A lifetime of ceremonies has given me the conviction that creating the right ceremony at the right time, whether for a birth, coming of age, marriage or death, follows a basic human instinct. In the absence of religious rituals, this need can be fulfilled by the use of a celebrant.
I recently started looking through family photographs which my brother had digitised from slides. It struck me that as a child my year was punctuated with feast days and ceremonies, indeed, one’s life was punctuated by special days and ceremony. Looking at the pictures made me wonder whether it is my Roman Catholic heritage that has made me become a celebrant. I no longer follow any kind of religious faith, but is it in my bones to enhance a special occasion with a special ceremony? I hope I’m not being self-indulgent if I try to explain…..
We didn’t attend a grand church, ours was a tiny World War 2 pre-fabricated building which had been converted for use as a church. However, we still marked our faith in traditional ways such as the “May Procession” and “Corpus Christi Procession” – think of the images you see of whole towns turning out in South American or some Mediterranean countries to parade a sacred symbol or statue through the streets and reduce the parade to a fraction of the size, plus English reserve, and you’ll be about there! Our May procession was in our tiny church carpark and involved carrying a crown of flowers to be placed on the head of the statue of “Our Lady”. This happened, unsurprisingly, in May, and Corpus Christie would follow in June or July I think. This would involve a procession carrying the “Blessed Sacrament” from the church along the quiet lane to my family’s garden where a short service would be held at the altar my Dad had put up. The picture is of a similar procession at my brothers’ school. Then there would be saints’ days at school (these wouldn’t have much ceremony attached, maybe an ice-cream or extra play time!) and of course Lent, Easter and Christmas so there was always something special to look forward to, and possibly even to practice for. (I had to be ordered down from playing in a tree one day when I’d forgotten about the May procession practice. Mine was the starring role of May Queen. Oops).
Even the weeks leading up to Christmas gave the opportunity for a small ceremony; each Sunday an advent candle would be lit on the wreath my Dad had made and the family would stand beneath to read a passage from the Bible and sing an advent hymn. I remember the excitement when the final candle was lit – it meant this was the last Sunday of Advent, Christmas next!
There were also personal red letter days such as christenings, first communion, confirmation and marriage. Such occasions were important family events and could be elaborate or very simple. I only remember one wedding in our tiny church; a local girl was pregnant and had decided to get married. In those days this was still something of a scandal and as she and her family regularly attended, it was decided to use our church. I think my Dad, as church warden (or at least, he oversaw all the nuts and bolts of the weekly masses said there), relished the whole event and I remember all the extra care that was taken to make the church as attractive as possible. The photo I’ve found of the wedding shows the pieces of carpet that someone dug out to allow the bride somewhere to stand without getting her dress dirty on the ash carpark or long grass. I seem to remember a very simple wedding breakfast after the event. This day was all about the church wedding and the fact of the couple getting married. The ceremony in the church would have been the “main event” rather than any big showy reception.
Once I’d had my own children, I had them christened and had a get-together after each event. My own faith was pretty shaky by then but I felt a need to do something. I had grown up with this heritage of marking special occasions with a celebration and what could be more special than having a baby? I could of course have simply had a party, but I wanted more than that. Had I known about baby naming ceremonies I’m sure I’d have chosen to celebrate my children’s arrival with them instead!
It still feels a little bit wrong for me to have the celebration without the ceremony. Is it right if I celebrate Christmas without attending church? What’s the point of going to an “evening do” of a wedding if I haven’t experienced the ceremony? I do celebrate Christmas without attending church – along with millions of others! Given the choice, I’d rather not attend wedding evening parties any more as it does feel as though I’ve been cheated of the whole point of the day.
So, where has this heritage left me? When I create a ceremony I want it to matter, to really count.
Whilst it’s understandable that the venue, menu, chair covers, flowers etc. are important aspects of the wedding, surely the focus of the wedding should be the ceremony? Many couples now don’t want to marry in church and they rely on these extras to make their wedding special. Given that the point of the day is exchanging vows, more focus on the actual ceremony could change the feel of the day into something altogether more memorable.
The ceremony created around that special moment when vows are exchanged will set the romantic, intimate tone for the day and be remembered beyond the colour scheme of the reception!
Similarly, a couple who want to celebrate their family can have a wonderful ceremony without having to use a church with which they have little or no relationship. I applaud not christening a child if the couple does not have the faith behind such a ceremony, but a baby naming gives the opportunity to share the start or growth of a young family with the community. Friends can be nominated as “Guide/God/Odd” parents for the child. These will become significant adults as the child grows, as well as the child having photos to look back on to let them know that this one day was arranged especially for them.
A funeral can be a cold affair if the celebrant has little or no knowledge of the departed. There may be a eulogy, but if the rest of the ceremony is a template from a prayer book which means little or nothing to the family involved it could leave them feeling empty. A ceremony written entirely around the wishes of the family is surely going to bring more comfort.
As I write this, I’m wondering whether my local communities will ever look to their “community celebrant” to create secular ceremonies, for example a harvest ceremony to give everyone the opportunity to stop and appreciate the gifts that the earth has borne them; I’m sure it already happens elsewhere, but for now I shall concentrate on creating the ceremonies requested by my wonderful clients to help them celebrate and commemorate their births, marriages and lives.