Ceremony Matters

From 2006 to 2021 I wrote a column for the Pocono Record (and beyond). It feels like I must have covered everything about wedding ceremonies specifically and wedding-adjacent topics as well. But I haven’t written since the pandemic ended and as weddings come roaring back I do have a few observations to share.

I’ve been officiating 18 years now, and I’ve seen so much, but as I continue to grow in my practice as a celebrant, my clients, too, are growing. I am constantly reminded of the power of ritual, and that wedding customs extend far beyond walking down the aisle and exchanging  vows and rings.

On my recent trip to Scotland with my Celebrant colleagues, I picked up a few Celtic ritual variations, especially wonderful ways to perform handfasting, aka "tying the knot." Handfasting is an ancient symbolic act and, while coming from pagan or wiccan traditions, has entered the mainstream. And for good reason. It ties (pun intended) to the past while moving the couple into their future. It’s a great action for the couple and visual for the guests. There are many ways to do it — one cord, two or three — I even have a wedding coming up with a four-cord handfasting. There also are different words that can be said to enhance the ritual. Cords can be plain or unique. Colors may represent different things, and different people can lay the cords on the couples joined hands. Not to mention the fabulous photo opportunity.

Quick story: Many years ago I ended a ceremony with "jumping the oak branch" — a more obscure Celtic tradition, not dissimilar to "jumping the broom." Some ten years later the couple told me that people still talk about that moment. Actions do speak louder than words.


Lois in Scotland

Trust me, dear engaged people, when you add a unity ritual, especially something that resonates for you personally, it will create deeper meaning and lasting memories.

One final piece of advice: Don’t let others, whether family or friends, pressure you to conform. In our modern world marriage still resonates; it is meant to create a safe place to grow as individuals, partners and as a family if we so choose. And weddings are one of life’s biggest milestones, honoring the passage into your married life. Weddings are also still relevant but have also changed in many ways. Let the evolution continue!

Newly engaged? Here are a few things to think about.

It’s the holiday season – and there really are a lot of them! It’s a popular time for people to ‘pop the question.’ If you become engaged and begin planning your wedding celebration, I have a few things I’d like ask you to think about, in no particular order.

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I was speaking with a very devout Christian woman recently who was absolutely shocked I didn’t share her beliefs. She kept insisting that I would see the truth (her truth) in the end, when I was close to death. I told her it wasn’t like that for me, but she found that completely incomprehensible; it was as if I believed the sky was red. Yet for her it was the air she breathes. We certainly all hold different views on religion.... more...

I really enjoyed writing about weddings and ceremony for the USA Today Network paper via The Pocono Record, for well over 10 years. I shared a lot and I learned a lot. As I retire from that work I’m pleased to share some of my favorite columns from years past. Here’s one any couple planning a wedding should find useful.

Do you need a wedding program?

Most people planning a wedding eventually come to this question: should I have a ceremony program? As the big day approaches, I sometimes hear from ‘my’ couples, asking for the ‘order of service.’ I immediately know why. They are creating a program and want to include an outline of what will take place.  This is a common practice, and in a religious ceremony it can help people get ready to find the page for the next scriptural passage or hymn. That’s ok – to a point.

But a program for your ceremony it isn’t always necessary or even desirable.

Do I really need to read ‘lighting of candles’ to know that the candles are being lit? When you think about it, the ‘order of service’ simply encourages people to anticipate what is happening next, distracting them from what is happening in the present. It becomes a checklist to be completed. I believe it is more enjoyable to allow the words and actions to unfold.

Instead, why not approach the booklet as a chance to expand and enhance the ceremony experience for your guests, rather than distract them? If you have the time and inclination, a wedding program can provide ‘added value.’

For more creative couples it can even become quite the art project!  And it can serve multiple functions.  Here are some suggestions to add content and value to a program:

When listing the wedding party – explain who they are, your relationship with them, or even where they live. People travel far to attend weddings. You can show your appreciation of their time and effort by making mention of it.

Use photos - of yourself, your family and friends. Even your pet who unfortunately, was unable to attend, but sends best wishes!

Get creative – the program can be made to look like a theater playbill, a menu, a newspaper, a fan, a passport, a map, a chalkboard, anything goes!

Explain rituals that are being performed. Give historical, cultural or religious background, and why it is being used. This is true for religious or secular ceremonies. Remember not everyone is versed in your traditions and will appreciate learning about them.

Give music credits – details on what songs or selections were played and what they mean to you.

If your ceremony is in a unique location – explain why you chose it. 

Readings, poems, lyrics – just as with rituals - explain why you are using them in your ceremony, especially if there is particular story to accompany it. Or, include a poem, song lyric, or other writing that you could not fit into the ceremony. But don’t include the work itself if someone is reading it.

Honor family members with a tribute to them by using a meaningful quote with their name – especially poignant for those who couldn’t attend or those deceased.

For multicultural or multilingual families, have translations of some or the entire ceremony.

If children are involved in the wedding party, they can create the cover or write something special. They might also help by assembling or distributing the booklet. Don’t forget to credit children for any role they play in the wedding and thank them for their support of the marriage. They will appreciate the sentiment, and love seeing their names in print. 

If you do decide to create program booklet, I hope you’ll make it special, but if you are stressed, too busy, or simply cannot take on one more task – don’t do it! While your guests may be delighted to find a program full of surprises, truly, no one will be disappointed that there is none at all.


I have been writing this column for the Pocono Record since... yup - 2006 and it has finally wound down. I may have something from time to time, but for now I'll be posting some of my favorites from the past years.

I hope you enjoy them and find them useful.


Here is some of my very best advice for weddings, for guests and for couples getting married, gleaned from my 16 years as a celebrant. I’m not talking about wedding themes or colors to choose, or food selections, songs or dresses. These tips are simply practical guidance. As a couple plans a wedding, these ideas might help you enjoy the process and your wedding day.

Tips for Guests:
Be on time. I can’t tell you how often I see guests hurrying into the ceremony as it’s starting or arriving during and even afterward. If you have been invited to the ceremony, you have been invited to witness a special and even sacred time in their lives. It’s not just a party!  Allow for traffic and unforeseen delays! It’s extremely rude to walk in late.

Please respond to invitations in a timely way as well.

Please note if the ceremony is outdoors and dress appropriately. You can always change your shoes and slip out of the coat later.

Turn off your phones and do not photograph the ceremony. Don’t post wedding photos until the couple has posted (unless the couple says otherwise). Professional photos are always better than your cell phone and no one wants to see someone caught off-guard. The images of someone’s wedding should be theirs to control. Sure some selfies of yourself are fine, but minimize what you share on social media, deferring to the couple’s wishes. They may have a wedding hashtag and want you to post – just check to be sure.

Tips for Couples:
Break in your shoes and be comfortable. Bring some bandaids.

Invest in an officiant who will take the time to create something that truly works for you. Weddings have professional vendors for a reason. You’re probably not making your own wedding cake or having a friend DJ for you. A professional officiant brings a lot to the table.

Select a unity ritual that resonates for you. Honor your culture (if it matters to you).

Remember that young children and dogs do not always cooperate for the ceremony. That’s ok.

If there are children involved – involve them!


Children participate in the Sand Ceremony (Photo: Garth Woods)

Your bridesmaids/groomsmen can be whatever gender you wish – just call them attendants. And connected to that idea is that a woman can hold a ring, too, you know! I like the terms ‘best man, best woman, or best person.’

Infuse your values into your wedding day. This can be done in many ways, through words in the ceremony, with donations to charity on behalf of yourself and your guests, or with favors and gifts purchased from an organization you care about.

Treat the planning as a test for your marriage which will also have ups and downs. You must learn to navigate conflict. Be kind to each other.

Don’t obsess over the little things. If going over budget or stressing about details ask yourself: do I really need (for example) that many flowers?  Do we need a wedding program, or limos? You may want these things, but if you are feeling overwhelmed, just let some things go. Figure out what matters the most to you and put your budget there. It is often good food and music.

Mind the gap between the ceremony and reception. You don’t want your guests to be bored or not know what to do with that awkward time between the two.

Be mindful of loud music during dinner. Allow people the ability to talk. Dancing can come afterwards. Seat older guests further from the music and younger ones closer.

Have a great rain plan and don’t be upset if it rains.

Don’t set unrealistic expectations about it being the ‘big day,’ you are planning for a marriage, not just a wedding.

I was reminded of this topic just the other day when a bride was struggling with the issue: shoes! I have had a complicated relationship with shoes my entire life. I love them, but my feet do not.

I recall a trip when I took a new pair of so-called comfort shoes. I was looking forward to being able to walk through the lovely small towns of Italy in great comfort. That turned out not to be the case. The lesson I keep learning over and over is to bring a pair of favorite and well-worn shoes. Shoes that are broken in. Shoes that I have history with. Shoes I know I love and that love me back.

I believe passionately that ceremony matters and writing about the meaning and depth of a rite-of-passage is important. I also know that if you are not comfortable during the ceremony, you will not fully take it in. I have officiated around 1,000 (yes, one thousand) weddings at this point, and  too often I’ve seen a bride, and occasionally a groom, struggling with their shoes.

I’m amazed that a woman would buy a pair of high heels when she normally does not wear heels. I’m amazed that men rent stiff shiny shoes, shoes they have never worn before, and expect to dance the night away in them. I’m amazed that anyone will buy a gorgeous pair of shoes for their ‘big day’ and not wear them around the house for a while…wait, isn’t that what I did? So, yes, today’s column may sound trite but believe me it is not. I spend a lot of time speaking with couples about the importance of a wedding ceremony. But as they say “the devil is in the detailScreen_Shot_2021-07-19_at_8.08.14_AM.jpgs,” and you don’t want that devil dogging you during such an important time in your life.

Other small things that may become large things, those devilish details, are dresses that are too long and cause you to trip or to constantly be aware of so you will not trip. Tip: try it on with those shoes you are breaking in.

Another dress disaster is not being able to use the toilet by yourself because your dress is too unwieldy. Tip: get a Bridal Buddy.  Other dress issues include strapless dresses that beg to be hiked up constantly. Dresses you cannot comfortably walk it (may apply to the ‘mermaid’ style gown). And dresses that require uncomfortable under garments. 

Split seams in a dress or suit can occur. Be sure to have an emergency kit that includes needle and thread, safety pins and some band aids and aspirin. You don’t have to go crazy with this – but it is good to pack a few such things.

Other problematic issues include bouquets that are too heavy to hold, or boutonnieres that ruin a vest or jacket or won’t stay upright. Tip: get one with the magnet style attachment instead of traditional pins.

And my biggest pet peeve – people playing with their phones and cameras during the ceremony. Signage is not enough, trust me on this. Have your officiant or DJ announce before the ceremony begins a gentle reminder to put away your devices. It’s just rude to play with your phone during a wedding ceremony. If you have hired (or designated) a photographer, let them take care of that. Everyone else should be paying attention not taking pictures.

Ok, that’s my rant for today. I know there are many more details that can trip you up, even literally. I’ve heard the devil wears Prada, but the devil also needs shoes to go with it.

 Checklists Rock

I don’t know about you, but I’m a list maker. I take a list to the grocery store (I even have an app for that now). I often make a list of things I want to accomplish on a given day. And professionally, as a Celebrant, I certainly have a checklist for each couple I am working with, one that includes details I need so I can write the perfect ceremony because they have returned their questionnaires. Check! Other items on my list include wedding vows, marriage license, payments, ‘props’ if needed for rituals (such as candles, wine, sand, a glass for ‘breaking the glass’ or any number of things for different traditions), and a plan for the ‘big day.’

If you are planning a wedding, you will have a list even more extensive and having that checklist can provide a sense of security and accomplishment. For me, a list eases my mind. It assures me I won’t forget something important because it’s written down.

I’ve collaborated with Vicky Reddish, from The Essential Smoky Mountain Wedding Planning Guide, to come up with three versions of a checklist that we hope will be helpful for you. As you will see, they are very detailed and like all things in life and weddings, the choices are up to you. We’re just hoping to give guidance in navigating the complexities of wedding planning.

Hiring a wedding planner, if you can afford one, is a great investment. Many of the items on the checklist will be handled by him or her. It’s great to have someone overseeing everything, especially on the day of the wedding. If you are having your wedding at a venue that includes a coordinator, you may not need another one, but if there is no one on-site, it really helps.

Vicky says, “Whether you lean on a trusted friend or hire a professional, I definitely recommend having an outside party help with the details and coordinate the day of.  This keeps you from stressing out over details on your big day and lets you soak it all in." That’s good advice. Being present for this rite-of-passage can be difficult but it is so important.

For a casual wedding you can ask family or close friends to help with some of the tasks. For your processional have a trusted person who is not in the processional cue everyone to enter. This makes the ceremony entrance go smoothly.

If you have your ceremony at a house of worship and the reception in another location, have directions printed out for everything and try to plan the timing of the two events so there is little down time. The wait after church and before the party can be tedious. Don’t put your guests through that. This is why many people choose to have the ceremony and reception in the same location.

Think of our checklist as your roadmap, although you may decide to take a different route, and that’s perfectly ok.  You might also want to think about which partner is taking on each task. Just as your marriage will be a partnership, you want to take this on challenge as a team. Often one person leans into it more, but there is always something to help with even if your bride or groom is doing most of the work. And try not to stress. I know this is much easier said, than done, but by utilizing a checklist, you can find some ease knowing everything is in order. Good luck! Congratulations!

feel free to download the attached check lists for your use! 

Between the pandemic and lots of snow, here in the Poconos we are so glad spring has arrived.

The season brings many holidays: Passover, Easter, Holi, Ramadan and Earth Day. They all involve ritual.

Rituals are prescribed actions that represent something important. Another component is that they are often repeated, for example, saying what you are thankful for at Thanksgiving dinner each year, or lighting a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Specific parts of religious practices are ritualistic— such as the Passover Seder, fasting for Ramadan, and for Christians passion plays or pageants and special Easter Sunday services come to mind.   


All of the uncertainty surrounding COVID has had an effect.

I have been working with many couples who changed their wedding dates as many as three times (so far). It begs the question: Would it have been better to keep the original date and get married in a smaller gathering, or reschedule in the hope of having the wedding you intended?


photo: JillKatherinePhotography

Do not overlook or downplay it. Mourning a pet is really very important. Our pets are part of our families and when one dies it’s crushingly painful. They have often seen us through difficult times and joyous times, they are companions who never judge us and give us unconditional love. Don’t let anyone ever tell you to “just get over it” or “you’ll get another dog” (cat, whatever). Maybe you will get another pet, but the death of your animal companion, your furry or feathered friend, is a painful loss.


Happy New Year! Maybe you made some noise to welcome 2021. A big bang can be joyous, or it can be frightening. It’s as ancient and obvious as can be. We can literally break something as a symbolic action. The well-known "Breaking the Glass" ritual at a Jewish wedding is a great example, but there are other, lesser known traditions that involve ritual breaking. Here are a few examples.


A couple "breaks the glass" after being wed by celebrant Lois Heckman.


I’ve covered a lot of ground since I began writing this column way back in 2006. And it has served me well because I find weddings endlessly interesting, especially the history, customs and traditions involved. Regardless of what is happening in the world, such as the pandemic — people still need ceremonies. 

As much as I love weddings, as a celebrant my work encompasses more than that. Celebrants are somewhat like religious leaders — we help individuals, couples and families honor life’s milestones. So whether you identify as religious, spiritual or nontheist, ritual is especially important during the big transitions in life.  


I am happy to have a break from writing Pocono Wedding Talk – the COVID information that is provided by the Pocono Record is so much more important, and it seems frivolous to write about weddings, especially since they are mostly cancelled now anyway. But it’s been about a month since I wrote a column...

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I’m going to write about weddings today, I promise, but first a little story. Once, when I wrote a letter to the editor on a political issue, I got a comment telling me to stay in my lane. The person said I should stick to writing about weddings and shut up about other things.

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Aug 09, 2020

There is no hierarchy of grief, mourning or sadness. Everyone is entitled to their feelings even if others have had worse things happen. Certainly, the death of a loved one doesn’t compare to your wedding being postponed – but you are still allowed to be upset about the disruption of something you planned and dreamed about for a long time.

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During difficult times, a few laughs are helpful. I was thinking about how I add a little touch of humor in wedding ceremonies and thought I’d share some of that.

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Oct 04, 2020

Yes, I’m going to address this issue… again! Because it is an ongoing situation. And talk about wedding stress! This is not a crisis over a dress or flowers. COVID-19 has caused the postponement and cancellation of countless events. What if it’s your wedding? For that matter what if another emergency comes up that puts your special event into question? What do you do? How would you handle that?

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The struggle to have safe gatherings is on-going, as the pandemic is far from tamed. The struggle to unite our country continues as well. But there are other struggles, more personal, within many families. The concept of the dysfunctional family has become a bit of a joke because everyone thinks their family is “not normal.” But what is “normal” anyway?

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To read back on the many, many columns... click here and scroll down. There you will find articles on many useful topics. From wedding protocols, to cultural and religious traditions around the world.