hope and setting the celebration in a space filled with objects that transmit these emotions is a powerful accent to the story of a marriage. Some of my clients have used art even more powerfully by commissioning a piece of art or a performance for their wedding. We think of such gestures as the province of the rich and powerful, but a modest budget can often hire a wonderful musician or dancer from the local college to create a command performance. I have been delighted at a wedding with processional and recessional fanfares created by local brass players. I vividly remember a dance company from a local school making a wedding night special with a performance of tango. I have used remarkable singers who are studying opera to sing for a ceremony and, then, to do a tribute performance during dinner. There are so many talented people in our communities who are delighted to have their work valued; if you truly want to be a king and a queen for a day, create a command performance.
Stretch Your Imagination: Programs and Menus
Imagination is a muscle. The more you exercise, the more ideas will come. The emotion and excitement of a wedding often feels overwhelming, but start small, and start early, and ideas will come. Small considerations make big statements. Consider details like your program. On warm summer evenings, I often see guests using their program to cool themselves. If you are outside, consider printing the program on a fan. Your guest will both read it and keep it. One of the most beautiful programs I have seen was printed as a book with different colored pages. It included the evening‘s schedule, the order of the ceremony and the text of the readings, the menu for the reception and dinner, the list of the wedding party and a thank you to all the guests for attending. The piece was so pretty, it became a keepsake on its own. The bride designed it and took it to Staples to be collated. Computers and printer technology give everyone the access to individual choices. Even if you can‘t realize the final piece, create a prototype and bring it to a print store. People are often so happy to have a special project that they will go out of their way to help you realize the final product.
Wedding menus seem to have nothing but the usual beef, chicken and fish as alternatives. When planning your menu, look in food magazines for ideas that can enhance the conventional main course. Why not make substitutions like a pear walnut salad with gorgonzola instead of a tossed salad; or polenta instead of potatoes. Look at regional and ethnic specialties to make a menu fun. A variation from the usual string beans and potatoes can make a plain plate special. Consider chinese dumplings, arrapas and tamales, middle eastern meat and spinach pies. If you are working with a caterer, look at what they offer as an appetizer and consider if something might become a main course. Short ribs and fried chicken can be a lot more satisfying than roast beef and salmon.
I am very much a foodie and love to have surprises. If you aren‘t locked into the necessity of a catering hall, think of the home cooking that regional and ethnic traditions can supply at local restaurants. You will get incredible enthusiasm when you say you are considering having their food at your wedding. I enjoyed the backyard wedding where a local Indian restaurant set up a dosa grill supplying pancakes and spices. My friends from Australia invited us all to celebrate their wedding with an elegant Chinese banquet. My niece and nephew used a friend‘s Japanese restaurant for their wedding, getting the benefit of both the lovely garden and the top quality sushi and sashimi. I have enjoyed beach weddings without shoes where dinner was a clam bake. One of my client couples used their international travels as a theme for their wedding, serving wonderful treats from Egypt and Persia and Turkey. My friend in the Smokey Mountains had pulled pork and square dancing. I believe a banquet feast can be made from really good hand made sausage or fried chicken, fresh baked rolls, and salads. Be true to yourself and recognize that the occasion is about love, and the wedding feast prepared with love will far outshine a standardized meal whose ingredients came from a restaurant supply company.
Speak up for Yourself
The natural impulse is to let an authority take charge. Everyone with whom you deal (including me) will consider themselves an authority. Truthfully, we all have favorites, and we all have agendas. Remember, your once in a lifetime is a routine to the merchants and service providers who are servicing your ceremony and party. They will suggest solutions that will avoid problems, ease their job, and profit their bottom line. They are experienced, but don‘t be afraid to exercise your imaginations. Within their well polished formulas, there is room to add details that will make your ceremony and party unique.
Consider table settings and decoration. I once performed a ceremony in a nineteenth century college dining hall that had a large pipe organ at one end and large paned windows running down one side. The space was unique, but a bit overpowering, and potentially institutional. The bride had sheer golden slip covers placed on the plane straight back chairs and turned them into little thrones. The ivory table clothes were overlayed with a gossamer bolt of golden voile. The dishes were a deep red clay color, and the center pieces were red and cream roses surrounded with small votive candles. The theatricality of the colors transformed the space into a royal castle Most of us are afraid of color, but the rich tones of a tablecloth can increase the impact of your table setting and make a common room special. You will need to rent table clothes. As long as you are spending the money, use them to effect.
A unique centerpiece also helps to create a well laid table. Flowers belong at weddings, but I have often wondered at the expense of flowers. I am delighted by beautiful bouquets, but there are many ways to use flowers lavishly without spending a fortune. Sometimes less is more. Think Japanese. Instead of making a great display of blossoms highlight one or two beautiful flowers floating in a bowl of water and colored stones, or place a stem of orchids or a charming gerber daisey across each place setting or as a flower chain in the center of the table. Avoid tall arrangements. It is better to see who is sitting across the table. Think low and colorful. Go to your local garden store and get pots of annuals, impatiens, mums, and daisies to cluster at the center of your table. One of the most striking table settings I ever saw had votive candles bunched into the center as a sparking highlight and a white and purple stem orchid in a bud vase at each place setting as a favor. Everyone got to take home flowers. Think alternatively, and use design to make a statement. I have seen grasses and branches, stones and shells, used to create a centerpiece. One of my favorite weddings had golden tablecloths with orange pumpkins and autumn leaves as decoration. Perhaps the most theatrical centerpiece I ever saw was at a Russian nightclub in Brooklyn. I don‘t have the technical explanation of how it was done, but as I pronounced the couple husband and wife, the centerpieces exploded in fireworks.
Flowers and Decorations
Finding a good florist is a job. The average cost of flowers at a wedding is $1,500. They are selling you flowers. You want to consider effect. Even for the ceremony, I believe that less is more. Instead of huge bouquets framing the bride and groom (they only get in the way of the wedding party), my favorite use of flowers is to make an aisle of flower petals. I dislike the paper rolls recommended by some florists foist for brides who wish to walk on a white carpet. They usually wrinkle and, often, catch people‘s heels. Instead, make a thick line of rose petals with a small bouquet of roses placed strategically along the path of the bridal party. The flower girl can sprinkle more petals for the bride to walk upon if you so choose. Place a bouquet of several dozen roses up front to frame the ceremony and the mass of flowers will make a beautiful effect. Often, you can get a better price if you buy a large quantity of the same flower. Masses of the same blossom will give you a feeling of opulence.
Also consider using swags of cloth to frame your ceremony. I have seen Indian saris and sheer curtains from the thrift store transformed into pillars of gold and silver when woven and draped on a simple trellis. The Jews have a tradition of standing under a prayer shawl when they marry. Enclose blank sheets of colored papers with your invitation and ask your guests to send back a wish for the new couple. Then staple these wishes to a large square of cloth and use the colorful patchwork as a bower of blessings under which to say your vows. You can hang it as a tent or have four groomsmen hold the bower above the heads of the bride and groom as would be done at a Jewish wedding.
With the tool of the internet, you can find wonderful items to use for decoration. I have seen couples use lanterns, mylar streamers, and strings of lights for their wedding bower. I have even seen projections used so that virtual images decorated a screen behind the ceremony. If you have photoshop, you can create a montage of family pictures and project it as your backdrop. Make an evocative light show, using colors and images to tell your story much as a theater director uses lighting and sound design to heighten the emotion of his production. Ritual is the origin of theater. Don‘t be afraid to brainstorm and think theatrically. Use images to tell your story. One of my couples had a wonderful story of coming home to rebuild a house together. At the end of their ceremony they released a flight of doves, bearing our wishes and cheers up into the sky and down the road back home. (It happened that the roost to which the doves returned was just down the road from the couple‘s home. A nice coincidence, but symbols don‘t have to be literal.) Another couple told a love story of renewal and discovery by releasing butterflies at the end of their ceremony in a magical moment of innocence and hope.
Integrate Music Into the Ceremony
Music belongs at a wedding and is a strong part of the design. The DJ usually considers the ceremony an afterthought, but when I officiated at a Latino ( I mention this not because it is a common cultural phenomenon, but because the music offered was Latin) wedding five years ago, the DJ had read the ceremony which I had written and had prepared music to play under each section. I felt like I was in a film with a soundtrack, the music augmenting my words and images. My experience as a performer served me well, and this DJ was an excellent sound designer. Not every officiant would be able to incorporate an element like music into their ceremony, but that experience taught me the power of having music throughout a ceremony. So when a couple asked me to create a ceremony for them using the cabaret piano in their space, I eagerly found song lyrics that would serve as readings. We talked the words, but the music ran underneath. Instead of Bach and Mendelsohn, we had Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. It was more meaningful because the couple met to the sound of these songs. Instead of the traditional wedding march, consider drums, kelzmer sounds, jazz. Find the music that reflects who you are and weave it into your ceremony.
Don‘t forget, if you have the chance, use acoustic instruments. I believe the sound of music being made without amplification carries far more emotion than electronically amplified sound. I love the sound of a classical guitar or a harp announcing the bride. When a string quartet plays the Beatles, the music is lyrical and romantic. I performed a ceremony at a country inn with a banjo player strumming as the guests arrived. He then led them into the ceremony where he changed insruments and played the mandolin for the processional and recessional themes. Bagpipes are another traditional accompaniment to weddings. A couple I will marry plan to arrive at their beach wedding with a bagpiper greeting them at the dock and leading them to their guests. I have been moved and delighted by the sound of horns, and I don‘t think there is anything so wonderful as a good singer a capella. Local colleges have faculty and students who provide a rich resource for acoustic musicians.
Appreciate the Small Gesture
Finally, a wedding should have a quality of sublimity- a moment when the ordinary becomes extraordinary and when emotion makes us see our place in a far greater pattern. Edmund Burke, the great English critic, wrote an essay on the sublime. He wrote of the juxtaposition of images which contrast the great power of history and nature with the ephemeral moment of the individual. He wrote of the emotions which produce awe, the recognition of the finite within the striving to discover the infinite. The memorable moment of a wedding is this personal statement of who you are and why you have asked your guests to come. This moment becomes sublime because we all carry within us the memory of the collective, the great common repetition of the life passages which connect humanity across time and culture. The celebration of a wedding is one of the moments when we pause and recognize the sublime. You ceremony should reflect that sensibility.
I think one of the elements that are most often left out of the celebration is a moment of silent recognition. I have written in this chapter of all the sensory stimuli which produce pleasure. As you plan your ceremony, also appreciate quiet gestures. At the opening of the ceremony, take a moment and hold hands, and when the party ends, consider a final dance of the bride and groom. The custom of giving guests a small wedding favor is an acknowledgement that they are valued as a part of the wedding couple‘s community. I was very impressed when I saw a bride write a note to each of her guests to enclose with the favors. Most favors are ultimately superfluous, but the quiet expression of sentiment was a true treasure and a great gift.
Seventy yeas ago most people would have had their wedding in the front parlor. Times change, but the impulse to invite your guests into your life should remain. In the last decade, some couples have started to organize destination weddings. A few intimate guests are invited to come away to a beautiful location for several days to witness and be a part of the new couple‘s wedding transformation. “Stay with us; be with us”. is the message. Although not everyone is lucky enough to have the option of going to an exotic beach to be married, the image is appropriate. Your party should be a retreat from everyday time to magical time. Time is stopped by sentiment, that moment of aha! when we all breathe together in recognition of the universality of our need to be a family. Ultimately, a great party must start with a great ceremony. Find an officiant who will tell your story, who will use his/her knowledge of ritual structure to include your family and friends with heart filled images and words, and who will send you home to begin the rest of your life with the full sense of the threshold you have just crossed together. Don‘t dismiss the ceremony as a prelude to the party.
Your wedding is a moment of becoming one, a piece of alchemy in which the common event of another marriage becomes the gold of your marriage. Find someone whose words catch the magic that starts the night. Ultimately, a wedding night is a celebration of the power of words. Make them all that they should be. Nothing can go wrong at a wedding as long as the words are true. Laugh, cry, remember those who are gone and look to the future with words that belong to you.
I offer you all of these suggestions, but, ultimately, no one should tell you what is right for you. Listen, take what suits, and do what expresses who you are. There are no wedding police. This is your moment.