The power of song and singing in humanist ceremonies

Fly Me To The moon lyrics in Jess & Zac’s order of service. Image © Sue Walder

Singing at humanist wedding ceremonies

There’s something special about singing together, isn’t there? At a recent humanist wedding ceremony I conducted, just after the couple had made their vows to each other and exchanged rings, we joined voices and sang the famous Frank Sinatra tune Fly Me to the Moon.

Most wedding ceremonies I’ve conducted feature music as the bridal party enters and again as the newly-weds walk back down the aisle together. Some ceremonies may also feature someone playing music or singing during the ceremony. But this was the first time I had been part of a group singing together at a humanist ceremony. And it was fabulous. Everyone was smiling and swaying as we strove to stay in tune and keep in time with the pianist!

It was a wonderful way to involve all the guests in a joyous moment. Singing together also helped everyone literally voice their love and support for the couple on their special day.

Scientists have found that group singing helps forge social bonds and improves feelings of well-being. It’s why football fans chant throughout a match. There’s something powerful about being physically present for such a communal act – the very opposite of the experience provided by so-called social media.

Of course, religious wedding ceremonies often include the commmunal singing of hymns. But I wonder if any hymn could come close to the feeling of collective joy that we felt when singing Fly Me To The Moon at Jess and Zac’s wedding?

And if you don’t think your guests would be up for a communal sing-a-long then why not consider hiring the services of the London Humanist Choir? The choir performs at many different events and can even be hired to perform at weddings.

Here’s a short clip of the London Humanist Choir in action singing Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere at a wedding in 2016. It was one of three songs performed by the choir at the same wedding – the other songs being Africa by Toto, and One Day Like This by Elbow:

Singing at humanist naming ceremonies

Of course, communal singing can be a lovely thing to do at a humanist naming ceremony too.

I once conducted a naming ceremony for a little girl called Mahli Rae. At the end of the ceremony her parents had organised a Rastafarian drummer to lead us all in chanting Mahli Rae’s name in different rhythms. It was joyous and life-affirming and provided a moving connection to her Jamaican ancestors.

And I’m looking forward to singing that old tune made famous by Doris Day – Que Sera, Sera – at little Freya’s welcome and naming ceremony. It’s become a family tradition to sing this song. Freya’s grandmother Kym used to sing it to Kerry, and now Kerry is singing it to Freya. The ceremony is being held in Kerry’s back garden so it’ll be interesting to see if any of her neighbours join us in singing along!

Choosing readings for your humanist wedding ceremony

The groom (Steve) reads as Yiming looks on. Photo credit: DR Photography

One of the great things about choosing to have a humanist wedding ceremony is that you – the bridal couple – can create a unique wedding ceremony that truthfully represents your personalities, your values, and your hopes for your future life together. You have total control and final say over the various elements of the ceremony.

When couples first approach me to talk about a wedding, some already have a good idea of want they want to include in the ceremony but many wish to talk through all the possible elements including music, personal vows, hand-fasting or other cultural or symbolic act, and readings.

Having one or two readings in the ceremony can be wonderful way to express feelings about love and marriage. Readings can also be a lovely way to involve family members or close friends in the ceremony.  Readings can also help to build anticipation during the ceremony and add an extra dimension of ‘performance’.

So … here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing readings for a humanist wedding ceremony

Choose something that means something to you

Readings can be favourite poems, letters, extracts from books, famous quotations, song lyrics, even dialogue from a film or play. My advice is that whatever you choose it must be meaningful. There’s no point choosing something just for the sake of it, or because you’ve seen it listed on the internet as a popular wedding reading.

Your humanist wedding celebrant will be more than happy to help you find suitable readings. It might work out that you don’t need a reading at all.

There are many websites that list ideas for wedding readings – the choice can sometimes be a little overwhelming. Here are three links that might help you start to narrow down those choices:

Think about who will be doing the reading

Many couples choose to have a beloved relative or close friend do a reading. If you’re choosing the reading for them – my advice is to think carefully about what would suit them. If they’re not used to public speaking having to read a long poem or song lyric may be too stressful. Choosing something short, or funny may be a better option.

Some couples ask their readers to choose the readings themselves – some even ask their readers to keep the choice secret until the ceremony itself. This can be a good way to avoid having to make the decision yourselves! And can also inject an element of surprise for the couple.

However, I’d advise you ask your humanist celebrant to liaise with the readers to ensure their choice is consistent with the tone of the  ceremony and to run through any issues the reader might have.

Some couples to find it difficult to choose who do the reading, or have too much choice! One solution is to ask your celebrant to do the reading. Alternatively, some couples choose to do the readings themselves (see image above). Another option is to get several readers to share a reading – taking a verse or two each. One couple I married both had Welsh heritage so chose to ask the groom’s mother to read a poem in Welsh. An English translation was then read afterwards by the bride’s cousin.

You might even consider getting all your guests to stand up and read something together at a particular point in the ceremony – you could have the words printed up and left on the seats.

I bring laminated copies of the readings to the ceremony – they look nicer than a crumpled piece of paper, and also if anyone has forgotten to bring their reading we know we have a spare.

Laminated readings are useful at wedding ceremonies.

Don’t have too many readings

Ideally, I’d recommend one or two readings. It’s important to think about what they add to the ceremony. Too many readings can become tedious for your guests and slow the natural pace of the ceremony, which should build anticipation towards the exchange of vows and rings.

That said, the couple who chose the Welsh poem (see previous section) actually had four readings. This worked for them as they didn’t want to have so much of their personal story told as part of the ceremony. The readings they chose expressed how they felt about each other and ranged from serious to quirky.

Practise, practise, practise!

It’s important that whoever is doing the reading/s should practise reading the piece out loud several times before the day itself. Reading it through helps you get familiar with the material and this will make your reading more confident. Poems can sometimes be quite tricky with varying rhythm and odd line breaks. Knowing when to take a breath is vital!

 

 


 

A dress-down wedding can still pack an emotional punch

Emma and Kellie celebrate their wedding. 1 April 2017.

For many people, the word ‘wedding’ will probably trigger an image of a beautiful wedding dress. It may be white (a tradition popularised by Queen Victoria), or red and white (India), or yellow (Morocco), or green (Korea), or even black (a Catholic tradition in Spain).

Whatever the colour or culture, it seems to be a common theme that much time and money is spent on wedding outfits. And not just for the bridal couple. There are special outfits to be bought or made for bridesmaids, groomsmen, flower girls, and page boys. The end result is often a truly magnificent sight, making the wedding day a very special one for all involved.

Royal weddings have produced some iconic wedding gowns over the years, and have influenced wedding fashion trends – the most recent being the Alexander McQueen dress designed by Sarah Burton for the wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William in 2011.

Alexander McQueen wedding dress designed by Sarah Burton for Kate Middleton, 2011.

But a dress isn’t the most important ingredient of a wedding – love is. The danger of focusing too much on the dress is that is that just might overshadow the wedding itself, as it did for the heiress, Victoria Swarovski, who wore a dress covered with 500,000 Swarovski crystals.

Traditional wedding outfits just don’t sit well for some couples. They’d rather focus on their mutual love and commitment, the ceremony itself, and on having the people that matter most to them present to witness their special day and then party into the night.

I was priviledged to conduct a humanist same-sex wedding ceremony recently for Emma and Kellie, whose only instruction for wedding attire was ‘just wear what you like’. They both wore stylish jeans and white tops and looked wonderful.

Their love and happiness shone through the day and the ceremony itself, conducted in The Prince Albert pub in Camden, was all about their story, their love, and the commitment they were making to each other. They both started crying well before we got to exchanging the rings and vows!

The beauty of having a humanist wedding ceremony is that you can have it where you like, when you like, and you can wear whatever suits your personality. It’s all about witnessing and supporting two people’s love for each other.

 

 

Humanist weddings can blend different cultures

Jessie & Dan, July 2016

Jessie & Dan, July 2016. Photo credit:©Alex Szczepanski

One of the stand-out benefits of having a humanist wedding ceremony is that you can design the event to fit your individual tastes, personalities, and backgrounds. And if a couple come from two different cultures, it’s possible to take traditional elements from each to create a unique ceremony that blends those cultures together in a personalised, meaningful way. After all, a wedding is more than the simple union of two people. It is the bringing together of two families and two communities of friends.

Jessie and Dan

When I first met with Jessie and Dan to discuss their humanist wedding, Jessie said she wanted to include some acknowledgement of her Sikh heritage. It was fascinating to hear about Sikh and Punjabi wedding traditions.

Jessie and Dan very kindly invited me to attend a special evening of Indian traditions the night before the wedding, which included: maiyan, a cleansing ritual where a flour and spice paste is rubbed into the bride and groom’s skin; mehndi, beautiful henna decorations applied to hands and feet; jago, where the bride’s aunts wear pots on their heads decorated with tea lights and sing and dance to encourage people to attend the wedding; and bhangra, a distinctive blend of Punjabi folk traditions with Western pop music.

Beautiful mehndi design on my hand.

Beautiful mehndi design on my hand.

 

Jessie's aunts durign the jago ...

Jessie’s aunts during the jago …

One Sikh wedding custom I read about was the milni – where the key male relatives from the bride and groom’s families are first introduced. In a traditional milni, the bride’s male relatives welcome the men from the groom’s side, starting with the oldest members first. This normally involves a go-between calling out the names, the exchange of flower garlands and gifts.

We decided to incorporate a version of the milni into Jessie and Dan’s wedding ceremony to symbolise the union of their respective families. It turned out to be a lot of fun, with lots of laughter, and the assembled guests seemed to enjoy it too.

Other elements of the ceremony included two readings: the lyrics to Van Morrison’s song Sweet Thing, read by Dan’s brother; and an ancient chinese poem called The Key to Love, which was read by three of Jessie’s university friends.  Jessie’s cousin, Sunny, also sang a beautiful, traditional Punjabi song.

Avani and George

Another couple who wanted to acknowledge their different cultural backgrounds was Avani (of Hindu descent) and George (half British, half Italian). It was wonderful to collaborate with this young couple to create a unique wedding ceremony that truly reflected them both as individuals and as a new married partnership.

Just as with Jessie and Dan, Avani and George invited me to a special celebration the night before the wedding and I was interested to note some similarities between Sikh and Hindu wedding traditions. I watched mehndi artists cover Avani’s hands, arms and feet in intricate decorations. Then it was time for the haldee – a cleansing ritual like the Sikh maiyan. This involved Avani and George being smeared in a special paste of flour and tumeric by their family and friends. Luckily, they changed into old clothes first!

The haldee for Avani and George.

The wedding venue was a courtyard at Bushey Academy, which features a mock clocktower. This became our focal point for the ceremony and was decorated in brightly coloured, hand-made paper garlands. George and his immediate family wore Indian dress so on both sides we had flashes of amazing colour.

There is a Hindu tradition called a baraat, which involves the groom and his family and friends processing to the wedding venue accompanied by the loud beating of the dhol, a double-headed drum. So, George was carried to the venue from the car park on the shoulders of his friends with much laughter and chanting. Once everyone was settled in their seats, Avani arrived in style while George’s brother and a friend played some improvised jazz guitar and drums. So right from the start this wedding was celebrating the coming together of eastern and western traditions.

At the beginning of the ceremony Avani and George performed a version of a Hindu wedding tradition called a var mala – where they exchanged garlands to demonstrate that they accepted each other united hearts. And an extra special touch: the garlands were handmade by relatives from pages of the couple’s favourite books – Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

Avani and George exchange garlands. Photo credit: ParkwinPhotography.co.uk

Again, mixing east and west, the ceremony included two readings taken from the writings of Rabrinath Tagore and Philip Pullman. And George’s Italian mother (a trained opera singer) sang a beautiful Brazilian love song.

After the exchange of vows and rings, Avani and George performed a version of the traditional Hindu phera, or fire ceremony. For this, Avani and George held hands and circled a small flame in an urn seven times while two of Avani’s aunts sang a traditional Hindu song. According to Hindu beliefs, once a marriage is solemnised the two souls are joined for seven lifetimes. The seven circles the couple make around the fire represent seven promises about lifelong commitment, devotion and mutual respect.

We packed a lot of symbolic and cultural detail into Avani and George’s wedding and the result was a joyful affirmation of love, family and tradition.

Humanist wedding celebrants can create unique and personal ceremonies that not only join together couples but also blend together different backgrounds and cultures. You could say that humanist celebrants celebrate humanity.