Some people think that a wedding minister or wedding officiant should have all the answers as to how to get married. Unfortunately I don’t know everything, especially some of the legal issues, but I can help you in several key areas. Here are a number of questions that couples getting married in the greater Chicago area have asked me. Some refer to issues relating to getting married, and some refer to my wedding services. Please feel free to telephone or email me with your questions. I have a lot of experience from having performed over 1,200 weddings, and hope some of these observations will help you in planning your special day.
Q. I just got engaged. What do I do next?
A. You can go to the page “Start Here” on this website, and then to the page “Wedding Timetable & Event Checklist.” If you are not systematic and organized, you can get overwhelmed by all the details and choices.
Q. How does a couple actually get legally “married?”
A. In the State of Illinois, a legal “marriage” must take place according to the laws of the County in which the union takes place. It’s where you get married that counts, not where you live. A couple is officially “married” when a legally authorized person performs an official ceremony uniting them in marriage, and signs the County marriage license. Some Counties also require the signature of witnesses and/or the Bride and Groom, while others do not. Legally authorized persons are all clergy (i.e. priests, ministers, rabbis, etc.) and certain other persons specifically authorized such as Judges, Justices of the Peace, etc. Vows of commitment are required to be exchanged by the couple, but wedding rings are optional and not required. For more information, see this website’s page “Marriage License Information“, or contact the County Clerk office of the County in which you plan to be married.
Q. In what places can a couple get married?
A. You can get married in the State of Illinois anywhere within the legal boundaries of the State. That includes all public and private buildings (not just churches), bodies of water (lakes, rivers, etc.), or even in an airplane! Please see my website page “Chicago Area Wedding Locations” for a partial list of places where I have performed wedding ceremonies, and where you might consider having yours.
Q. What is the difference between a “religious” and a “civil” wedding?
A. If you are married by a clergyman (minister, priest, etc.), he/she must pronounce you married “before God and witnesses.” If an authorized representative of the State, such as a Judge or Justice of the Peace, performs the ceremony, he/she must pronounce you married “by the power vested in me by the State [of Illinois].” A clergyman can perform a “civil” ceremony, but must still pronounce the couple married “before God and witnesses.”
Q. What are the three main choices to make for a customized wedding ceremony?
A. The three main choices of things to include in your ceremony are:
1. What kind of religious traditions. The choices range from a very traditional “church-style” wedding to no religious references at all. Many people like to include things like the Lord’s Prayer, Bible or other religious readings, singing of hymns, etc. My recommendation is to include only what is meaningful to you, and not confuse a wedding ceremony with a typical church service.
2. What kind of romantic imagery. The most common types of romantic expressions are romantic readings, and the lighting of the “Unity Candle” by the couple. Other choices include special music, giving flowers to mothers, drinking wine together out of a “unity cup”, singing to each other (Groom serenading the Bride), original poetry, the release of butterflies or doves after the ceremony, etc. There are a lot of creative ideas that you can borrow from others, or even think up yourself, but the rule is to be yourself.
3. What kind of cultural traditions. If you have a strong tradition from another country or culture, you may want to include that in your wedding ceremony and/or reception. Please see my web page “Wedding Traditions & Folklore” for ideas.
Q. What is the “best” way to have the parents, relatives, and wedding guests seated before the ceremony begins?
A. There are also no “right” or “wrong” answers here. First of all, it is customary, but not necessary, to have ushers seat the wedding guests. Groomsmen can also double as ushers until the ceremony begins. Usually the Bride’s family and friends sit on the left side (as you approach the front), while Groom’s side is on the right. But many people opt to have general seating, with no specified “Bride’s side” or “Groom’s side.” Also, if there are a lot of people waiting and it is close to the starting time for the ceremony, the ushers should not hold the guests up to be seated, but simply direct them to find their own places.
Second, as far as when to seat “latecomers”, you should be aware of what they do at “black tie” events like the symphony, opera, or a Broadway theater. As soon as the performance officially begins, the doors are closed shut, and no late-arriving guests are admitted until the intermission. This is out of respect for the performers, and for those in the audience who arrived on time. I believe the same principle should apply to a wedding. It’s not like a baseball game, where you can walk in or leave any time you like, or get up to buy a hot dog or use the restroom. Once the wedding party starts the processional to the front, I think politeness dictates that all late-arriving guests should wait until the processional is complete, the Bride is presented to the Groom, and the audience sits down. Then latecomers can enter the room to take their seats. If there are ushers, they should politely inform the latecomers of this policy.
Third, I believe that all relatives, including parents and grandparents, should be seated before the bridal party begins the processional. This especially includes parents. This is out of respect for the wedding. The only exception is if you are having the Groom seat the parents. In this case, you would first have the wedding officiant walk to the front, then have the Groom seat the parents, and then he would stand at the front with the officiant. Then the procession of the bridal party (Groomsmen, Bridesmaids, etc.) can begin. If anyone other than the Groom seats the parents, then all parents must take their seats before the processional begins. I believe it is disrespectful to the wedding and out of place to have any of the bridal party walk to the front, and then have the parents seated by an usher, etc. Instead of “honoring” them, it makes them look like latecomers who had trouble arriving on time to their own children’s wedding!
Q. Which is better: having the Bridesmaids and Groomsmen walk in together at the start of the ceremony as couples, or having them walk in separately?
A. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer here. A simple answer is for the Bride to ask her Bridesmaids which they would prefer. Probably 90% will say they prefer to enter and exit as couples. Here are some other points to consider. First of all, many people in the bridal party are nervous about walking down an aisle by themselves (perhaps being concerned they might trip and look foolish), and welcome the opportunity to hold someone’s arm. This is especially true if the ceremony is outside on something like a stone walkway where high heels can slip, or on grass where high heels can sink in. Second, when the Bridesmaids come down the aisle individually instead of being escorted by the Groomsmen, it can look a bit like a “Miss America” pageant. Nothing should take away from this being the Bride’s day, and having her alone on “center stage.” Third, a wedding is about a couple coming together, and there is a symmetry to having the Bridesmaids and Groomsmen walk in and walk out as couples. Fourth, even if you have an odd number in your bridal party, a “threesome” looks fine. For these reasons, I usually recommend that Groomsmen escort Bridesmaids in a wedding ceremony.
Q. What is the purpose of having “readings” performed during a wedding ceremony?
A. I have quite a few suggested readings on this website, both romantic readings and religious readings. People have been in love since the beginning of time. All over the world, in many different cultures, and throughout history, people have written wonderful expressions of their love in poems, sonnets, love songs, etc. Some religious books, such as the Holy Bible, include beautiful words on love. Other people may have said things about love that are very similar to how you feel. And they may have said it more eloquently than you or I could. It is appropriate to have a few romantic readings performed during a wedding ceremony, especially texts that have been recognized over time as “classics.” If you want to search for some special reading in particular, you could go to the “Project Gutenberg” which has a massive amount of literature searchable online.
Here are a few guidelines. First of all, if you have more than two or three readings during your ceremony, it may sound like a literature class, so don’t overdo it. And don’t choose readings that are more than a paragraph or two in length. Second, never allow someone to “surprise” you with a reading. You’ll have plenty of surprises at your reception (such as “toasts”), but maintain control over what is said at your wedding. The rule is that you pick the readings, and the readers. Third, it’s often nice to have one or two romantic readings near the beginning of the ceremony to get people thinking about love, and then a final, special one near the end as the concluding thought.
Q. What is a “Unity Candle”, and why is it often used in a wedding ceremony?
A. A wedding ceremony is a “pageant of love” that usually includes romantic imagery. The purpose of the imagery is to paint a picture of the words being spoken. Often couples will have two taper candles lit to represent their separate lives, and after the exchange of wedding vows and rings, they will light a third candle together. This “unity candle” represents their union, the joining of their two lives into one. It is purely a romantic image, without any religious implications.
There are two commons practices many couples do involving the unity candle that are not wrong, but I believe detract from the beauty and simplicity of the imagery. First, some couples blow out their individual candles after they light the unity candle. But it makes much more sense to me to keep those individual candles lit, because the couple are now both two separate peopleand one mystical union. After all, your own lives are not extinguished until you die!
The second common mistake is having someone else other than the couple light the individual taper candles. I have seen mothers, fathers, or other relatives or people special to the couple light the taper candles. But think of it: who is getting married? The mothers? Shouldn’t those candles be lit by the two people getting married, especially since they use those two candles to light the unity candle? A couple can very easily honor other special people with flowers instead of having them light their taper candles.
One problem I’ve seen at many weddings is that the taper candles are lit near the beginning of the ceremony. Then by the time the couple is ready to light their Unity Candle, the tapers have burned way down to stubs. At this point the candles look kind of ugly, especially for the photos. It looks much better if the couple lights the taper candles just before they use them to light their Unity Candle. The photos of the candle lighting look much prettier this way. Another tip is to have a lit “votive” candle on the table with the candles, and to use the votive instead of matches or a grill lighter to light the tapers.
Also, I have performed many outdoor weddings where couples have lit candles. This can be done by having each candle placed inside an inexpensive glass cylinder, and the couple lights the candles with something like a gas “grill lighter” or long fireplace matches.
Q. Can you do an “interfaith” wedding where you “co-officiate” with another officiant, such as a rabbi or a priest?
A. I get many requests to “co-officiate” at a wedding. But the fact is that on all of the County Marriage Licenses issued in the greater Chicago area (and many if not most other counties), only one officiant can sign it and put his/her address. There are not places for 2 (or more) signatures. Therefore only one officiant can do your vows and ring exchange, and pronounce you husband and wife. The other officiant would only be for show. That is the law. It sounds nice to have “co-officiants”, but in reality, one will do the ceremony, and the other will obviously be the “second-class officiant.” Perhaps they can do a reading, or say a few nice words, or a prayer. But only one will do the marrying part of the ceremony. There is no way around this. Ultimately you and your fiancé will have to make a choice for one officiant. As respectful as you are trying to be to your different traditions, I believe trying to “co-officiate” your ceremony will unnecessarily create an uncomfortable “competition” between the two different religious traditions. I always recommend having a non-denominational minister (like myself) who focuses on a romantic ceremony, rather than trying to combine two different religious faiths. I have some very nice thank-you notes from couples where I performed their “interfaith” wedding” in a way that pleased everyone. Also, you can do pretty much anything you want with your traditions later at the reception, which I have seen to work very well for everyone.
This page is only the beginning, and I hope to continually update it as I hear from you. Please feel free to send me your questions, and I will try to answer them, or send you to someone who can.