To help you design your ceremony, we've called in the professionals: David Beahm, an event designer based in New York City; the Rev. Judith Johnson, author of "The Wedding Ceremony Planner" (Sourcebooks, Inc., 2005); and the Rev. Jeddah Vailakis, an interfaith minister in New York. With their guidance, you'll have all your ceremony bases covered -- from writing your vows to choosing your readings to mixing in cultural and religious traditions.
Before you get started, sit down with your fiance -- and, if their input is important to you, your families -- to determine what type of wedding ceremony you'd like to have. Will it celebrate one religion, two religions, or be nondenominational? Will you bring your respective cultures into the mix? Once you make those important decisions, the fun part begins as you determine how best to incorporate your and your fiance's unique personalities. "The goal is to make it your own, so think of it as an opportunity to get creative," says Vailakis.
Ultimately, though, "your service should get to the heart of what marriage is all about: two people who are vowing to spend the rest of their lives together in love," says Johnson.
Your Ceremony, Your Way
Supplement the standard order of events with creative touches that represent you as a couple.
Make an Entrance
A recent YouTube sensation may inspire couples to dance down the aisle, but there are other ways to make the processional your own. Beahm attended a wedding where the bride's and groom's guests met at opposite corners of a park, then walked to meet in the middle. Work with your officiant to choreograph an entrance that works for you and your venue.
Change the Seating
Consider the various configurations in which you can seat guests. For an alternative to traditional seating that separates the bride's side from the groom's side, arrange chairs in the round or in small groupings. Or, for a very intimate wedding, ask guests to join hands and surround you in a circle as you exchange vows.
Tell Your Tale
Ask your officiant to incorporate a chapter from your love story into his or her address. "It will help guests who may not be privy to the details of your courtship feel more connected to you," says Vailakis. Share the sweet story of how you met, when you got engaged, or how you chose your wedding venue. Or print a special quote or song lyric on your program.
Whether it's a beloved poem or a passage from your favorite book, your readings should truly celebrate who you are. "Only include them if the literature is meaningful and speaks to your heart," Beahm says. Otherwise, it could feel like space filler. Should you opt to include one (or two), consider printing the text in the program so guests can follow along.
If you will incorporate a cultural or religious tradition such as breaking a glass or jumping a broom, you may want to explain it in your program. Without background information, guests who aren't aware of the cultural implications may not fully appreciate the meaning.
Include Your Guests
By inviting your loved ones to participate in your big day, you will establish a sense of community among your guests. In turn, you'll feel that they are supportive of your promises to one another. "The most special ceremonies are those that incorporate everyone in attendance, not just the bride and groom," Beahm says. As you exchange vows, Johnson suggests inviting those present to recommit to their own vows and the relationships in their lives.
Remember Loved Ones
There are many ways to acknowledge the beloved people in your lives who have passed away, including lighting a candle or ringing a bell in their honor during the ceremony. To ensure that your guests understand the significance, ask your officiant to say a few words about the deceased. If you worry about being overcome with emotion, consider taking a quieter approach by simply writing a few words of remembrance in your program.
Channel Your Inner Shakespeare
Writing your own vows may seem daunting, but it's easier than you'd think. Let us count the ways:
1. Begin separately. Schedule some alone time to write your vows on your own before sharing them with each other. Doing this exercise individually will help each of you reflect without the other's influence, making the result more interesting and personal.
2. Ask yourself questions. "The first step is to excavate your own heart," Johnson says. She recommends sitting quietly with a blank sheet of paper and asking yourself questions such as, "Why have I chosen this person to be my partner? What do I love most about him or her?" Take time to really think about the answers, and translate them into a vow.
3. Look for inspiration. Once you have gathered your own thoughts, scour books, poems, and examples of other wedding vows to find the right words that succinctly express what you want to say. Feel free to mix old with new and classic with modern, and incorporate elements of traditional vows into your own.
4. Write a love letter. To get your feelings flowing, pen your thoughts in a private note to your fiance that only the two of you will read. At this stage, don't worry about keeping it short or making it perfect. "Write as if you're the only ones sharing it," Vailakis says.
5. Make promises. "Focus on what marriage means to you. What are you saying yes to, and what can you promise your partner?" Vailakis says. Reflect on the good times, but consider all of the stumbling blocks in your relationship too. For example, if you're working too much and not making time for each other, you may want to think about what you can pledge to avoid falling into that trap again.
6. Exchange letters. Make a date to sit down together to share your notes and read each other's thoughts. Afterward, rather than throwing these first-draft letters away, file them as keepsakes to read on anniversaries.
7. Play editor. Decide which parts you would like to read aloud, and what aspects of traditional vows you plan on including. Remember to keep the vows as short and as simple as possible -- a paragraph or two at most.
8. Practice. Johnson recommends writing your vows on index cards so you don't have to worry about memorizing them. Make sure to give a copy to your officiant as a backup, and rehearse them with flash cards prior to the wedding day. That way you'll know when to breathe, and you'll be prepared for the parts that may make you tear up.
Personalize Your Commitment
Consider a ritual -- it's a powerful way to express your love, and the perfect complement to your vows.
In this Judeo-Christian tradition, the bride and groom each use a lit candle to light a larger third candle that represents their union. This can also be performed by the bride and groom's parents to symbolize two families coming together. Or, to involve guests, design a display where they may light a candle and say a blessing as they enter the ceremony. As more friends and family arrive, the space will become brighter with the glow of candlelight.
Blessing of Rings
Before the couple exchanges rings, the wedding bands are passed among the guests (or, in larger weddings, just the first two rows) so friends and family can share their well-wishes for your marriage. Consider tying the rings to a pretty string of ribbon, or attaching them to a pillow. Once they've made their way around the room, the rings are then returned to the altar, with the love and support from your nearest and dearest symbolically attached.
This ancient Celtic ceremony has many modern incarnations. Prior to saying their vows, the couple joins hands, making a figure eight to represent eternity (right hand to right hand, left hand to left hand). Their crossed hands are then tied together with ribbon to represent two individuals coming together. For a more personal touch, consider using a piece of heirloom fabric in lieu of ribbon.
During this purifying ritual, the bride and groom stack their open palms together while the officiant pours a pitcher of water over their hands. The ritual symbolizes the release of any past emotional blocks, so both parties can enter the marriage with open hearts. This cleansing ceremony works especially well in outdoor weddings where messiness is not a concern. Indoors, couples can hold their hands over a bowl or share a goblet of water to symbolize the purity of love.
This spin on a Quaker tradition is ideal for a smaller wedding. Guests are invited to form a circle together with the bride and groom, and are asked to share their thoughts on the couple (you may want to ask one or two guests to prepare their thoughts ahead of time, in order to break the ice). Not only is this a great way for guests to get to know one another, but it gives the bride and groom a few moments to enjoy the presence of their loved ones.
Planting a tree that commemorates the anniversary of your wedding and grows with your marriage is a thoughtful touch for ceremonies that take place at a family home. The tree should be almost completely planted prior to the ceremony, with soil reserved in two small containers. During the ceremony, the bride and groom should place soil from the two containers on top of the planting, representing two individuals coming together as one.