Using Symbolic Gestures in Humanist Weddings

One of the most creative and rewarding aspects of crafting and delivering a humanist ceremony, for me as a celebrant, is the symbolic gesture. It’s a wonderful opportunity to make the ceremony completely personal and meaningful for the couple. It can provide a starting structure for the entire ceremony and often guides me in setting the tone of the ceremony as I set out to create something unique.

A symbolic gesture can be used to bring all the guests together and make them part of the couple’s day, which for many people is a very positive step in making their wedding that bit more personal.

It is also often one of the most exciting photographic opportunities during the ceremony – and remember that the photographs are the memories that the couple will look back on in time.

Here is a selection of my favourites….

So What Is A Symbolic Gesture?

A symbolic gesture is a ritual which expresses the meaning and importance of the couple’s wedding, and will usually incorporate something significant or personal to them. It can be traditional, newly created, solemn, fun, quirky – it can be absolutely anything that the couple likes. When we meet with couples to plan their ceremony we always ask if they would like to have a symbolic gesture as part of their wedding. Some people, however, are wary of having a symbolic gesture and just want a very simple ceremony – and that’s fine, it’s their wedding after all. But I think that some of that wariness is because people don’t realise the possibilities and are understandably a little nervous. It’s part of my job as a celebrant to explain the potentials and to give people ideas.

Many people vaguely remember something about ‘tying ribbons round your hands, what’s that called?’, but that’s about as far as it goes. (It’s called handfasting and is an ancient Celtic marriage ritual which dates back to 7,000 BC. Creating a figure of eight with ribbons or cords is a symbol of infinity and means that your marriage will last forever. Handfasting is also where the expression ‘tying the knot’ comes from, so now you know.)

Handfasting is a lovely tradition, and with a little thought you can make it really personal to the couple.

A Scottish couple can use ribbons in their own tartans. For the wedding of a Spaniard to a Scottish bride, we plaited ribbons in the colours of their countries’ flags.

  • How about making the ribbons from the bride’s mum’s wedding dress, or the dress she wore when they first met / got engaged?
  • Crocheted ribbons made by the 5-year old daughter, perhaps?
  • How about inviting two key guests, (perhaps the grannies, or the mums – or even the children from a previous marriage), to place the ribbons and making them part of the couple’s ceremony?

The possibilities are endless.

What if the thought of handfasting doesn’t appeal to the couple? Then it’s an exciting challenge to find something that does appeal, that really speaks to them and of them.

There’s an old African/American custom called Jumping The Broom, which symbolises sweeping away past lives as the couple start their new life together. One for the more active couple, and preferably not if the bride is wearing fabulous high heels.

Or the couple might release butterflies, doves or balloons – again, the symbolism is to see past lives disappear and make room for the new. Chinese lanterns floating away with the couple’s troubles into the night sky make a spectacular gesture for an evening or nighttime wedding. And don’t forget that photography is so important at weddings – the symbolic gesture will often make the most fantastic photograph that the couple will cherish for many years to come. Just imagine those Chinese lanterns glowing as they fade away into the Scottish night sky…

The lighting of candles is a popular gesture, with the bride and groom each lighting a candle to symbolise their own self, and both lighting a third to symbolise their union, as two become one. Take it further if you like – the couple may like to make their own candles, with colours or scented oils that have a special meaning for them.

Scotland’s rich history has given us the tradition of the quaich, another very popular gesture. The quaich is a ‘loving cup’, and the bride and groom each drink from it to toast the other. Both hands are used, so that neither of the couple can reach for their sword and hurt the other – hence the term ‘loving cup’. Traditionally a tot of whisky would be used, but the happy couple can toast each other in anything from Irnbru to vintage champagne.

But my personal favourite gestures are those with flowers and trees – part of humanism is respecting and being part of our environment after all, so let’s invite nature to the wedding. Flowers and trees both have their own languages. We all know that roses are red and violets are blue, and flowers mean I love you, but you can spell out the whole marriage in the language of flowers if you want to.

At a small wedding, each guest can be asked to bring a particular flower that symbolises trust, or loyalty, or beauty, and so on. Then you can create a gorgeous wedding bouquet that all the family and friends have helped to make. How about lavender for devotion, or myrtle for good luck in marriage. Daffodils at a spring wedding symbolise new beginnings. Pansies with their sweet faces symbolise thoughtfulness, and red salvias mean ‘forever mine’. Irises show respect, sunflowers are for loyalty, and white lilies are for purity. However, research your flowers carefully – different colours (for instance with roses and lilies) mean different things and not all of them are good!

Trees have their own language too, if the wedding is to be in a venue suitable for planting a marriage tree. Did you know that the beautiful wisteria symbolises romance? A birch tree represents a new beginning, an oak tree is for strength and courage, a Japanese maple is for great blessings – and the list goes on. One of my favourite wedding readings is by the poet Khalil Gibran, about the strength of the oak tree being a perfect marriage with the support of the cypress tree. You could plant these as your gesture to complement that beautiful reading – lovely for a couple who feel strongly about nature and the environment.

I was thrilled to create something a little different for my daughter’s wedding. Marrying a chef, their relationship is full of the joys of good food and cooking and eating together. So we developed a spice gesture. Yes, spices have their own language, as well as flowers and trees. Star anise is in fact the symbolic spice for ‘Joining the attributes of both individuals in the bonds of marriage’, which is fairly precise. Basil means serious intentions, while cinnamon is for stability, fennel is for strength, coriander is for health, rosemary for fidelity, nutmeg for sensuality … We asked key guests to bring a chosen spice, and when the time came, each came forward and put their spice in a beautiful jar, saying what it meant and what they wished for the couple as they did so. Shades of Sleeping Beauty’s good fairies, I know. That was a fabulous smelling wedding, and they will have their wedding spice jar for many years to remind them of their day.

Don’t Stop There

This is such a lovely opportunity to create something unique. Think about the couple. Are they nature lover, do they love the elements, or does the thought of using an old tradition like handfasting or a quaich make them happy? Do they want a gesture that all the family can join in with, such as ring warming, or perhaps something a little quirky and different, something that really shows who the couple are? Joining the laces of their hiking boots as they get married on the top of a Munro (although obviously not if they’re wearing them!).

Putting some creative thought and energy into making a symbolic gesture the perfect fit for a couple can be so rewarding, and lead to a special wedding day that is even more personal, enjoyable and memorable for years to come.

Lucy Haden
Lucy Haden

Humanist Celebrant

Feature Photo Credit: Duke Studios