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But What About Tradition?

16thMar

Featured image by Mannetti Photo (flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)

One of the aspects of planning a wedding that can be the most…interesting (let’s say) is navigating the use of tradition in the ceremony. For religious weddings, tradition is baked into that wedding cake; most religions use ceremonies that are long-established, even if the exact parts might not look exactly the same. In a secular ceremony, though, all bets are off – which can be a bit of a double-edged sword. I’m going to lay out a few of these issues broadly, and we’ll talk about some specific matters a little more explicitly in future posts.

First, let me say that when I talk about tradition herein, I’m doing so without judgment. My personal philosophy is that tradition on its own isn’t necessarily a reason to keep doing something, but I recognize that even the idea of having a ceremony is itself a tradition but one that does serve a purpose. So when I talk about tradition here, I’ll endeavor to do so as neutrally as possible and let you keep an open mind about which traditions ought to be kept and which discarded.

Second, these recommendations may have some degree of bias toward heterosexual unions, as even the elimination (for lack of a better word) of one gender from the ceremony tends to eliminate the pull of some traditions. I’ll try to make general statements that will apply to same-sex unions as well, but that bias may be unavoidable in some cases. My apologies in advance.

Part of my personal philosophy is that, all else being equal (remember this caveat in a moment), the couple should make some intentional decisions about the role of tradition in the ceremony. Wedding ceremonies are the primary purview of the couple, and I think their ceremony should, as much as possible, reflect their values. Some traditions will fit nicely and inobtrusively; others will clash visibly. There are even jokes that still get made about women not wanting to say “love, cherish, and obey” in their vows – of course they don’t, if they don’t hold that value about their role in the marriage! When these conflicts occur, it is the responsibility of the couple to make those decisions.

With that in mind, it’s also clear that family can complicate matters. In my own wedding, I had some qualms about my wife being given away by her father because I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want it to seem like a transfer of property and that I now owned my wife (which is not the case at all; we try to keep our relationship equitable). But it was also clear that being told he couldn’t have that honor would’ve broken my father-in-law’s heart, so we did it, and it was fine.

So if you’re part of a couple planning a wedding, here are broad but nonetheless useful tips:

  1. Start by laying out your non-negotiables. You do have the right to decide that there are certain things that you are not willing to sacrifice for someone else’s vision of your wedding ceremony, and you should put your foot down on those things. Still…
  2. Decide what things could be conceded for the sake of not hurting others. It might not be fair, but other people do have expectations for your ceremony. Maybe there’s a tradition of a certain song being played, or maybe the bride needs to wear a certain piece of jewelry that’s been in the family – things that might be a small annoyance but are worth sacrificing in order to placate someone else. Ideally, this will be minimal, but it’s an ugly reality about weddings.
  3. Create new traditions. I strongly believe in taking existing elements and putting a twist on them, as well as deciding to do new things altogether. Traditions, if they are to be useful, sometimes have to be updated or created anew, and even if you don’t start a trend, it’s a great way to explore your own relationship and values.
  4. Make sure the ceremony demonstrates your values. If you don’t like the symbolism behind a certain tradition, change it or discard it. You get to be the gatekeeper – not your family, not your officiant, but you. Take control and make the day yours.

In the future, I’ll discuss some of the specific traditions around weddings and how they can be part of a modern wedding ceremony.

Happy planning!

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About Galen
Galen is a certified Secular Celebrant with the Center for Inquiry (CFI). The views expressed on this site do not necessarily represent those of CFI. (For more information about Galen, click here.)
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