Why Have a Humanist (Symbolic) Wedding Ceremony? – A Guide

Symbolic wedding guide

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Humanist wedding ceremonies, sometimes known as symbolic weddings, are growing in popularity among couples who want a personal, meaningful wedding that eschews tradition. Statistics show a sharp increase in humanist weddings and a decline in numbers of traditional, religious ceremonies.

These symbolic ceremonies provide a great degree of flexibility and freedom and are a great way to express yourself to the world.

Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about humanist weddings and why it might be the best choice for you.

What is a humanist wedding?

Couple having humanist wedding

First things first, a humanist wedding is a non-religious ceremony which is an expression of your love, commitment and loyalty to each other. However, you don’t have to be a humanist to have a symbolic wedding ceremony as anyone can choose this style of wedding.

It can have all the trappings of a legal wedding, but the main difference is that it’s not legally binding nor is it religious.

During the ceremony, some couples choose to let their guests know that the ceremony is only symbolic, while others don’t disclose this information, and no one is any wiser.

So, is a humanist wedding legal?

No, it’s merely a symbolic statement. What most couples do is they go to the registrar’s office before or after the ceremony and do the legal paperwork there. In this way, they don’t have to worry about the paperwork during their wedding.

As Stephen Fry puts it, “Humanist ceremonies offer a contemporary way of satisfying the timeless need to bring significance to life’s big changes”.

Legal vs. humanist wedding ceremonies

A legal wedding is just that – the legalities of the marriage are done during the ceremony and not on a separate day or place. For this, several documents have to be provided to the relevant parties and you will be legally married from that moment.

Legal ceremonies are traditionally the way to go, but they can limit your venue and date options, especially if you’re getting married abroad. The paperwork, translations and verification process of getting married overseas legally is just not worth it for many people.

Another main difference is that traditional weddings are conducted by priests or pastors, whereas symbolic weddings are carried out by celebrants. Because the entire ceremony is symbolic, you can also choose an unofficial celebrant for your special day.

Pros and cons of a humanist wedding

bride and her mother

There are many benefits to a humanist wedding which makes it a highly attractive option for couples today. Here are some:

  1. Customization – You can customize your wedding exactly as you want it, structuring the ceremony as you wish and writing your own vows and promises to each other.
  2. Inclusive – Celebrant-led weddings are inclusive welcoming interfaith and same-sex couples.
  3. More venues – You’ll have a larger range of venues to choose from for your ceremony, especially overseas venues. Also, in some countries, legal weddings have to be held in certain venues which can severely limit your choices. Not so with symbolic weddings.
  4. More spontaneity – You can get married whenever you want, as there is no legal side to consider. Of course, take care of the legal aspect before or after if you want to be considered legally married.
  5. Non-religious – For non-religious couples or couples who come from two different religious backgrounds and don’t want religion to play a part in the wedding, a symbolic wedding is ideal.
  6. Celebrant – You can choose an official celebrant or an unofficial one, like a close friend, to officiate the wedding for you, making it much more personal and meaningful. You don’t need a pastor or priest to be present.

However, there are also some perceived downsides to this process:

  1. Tradition – If you’re someone who loves tradition and wants everything to be done exactly as it has been for centuries, then a symbolic wedding might not be for you.
  2. Legalities – You’re not legally married at your wedding and for some, this is not an option. You may feel that there’s no point to a wedding like this.
  3. Your guests – Some people may feel that not telling their guests that this is a symbolic wedding means that they’re lying or being unethical to their guests. However, this all comes down to what you think is the point of the wedding. If it’s about you and your loved celebrating your union with friends and families, then that’s exactly what you’re doing with a symbolic wedding.

Structure of a symbolic wedding ceremony

Humanist wedding ceremonies can vary in structure, depending on how the couple want to celebrate their wedding. While they can include most of the rituals of a traditional wedding, they are more relaxed and intimate.

Here’s one way to structure your symbolic wedding, as outlined by the site,

  • Arrival of the couple (individually or together)
  • Introductions and welcomes
  • Words about love and commitment from a non-religious perspective
  • Reading or poem
  • The couple’s story – how they met, their shared values, hopes for the future
  • What marriage means to the couple
  • Reading, poem or song
  • The couple’s promises/vows
  • Meaningful symbolic act (e.g. handfasting)
  • Exchange of rings
  • Pronouncement as married
  • Words of well-wishing
  • Closing and departure

Some couples might wish to have prayers or Bible readings from religious friends and family included during the wedding. This is generally not a problem and can be incorporated by your celebrant. 

You can also include your friends and family in the ceremony, involving them in various ways to make the event more personal and meaningful.

Symbolic marriage certificates

When you get married in a symbolic wedding ceremony, you will be signing a marriage certificate, but also will be a symbolic document and not one that holds legal power. Remember that you’ll be doing the legal stuff separately.

Symbolic wedding certificate

Customizable wedding certificate by Unmeasured Event. Check it out here.

Basically, the marriage certificate is simply to commemorate the event. We recommend searching on Etsy for a beautiful wedding certificate that reflects your style and personality.

Is a Symbolic Wedding Right for Me?

This is a very personal choice and depends on a number of factors that you and your partner have to consider. Sometimes the reasons may be practical and other times, it’s all about your choice and how you see your own wedding.

If you’re someone who doesn’t like the stiff and formal aspect of weddings, bound by tradition and rituals, then a symbolic wedding is perfect for you.