Symbolic Actions

October 4th, 2012

Symbolic Actions Workshop Handout: Namings And Weddings (Janice Thornton) watch the video here

Symbolic Actions Symbolic actions can provide a very visual representation of the ceremony you are conducting. Not everyone will absorb the words spoken so a symbolic action can enhance the experience of a humanist ceremony for more of the guests.

Many of the actions described here may have a long term affect, for example what happens to the candles/ribbons/guest book afterwards. These can be treasured reminders of a very special occasion, especially for adopted children.

Many of the symbolic actions described here require equipment, some of which you can have in your kit, but most of which your customer will need to provide themselves. It is useful to have photos or pictures to show examples of the equipment they will need.

1. Hand fasting.

Purpose: An ancient ritual from which the term binding agreement and tying the knot originate. It is a very visual ceremony and must be practiced by the people taking part.

This ceremony enables the involvement of other family members (the bride and grooms mothers) of special friends (the people who brought the couple together) or guide parents.

Guests can be asked to sign the ribbons before the ceremony as a memento of the day (if there is a person with needle craft in the family, they may embroider over the names on the ribbons)

Equipment: Can be done with one or more ribbons. As colours have different meanings, the colours can form part of the ceremony. Can be done with a single wide strip of fabric – this can be embroidered and decorated with family names or symbols important to the couple.

2. Sand blending

Purpose: This ceremony enables the involvement of other family members, special friends or guide parents. For a wedding without children, it would only include the couple.

For a wedding with children, it can provide a powerful symbol of the new family being formed and a very attractive visual symbol of all the members of the family. The sand can either be layered as it is poured or be mixed/ blended by each member of the family.

At a wedding or naming this might be the two families being joined by the union of two people or the continuation of two families symbolised by the birth of a new baby.


At an adoption this might be a different colour of sand for each member of the new family. You can also use soil from the places where the couple originate, sand from their favourite beach or the beach where they met. Different coloured sand can be bought from many craft shops or through the internet.

Equipment: A transparent vessel of sand to represent each of the people being united. A single transparent vessel into which all the sand will fit – a spaghetti jar with a tight fitting lid works well and can be sealed.

3. Unity Candles

Purpose: This ceremony provides a very visual expression of the uniting of two families and enables the involvement of other members of the family or friends.

For a wedding, I often ask a member of the bride and grooms family to each light a candle to represent their family. The bride and groom then take a light from their familys’ candle to jointly light a single (larger) candle to represent the new family being formed by their marriage. It is a clear way of showing where they come from and that they are now a unit in their own right.

At a wedding or naming this might be the two families being joined by the union of two people or the continuation of two families symbolised by the birth of a new baby.

At an adoption this might be a different candle for each member of the new family.

The candles can then be kept and be relit on the anniversary of the ceremony or for the naming ceremony of any children the couple may have.

Equipment: A candle to represent each of the people being united and one single larger candle to represent the new family. Different coloured candles can be bought from many shops or through the internet. It is possible to get candles with names or messages on. I prefer wide based candles for safety reasons.

A lighter (or two) – one of the long handled type, and some tapers.

A candle holder for each candle, I prefer fairly wide based high sided glass holders for safety reasons. If you are outdoors, you will need to find a way to protect the lit candle e.g a lantern.

4. Grannies Cakes/ Table Cloths

Purpose: To bring a sense of the continuity through the generations to the naming.

At a naming where grandmas are deceased or unable to attend, the family each made one of Grannies cakes for the naming ceremony.

At another, all the small tables had one of grandmas hand embroidered table cloths on.

Equipment: Grannies table cloths or recipes

5. Entry Of Both Parties Simultaneously [in a Yurt]

Purpose: This can be a powerful way of demonstrating equality. E.g Lucy & Tom enter from opposite sides, they meet in the middle of the Yurt where the celebrant is waiting for them.

Equipment : None

6. Leading The Guests Through A Ceremonial Arch

Purpose: This symbolises the passing of the couple into a new state of union, freely and open entered into. By asking all the guests to follow them through the archway, they are inviting all their guests to accept and support them as a married couple.

Equipment: Archway (covered in flowers or ribbons)

7. Hand / Finger Printing

Purpose: A very visual way of recording who was present at a Naming ceremony and can be adapted for adoptions or weddings. It is especially useful where there are a lot of children as it provides a level playing field between those who can write and those who cannot. Also allows the children to be involved as witnesses and can aid holding their attention for a bit longer.

At the beginning of the ceremony tell all the children they are to be witnesses and they can use the special fingerprint kit to make their mark in the guest book which the baby will be able to keep forever. At the end of the ceremony, remind the children that you will be at the back of the room to take their fingerprints.

Equipment: Multi-coloured inkpad – available at many craft shops and multi-coloured washable felt pens. Hand wipes are essential to ensure that party clothes are not covered in ink. Guest book or canvas.

8. Giving The Daughter Away!

Purpose: To add a bit of light humour. To involve the father in expressing how important his daughter is but not as a possession .We do not always need to follow tradition and it can be useful to offer alternatives, for example:-

Sample words for Giving the Daughter Away

Celebrant: The traditional way to describe the role of the Bride’s father at this stage in the Ceremony is that he is ‘Giving His Daughter Away’. Happily, today, we will do things rather differently… EDDIE MOLNAR has something to say to Dan of considerable importance, Eddie ?.

[EM, holding JM’S hand passes it to DH, Reads from Laminate]

Eddie Molnar: “This is my daughter, Joanna.

I have loved and cherished her since before she was born and I will love and cherish her ‘til the day I die. On this day, I transfer responsibility for her care and protection to you and I would ask that you love and honour her always. Do you accept?”

Dan Howard: “I do.” [Pause for Applause]

Equipment: None

9. Introducing New Spouse Or Newly Adopted Child To The Guests

Purpose: This can be a very powerful way of strengthening the bond between the couple as each introduces their new spouse to their guests and says

‘I would like to introduce you to Linda, my wife’ ‘I would like to introduce you to my partner for life, James’

This can be adapted for the adoption of a child – fixing a very important sense and memory of belonging for an adopted child.

Equipment: None

10. Exchange Of Wine Glasses/ Breaking Wine Glass [Jewish]

Purpose:This ceremony symbolises the support of the two families for the marriage of the couple and the permanence of their relationship.


The breaking of the glass is a metaphor for the finality of the bond that has been established. Just as a broken glass can never be reconstructed, so, too, this relationship should last forever.

In Jewish weddings it is traditional that the groom steps backwards and breaks a glass contained in a velvet bag and all the guests then shout “Mazal Tov” [Good Luck] – so make sure that everyone is primed during your introduction.

Equipment: 2 Wine glasses, a velvet (or other robust fabric) bag.

11. Exchanging Flowers Between the Couples Parents

Purpose: This is a visual way of celebrating the joining of two families.

The coming together of a couple, often results in the coming together of their two families. One of the unique aspects of a Humanist wedding is that we can symbolise this in many different ways. The exchange of gifts or flowers (especially if brought from the mothers own gardens) can be a lovely way of the families showing their commitment and support to the couple.

Equipment: flowers or gifts to exchange.

12. Involving a Child/ren Of Previous Marriage

Purpose: It is not unusual for one or both of the couple to have a child/children from a previous relationship. Including the child/ren in the marriage ceremony can be important to the child/ren and their parents acknowledgement that the child/ren are part of the new family being created by the marriage.

This can take place after the couple have exchanged their promises, with a promise to the child/ren.

Some ways of including a child: give them a ring of their own, ask them to be a witness and sign the certificate, ask them to tie one of the ribbons at a hand fasting, include them in sand blending.

Equipment: an object that has meaning, a promise that has meaning

13. Blessing the Rings

Purpose: Involving the family and friends and asking for their support, wisdom and goodwill towards the couple.

The Friends and Family of every couple play an important part in supporting the marriage, so inviting them all to offer their blessings and wisdom can be a very powerful symbolic action. One way of doing this is to pass the couples rings around their guests for them to touch. This can be done whilst a friend plays some live music e.g. violin or piano recital, whilst a poem is recited or whilst music chosen by the couple is playing.

Equipment: Cushion, ribbons & rings

14. The Seven Promises And Throwing Rice In The Fire

Purpose: This ceremony is taken from the Hindu tradition and can be used for a couple where one or both of the couple is of Indian heritage, but can also be adapted for a wedding where the couple are keen to involve all their family and the whole community.

The seven promises can also be adapted for an adoption ceremony where the wider family make promises to a new member of the family. This is a very powerful way of demonstrating the commitment that new parents and the wider family make to the new family member and will create strong memories for a child. In a garden the rice can be thrown onto a BBQ.

The ceremony requires that all the guests join in, so they would need word sheets, which can be included with an order of ceremony.

Equipment: Word Sheets, rice and a well contained fire.

15. Letting Off Fire Crackers

Purpose: Getting everyone involved in wishing the couple good luck, especially good at a wedding where there are lots of children.

In the Chinese tradition, letting off fire crackers are let off for good luck and to ward off evil spirits. On ‘elf & safety grounds actual fire crackers are not allowed, so the guests and family puncture balloons instead. For a naming or wedding ceremony, this provides a very symbolic if slightly shambolic end to a ceremony.

At the end of the Ceremony, 500 red balloons are let down from the ceiling and guests stab them with long pins/ kebab skewers provided. The noise is deafening !!

Equipment: balloons (no helium required) large net, something sharp to burst the balloons & someone to tie the balloons up.

16. Chinese Tea Ceremony

Purpose: To perform a traditional Chinese tea ceremony which symbolises the union of two families. It is a way of acknowledging the continuity of the two families.

The order that the tea is served can be quite complicated and can be shortened for a humanist wedding. The order of service is usually

• parents,

• grandparents,

• grand-uncles and grand-aunties,

• uncles and aunties,

• elder brothers and sisters,

• elder cousins

However, there are also families that prefer to serve the grandparents tea before the parents.

The ceremony can be simplified by the couple serving tea to each other (watch out for spills!)

Equipment: Two small tables and table cloths to fit. Full set of Chinese tea making cups (1 for each parent/step parent), teapot, large bowl, small trays, chop sticks or a Chinese scoop, kettle and container for hot water (jug) & real Tea.

17. Ringing the Unity Bell / Bell of Truce

Purpose: Adds humour to the ceremony, acknowledges that the couple may not always agree, gives the couple a mechanism for ‘time out’ in the future.

The celebrant starts the ceremony by ringing the bell and then during the ceremony gives the bell to the couple a bell. It may then be used by the couple when they are in disagreement to remind them of the feelings they had for each other and the reasons why they got married. Hence the name – Bell of Truce.

This can also be used where two families are coming together and the children can each ring the bell as part of the ceremony.

Equipment: hand bell, can be metal, glass, a hotel lobby bell, old school bell.

18. Other Ideas For Symbolic Actions

Tree Planting – it is common for parents to plant a tree to celebrate the naming of a child or for a couple to plant two trees to celebrate their marriage.

Luggage Labels/ Message cards – can be used to write messages of love and encouragement to new parents and tied on a tree in the garden. Message cards can be used and then put in a keepsake book later – this works well at naming and weddings. Young children enjoy this because they can draw a picture of the baby, ceremony or whatever they like.

Well wishers treasure chest – each guest is asked to write words to describe what they wish for the baby (happy, healthy, joyful, laughter, sporty) on slips of paper, which are put in a special box. When they have all been collected up, they are read out so that everyone hears what is wished for the baby. If they want to extend this into a family ritual, the family can then take out a slip of paper on each birthday and read it to the child.

Ribbon tying – each person who comes to the naming takes a ribbon or strip of fabric and writes a message on it and then ties it to a tree in the garden. This is very visual and a longer lasting way for a child to see how many people wish them well. It can be continued each birthday so that there is a constant reminder of the special place the child has in the family.