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Symbols of Joining: A Philosophy of Unity Ceremonies


One of the most ubiquitous parts of a standard wedding ceremony is the unity ceremony, in which the two individuals being married participate in a ceremony that symbolizes their joining. Probably the most common one traditionally is the unity candle ceremony; it’s what we did at my own wedding ceremony, and it’s what I’ve seen over and again in the ceremonies I’ve participated in. But if you want to do something a little outside the norm, there are plenty of great alternatives – and plenty of reasons to choose them.

Symbols Mean Something

Before digging into the alternatives, I think it’s worth noting what might compel a person to choose an alternative to the traditional unity candle – other than a desire to do something different, that is. One reason is very simple: shared values. Sometimes couples will decide that they have a common interest, passion, or skill that they want to incorporate into the ceremony, and unity ceremonies are often the place for that to happen.

The other is the one that drives my personal philosophy on ceremonies: values. Unity ceremonies don’t have the simple meaning of joining; they also carry additional symbols within them as well. I encourage couples to consider what these additional implied meanings are. For instance, with the unity candle, you have two elements: candles (which, when lit, symbolize passion and vitality). Those flames together light another singular flame, which represents the joining in marriage of the two passions. The single flames are then generally snuffed out, leaving only the single (and generally larger and more elegant) candle. The fact that the single flames do not remain is symbolic of an indivisible joining – that is, the individual parts do not remain upon joining, and when joined, they are not separable into their constituent parts. I suspect that, as with many different ceremonies, many couples have participated in this ceremony without considering that they are signifying that their individual selves are being extinguished in favor of this new joined unit.

This kind of attention to detail in symbols isn’t unique to ceremonies, either. Consider the old metaphor of America as a “melting pot” – the symbolism is that you take many distinct ingredients (nationalities) and combine them into something that has a unique flavor to it. This is often taken as symbolic of assimilation: that immigrants to America take on this “new flavor” of America rather than keeping anything distinct from their own tradition. For this reason, the symbol has often shifted to “patchwork quilt,” in which the parts are all distinct but contribute to an overall sense of beauty in the whole. The issue of blended vs. distinct vs. wholly unified is visible in the symbols of unity ceremonies as well, and I think it’s worth considering which one matches a particular couple’s own view of marriage and what the union means for the persistence of the self, of separate lives retaining their uniqueness even as something new is created by the joining.

With that in mind, here are some ideas, taken liberally from the great wedding site Offbeat Bride.

Some Granular Ideas

A common alternative is the sand ceremony. Instead of using candles, each partner has a different color of sand which they pour simultaneously into a larger jar. This creates a mixing effect that makes the parts distinct but still difficult to separate out of the larger mixture. (As Offbeat Bride notes, this is also good if there are children or other family that are coming together with the union as well, and each member can take a different color still to represent the creation of a new family unit.)

Another similar idea is the salt covenant. Some non-religious couples might balk at the religiosity of “covenant,” but the idea itself isn’t religious in nature. The company Centered Ceramics explains it this way on Offbeat Bride:

During ancient times, agreements and promises were sealed by a salt covenant. Each person would take a pinch of salt from their pouch and place it in the pouch of the other. This agreement could not be broken unless an individual could retrieve their own grains of salt.

In this way, the salt covenant represents an indissoluble promise. The product is one substance as well, like the unity candle.

There are also other ways that you could take an idea like these, replacing the type of substance with something else like beads or salt and pepper.


Mixing It Up

A different way to approach the ceremony is to find ways of explicitly making the parts distinct in the greater whole. In addition to the sand ceremony, you could create a bouquet from different flowers. Maybe you want to create a work of art on the spot using different colors of paint. In any of these cases, you are left with a beautiful work of art but one that recognizes the individuals as a necessarily distinct part of the whole unit.


I’m a big fan of science in general, and there are some really interesting ideas out there for making unity ceremonies that are essentially science demonstrations. These range from the really simple, like reproducing the classic vinegar and baking soda volcano of science fair legend, to the more advanced, like the “water ceremony” where a chemist and his partner poured two clear liquids that then produced a pinkish-color fluid. These ideas tend toward two items becoming one distinct substance, so keep that in mind if you’re scientifically inclined as well.

Make Your Own Symbolism

Sometimes you have to figure out what kind of symbolism you want, and it might be a bit different. For instance, maybe you want to convey how you want your love to grow and flourish into something even grander, in which case you might consider a tree planting ceremony (although this does require a certain kind of venue to pull off, admittedly). Maybe you and your partner are word fanatics – then you could piece together a pre-planned Scrabble board with words that represent your passions and memories. Never feel so tied into the standard ceremonies that you can’t create something new that is true to what you value and treasure about your relationship.

These ideas don’t even scratch the surface, though. Tell me about your ideas! I’d love to hear what other innovations have been made in this ceremony.

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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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