Although Humanist celebrants can’t conduct legal ceremonies in England (yet! Hopefully that will change soon – they can in Scotland) they can conduct meaningful, personal ceremonies full of symbolism and sparkle that will make your wedding go down in living legend. As well as conducting the ceremony itself, they can help you write it from start to finish, including your vows! I spoke to two of my favourites, wandering minstrel celebrant Zena Birch and London-loving wedding celebrant Katie Matthews, to find out more about the process of working with a celebrant to write your ceremony.
What does a celebrant do?
“A celebrant works with a couple to design and conduct a wedding ceremony that is totally personal to them.” Katie the Celebrant explains. “We get to know our couples as individuals. We find out what makes them work as a team and why marriage is an important next step for their future together. We ask all the nosy questions, basically. We DIG DEEP and, after we’ve pumped our couples dry, we spin all that gold into one hell’a ceremony that kicks their big day of celebrations off in style!”
Zena Birch continues, “A humanist celebrant has one of the best jobs in the world! After working closely with couples to find out what what their hopes and dreams are for the memories they will share with everyone on the day, we then work our magic. Our job is to find a way of expressing that in a perfectly personalised ceremony script which should in turn be full of love, laughter, tears and riotous applause. The process of working with a couple in the run up to their ceremony is often just as much fun and rewarding as the day itself.”
When should you source a celebrant for your wedding?
Katie suggests booking your celebrant about 18 months before the big day. “I start working with couples from about six months before their big day, but I usually get booked roughly 18 months before the date – in other words, it’s never too early! You’ll hear this everywhere but if you’ve got specific vendors, including celebrants, in mind then book ‘em quick cos the good ones get snapped up!”
Zena explains why they’re so important: “Just like venues, the demand for celebrants is increasing now that couples are starting to realise that they don’t just have to have a standard registry ceremony, but can make the ceremony itself just as reflective of their hopes and intentions, their voice and personality – as the rest of their day. So I would highly recommend finding the right celebrant for you and discussing all availability as soon as you possibly can, so that you can book your venue safe in the knowledge that you will be also able to book the celebrant you want.”
“I would say that sourcing your celebrant should be in the big three of your first decisions….Venue, Celebrant and Photographer (But I may be biased!) Not only that, but the work you will do with your celebrant is so helpful and informing to all the other things you might need/want on the day, we can be invaluable at helping you to clarify what is important and the overall feeling of a couple’s vision for their wedding day. It’s interesting, over the 8 years I have been working as a humanist celebrant I have witnessed that when you get the ceremony right, all guests suddenly have a deeper understanding of precisely why they are there, the meaning is clear. Instead of just having to endure the ceremony to get to the rest of the celebrations when you get the ceremony right it naturally becomes the reason for everything else, the feasting, the dancing, the celebration! Everyone should be enjoying the ceremony so much they don’t want it to end, but when it does – the rest of the day is like catching the perfect wave – stories and memories continue to be shared whilst making new ones, speeches make sense, because everyone is up to speed, the euphoria is infectious. I sound like I’m gushing, but seriously, I witness this over and over again!”
Is it ever too late to bring a celebrant in to your wedding?
“In spite of what I just said above, no!” Zena says. “One of the most special ceremonies for me was with a couple who found out their venue had lost their wedding licence three weeks before their wedding day. They found me in a panic. We worked super closely together over those three weeks, they were both wonderful at doing the homework I set them, we went out for dinner and talked for hours, I helped settle their fears that months of planning had gone down the drain and indeed we all decided it was the best happy accident that could have happened. The process which can usually take anywhere from six months to a year plus to develop was done at high intensity and we were rewarded magnificently for it. Their ceremony was a blast! Communal singing with a swing band, personal stories, poetry written especially for them, a huge swelling brilliance of them both – which they never would have had in their registry ceremony.
This kind of late instigation is totally dependent on what time of year you’re getting married in, though. Zena adds that luckily this couple were getting married in November, as August may have been trickier – and Katie agrees. “Good question! For me, yes, it can be too late – but that’s because of the way I work. I can’t just turn up and deliver a ‘standard’ wedding. I’m not here to slot your names into pre-written templates. I need time to get to know my couples and to spend time writing their personal ceremony. Depending on the time of year, I’d say anything less than a month before is too late to do all that.”
What advice do you have for couples writing their vows?
As a master of a good party and a lover of love, Katie always advises her couples to keep them a surprise from each other. “I love it when couples keep their vows a secret from each other so they can surprise each other on the big day. So – advice: agree the length, the structure and the TONE (that’s an important one, nothing worse than when one person takes a sincere approach and the other goes for THE FULL ON BANTS!) between you…and then surprise each other with the actual promises you make on the day.” And if this vow-writing terrifies you, don’t worry! This is something your celebrant can really help with, Katie explains. “I ask all my couples to send their vows to me in advance so I can steer them in the right direction.”
Zena agrees that discussing them beforehand is a good idea. “As these are the words you are going to work hard to stand by every single day of the rest of your married lives, it is vitally important that together you are on the same page about this! I try to remind couples that these vows will be what you celebrate as you stay true to them, but also what will help you to stay strong when life throws its inevitable shade in your direction. Once you have decided on these foundations – which must be able to shape shift and still be relevant in 5, 10, 15, 30 years time – then, you can go off and write them separately if you would like to. This is great because it means they will sound like you, have your own personal turn of phrase. You can also put in some little lines which reflect the twinkle in the eye you have for each other – they don’t have to be deathly serious, most peoples’ foundations need a good kick of cheekiness to them, but at least you know the fundamentals have been decided on together. I would also say, never try to learn them! Reading them will be fine, you have enough to worry about on the day without adding extra anxiety!”
What do you wish all couples knew about wedding ceremonies?
Zena wishes every couple knew how important the ceremony is – and not just because she’s biased! “It isn’t just about the day, it’s about the foundations you are forging, publicly, in front of people who really matter to you and who will hold you accountable. It has the potential to be one of the most unforgettable moments of your life – that sort of magic can’t be cheated and will carry through right into the marriage itself.”
There’s a trope of couples telling their vendors too much about their wedding plans, but Katie wishes that everyone knew that that wasn’t the case – especially when working with a celebrant. “The more you give, and the more open you are with your celebrant, the better the wedding ceremony is. I like to be BOMBARDED with information about my couples. I want to be OVERWHELMED with the minutiae of their lives together. It’s not that all that detail will make its way into their wedding ceremony – far from it – but I need to know them inside out to create something super special that will do their relationship justice.”
What do you think makes a fun wedding?
Life is a cabaret, and so is your wedding. Well, not quite, but Katie’s tips for a fun wedding are to focus on them being a celebration: “For me, weddings are CELEBRATIONS… and I love wedding ceremonies that reflect that. The best ones, for me, are fun and relaxed occasions, full of laughter, tears and LOTS OF SINGING. I also love dogs on ring duties and brass bands bursting out of the audience after the pronouncement (Love Actually style!).”
What can couples do to make their wedding informal and relaxed?
Other than book a fun and super relaxed wedding celebrant – ahem – Zena suggests keeping focussed on what you want as a couple. “If something in the planning is causing stress or becoming difficult stare straight at it, do you really need it? Is it really what both of you want? And if it isn’t get rid of it! Couples often make choices based on tradition without ever really thinking about whether that tradition is relevant to them or not. I know a number of couples this year who asked both their mum and dad to do a combined “father of the bride” speech because their dads were sick with worry, public speaking not being their strong point, especially when it carries emotional intent. So, why do they have to do it alone? They don’t. Having two people (especially the two people who brought you up!) share the load and enjoy reminiscing, teasing and celebrating you is a real joy to behold – so much better than someone who clearly looks sick with nerves. So I would say, challenge tradition, do what feels right for you and never, ever try to keep up with the Jones’.”
Zena Birch is a Hertfordshire-based wedding celebrant fully accredited with Humanists UK. She’s conducted ceremonies just about everywhere – including sunny California, atop snowy ski slopes (really!) and all sorts of spaces in between – and brings brilliance to every ceremony she works on. She’s all about the personal touch with her celebrancy: “My website is a good starting point, but I would say absolutely nothing beats the personal touch when it comes to a celebrant. I try to meet with my couples as much as I can and then am on hand constantly to answer any questions, to advise, distract or simply share a glass of wine with to let off steam. There is also a link to my instagram feed, which I so enjoy collating. There are rarely any filters, or even professional photos for that matter – there is enough of that all over the internet, it is simply a true to life documentation of the adventures I have with my couples and it makes me smile daily!” https://zenabirch.com/
If you don’t know Katie The Celebrant, get on that PRONTO. She’s a humanist celebrant who specialises in totally bespoke ceremonies for kickass couples and fun-loving families. After 10 years of journalism – meaning she’s very good with words – she retrained as a celebrant with Humanists UK, giving her the ability to channel her incredible energy plus her love of people and karaoke into wedding ceremonies. Check her blog out for more info on what Humanist celebrants can do, why you should pick her and what working with her is like: https://www.katiethecelebrant.com/