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Some Do's and Don'ts For Officiating at a Handfasting

Author: Bronwen Forbes [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: May 24th. 2009
Times Viewed: 9,792

When a couple announces their plans to get married, everyone in the community -- whatever the community -- has advice for the happy pair on everything from where to register for gifts to how to dress the attendants to where to go on the honeymoon. But if the bride and groom have asked you to be the Priest or Priestess for their handfasting and you’ve never officiated at a wedding before, it’s unlikely anyone will think to offer you any words of wisdom.

Here, then, is my list of do’s and don’ts for officiating at a handfasting.

DO get clergy credentials, if necessary. If the bride and groom are expecting the handfasting to be the legal wedding, you are expected to be legal clergy. This website: lists clergy credential requirements by state.

Some states, especially those in the Midwest, still follow “frontier law” when it comes to officiating at a wedding: if the couple and community feel that you are qualified to perform a legal marriage, then you are.

If you do need clergy credentials, the Universal Life Church, (as of this writing) can make you legal in about five minutes.

DO dress appropriately. Check with the bride and groom and ask them what they want you to wear. If non-Pagan family members are expected to attend the ceremony, suggest that you wear a nice suit or dress. Looking “normal” will make Grandma and Aunt Beatrice a lot more comfortable. Bear in mind that a “nice suit” includes a tie, and that a dress requires hose and dress shoes. Keep the dark, gothy makeup to a minimum, please.

Dressing appropriately also means dressing for the weather. A wool suit at an outdoor handfasting in July increases the possibility that the Priest will pass out in the middle of the vows. A summer-weight dress at an outdoor handfasting in early March will lead to some unprofessional shivering on the part of the Priestess.

Even if the couple gives you complete freedom in choosing your own wedding-officiant garb, show some class. I’ll never forget co-priestessing a handfasting where the attendees were all in ritual garb. The bride and groom had worked on their wedding finery for weeks. My co-priestess showed up in an old, threadbare, holey Harley-Davidson t-shirt that was about two sizes too small and cut-off shorts, because the groom told her she could “wear whatever you want.”

DO some anticipatory grooming. About two weeks before the big day, get a hair trim, beard trim and/or mustache trim.

DON’T experiment with new shades or brands of hair dye. DON’T get a home perm unless you have at least three weeks until the wedding.

DO postpone that new tattoo and any invasive dental work until after the ceremony.

If you have a few months’ warning and you feel like you could shed a few pounds, DO try to exercise and lose weight. You’re not the bride or groom, but you will still be in a lot of the photos -- during the ceremony, posing with the happy couple afterwards, etc. For their sake as well as your own, you want to look your best. Even if you absolutely hate getting your picture taken, DO smile for the camera.

DO shower the day of the ceremony.

DO rehearse with the participants in advance. This not only includes the bride and groom but any of their friends who might be calling quarters, singing a song, escorting the happy couple to the altar, etc. Rehearsing a day or two before will soothe everyone’s nerves -- including yours.

DO put the script in something. Even a black three-ring binder looks more professional than standing there with a bunch of loose papers in your hand. I’ve seen some officiants “cheat” and put the script between the pages of an impressive looking bound journal or antique book. This seems to work well. Make sure you print out a nice copy of the script to give to the bride and groom afterwards -- like a week afterwards when things have settled down somewhat.

DON’T be late. In fact, arrive early. Check out the ritual space. Test the acoustics -- how loud do you need to project your voice in order to be heard? Map out in your head where you need to be when in the ritual and the best way to get there. If there is a sound system and you are expected to use it, do a sound check.

Are you expected to set up the altar? Hopefully you’ll know this before the big day, so check with the happy couple.

DO mingle with the guests before the ceremony. This is especially useful if there are non-Pagan relatives in attendance. Go up to them and introduce yourself. Make polite small talk. Let them know (gently) that you are there to answer any questions they may have about the handfasting, your credentials, and Paganism in general. Because you are performing a public ritual in front of people of another faith, you are, like it or not, an ambassador for the Pagan community from the moment you arrive until you get in your car to go home. Act like it.

Also, be prepared for last-minute panic attacks on the part of the bride and/or groom.

DON’T get overemotional. It’s okay to smile and project warmth and happiness at a handfasting. It is not okay for the proceedings to grind to a halt because the officiant is bawling her eyes out “because I always cry at weddings.” Even if the bride or groom dumped you six months ago (although, if that happened, I would question their motive for asking you to perform the wedding and most likely decline to do so) , don’t lose it!

DO decide in advance whether or not you will accept a small fee for performing the ceremony. DO let the couple know your stance on this issue from the beginning. If you know the couple well, consider your services to be your wedding gift to them.

If they insist on paying you and you’re not comfortable accepting money for performing a ritual, suggest they donate to one of your favorite charities in your -- or their -- name. The local humane society, soup kitchen or Arbor Day foundation could always use the money. Stress to the bride and groom that this donation is strictly voluntary.

DON’T assume your boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse and/or children are invited to the wedding unless the invitation (yes, as clergy, you should get an invitation) specifically mentions them by name or as “Ms. Clergy and family” or “Mr. Clergy and guest.” If your small children are present and your mate is not, enlist someone to keep an eye on them during the ceremony.

And finally, most important, DON’T forget to take a few moments before the ceremony and ground and center. Most of us aren’t used to conducting ritual in front of a crowd of strangers. Nerves are normal. Grounding and centering will help.


Bronwen Forbes

Location: Bloomington, Indiana


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