What to Expect at a Pagan Wedding
Cultural Exchange: Unfamiliar Ceremonies
OK, I’ll be honest: I got this assignment only partly because I’ve actually been to a couple of Pagan weddings. (I roomed with a philosophy/art major in college). I think I really got it because I’m the one from the most solidly traditional family and Pagan weddings seem to freak solidly traditional people out more than any other kind.
It’s true that a Pagan wedding will probably be very, very different than what you’re used to. The good news is that Pagans believe in inclusiveness, and the happy couple is almost certain to be almost hyperaware that some people may be anxious or uncomfortable. They’ll be very careful to let you know what’s coming, and will give you at least a brief overview of what it all means. If you want to know more, just ask – they’ll be as happy to explain the symbolism of their wedding as you would be to talk about yours.
What if your religion doesn’t match?
First off, let’s get a little terminology out of the way. Technically, any wedding that isn’t Christian or Jewish is Pagan, but your friends who call themselves Pagans are probably drawing from Celtic or Druidic traditions (or their best guesses at reconstructing them). Pagans and Wiccans have a lot in common, but they aren’t necessarily the same thing. If the wedding is a Wiccan wedding, they’ll call it that.
A few notes for the concerned:
• Paganism is NOT the same as Satanism. Pagans are very into positive energy and tend to focus on the good in the world. Even Pagans who identify as witches tend to be goody-goodies. A common tenet is that any harm you wish someone else comes back to you threefold. So while Pagans have received some bad word-of-mouth in many parts of the country, you’re actually dealing with some very gentle souls. Believe me, if your loved ones are having a Satanic wedding (and there are at least two breeds of those, which we won’t get into), they will be very sure to let you know.
• Pagans don’t necessarily see Christianity or Judaism as incompatible with their religion. If you’re from a Judeo-Christian background, you may have been brought up to believe that your religion and Paganism are diametrically opposed, but that isn’t necessarily the case in the view of your hosts. They may see the Judeo-Christian deity as one legitimate choice in an array of deities, or they may see their pantheon as different aspects of essentially the same big God you’re used to. Or they may worship nature itself. That point of view still may not thrill you, but it’s important to note that a Pagan ceremony won’t involve any kind of a refutation of your personal beliefs.
• It’s highly unlikely that you’ll be asked to pray to any alternate deities. Again, Pagans are inclusive, and as members of a religious minority they will understand your potential discomfort. You may be asked to take a moment of silence to pray to whomever floats your boat, or there may be parts of the ceremony in which the four elements or the Masculine and Feminine energies are honored. Nothing will get too hardcore on you.
• If you feel the need to (gently) decline the invitation due to your own religious beliefs, the happy couple will understand. But they’ll miss you. They invited you because they love you and want you there. If you can possibly get past any theological qualms, do go. Pagan weddings tend to be harmless, very fun and – in my experience – very moving.
What to wear
Ideally, your invitation will give you a hint, but odds are your Pagan wedding won’t involve traditional suits and cocktail dresses for the guests. An outdoor wedding is a good bet. When in doubt, opt for natural fibers and earth tones with a splash of color. A spring wedding may involve lighter or brighter colors – just be careful, as always, not to outshine the bride.
Pagan ceremonies vary widely, both because there are many different kinds of Pagan and because couples tend to design their own ceremonies.
The ceremony will often start with casting a circle. (Though sometimes you’ll walk in and see a circle that has been cast and consecrated a few hours beforehand.) This involves the officiant turning to each point of the compass and honoring the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air.
You may see an altar in the circle, with traditional implements such as a cup, a knife, and a trowel. It’s possible that you’ll see objects that symbolize the elements, such as salt (earth), a candle (fire), a feather (air), and a bowl of – you guessed it – water.
It’s unlikely that you’ll see the bride given away because Pagans tend to be egalitarian, but you may see something that honors the families – and even the ancestors – of both the bride and groom. The couple will probably approach and enter the circle from the east to symbolize the growth of their relationship.
Like the weddings you’re used to, the officiant may ask if there are any objections to the union, and the couple will state their vows – almost always highly personalized – and the couple will usually exchange rings.
The officiant may have the bride and groom cut locks of each other’s hair and put them in a wooden or silver box to symbolize their union, or you may see them drink from the same cup.
Many Pagan weddings involve handfasting – wrapping a cord or ribbon around the couple’s joined hands. This symbolizes different things to different people – a traditional handfasting was a trial marriage, in which the couple stayed together for a year and a day and then had the opportunity to make their marriage permanent. Nowadays a couple is likely to consider the marriage permanent immediately, but keep the handfasting ritual as a part of their ceremony. They may come together in a year and a day to repeat their vows. (If you’re an attendant at a Pagan wedding, be aware that they may exchange vows while their hands are tied, so part of your job may be to hold cards with the vows on them for the bride and groom.)
The officiant will probably give the couple some sage advice on treating each other well and tending their marriage, and then may ask the guests to affirm their approval of this union. You’ll probably be told what to say here, but if not, any positive sentiment delivered with enthusiasm will do.
Finishing the ceremony
The officiant will pronounce the couple married and the bride and groom will kiss, as brides and grooms do. They may also feed each other and use a trowel to bury their locks of hair or handfasting cord. The couple may also jump a broom, which depending on who you ask is either from the exact same or completely different origins as the African-American broom-jumping ritual. At any rate, this symbolizes the couple jumping into their lives together, and to their commitment to making the effort to make their marriage work.
The couple may walk around the circle and greet friends and family, and then the officiant may uncast (or banish or deconsecrate) the circle. This may be the time to break small seed cakes over the couple’s heads – with roughly the same symbolism as throwing rice or birdseed.
Don’t let the earnestness of Pagan wedding celebrants fool you: These people know how to throw a party. Be prepared for some fun feasting and bring your dancing shoes (or dancing bare feet). Above all, cast your worries aside. Pagans tend to be people who have fought for the right to let their freak flags fly, so even if you’re out of your element, you’re not going to get judged. There’s no better time to toss self-consciousness lightly to the side and try a new dance or even take over the conga drum for a minute.
A Pagan wedding is definitely not everyone’s thing, but it sure can be a fun thing for a few hours.