It’s almost Halloween again! All Hallows Eve, the festival of remembrance of the dead. The origins and evolution of this festival are so convoluted that it’s pointless trying to summarise them in a short post. Suffice to say, seeds were planted a couple of millennia ago for a significant religio-cultural holiday to honour the dead. Subsequently it got shifted around the calendar until it settled on 31st October sometime in the Middle Ages, possibly because that date allowed the Medieval Church to co-opt the old Celtic festival of Samhain (Summer’s End) or its equivalents, which took place on November 1st. These could be loosely interpreted as ‘festivals of the dead’ because they marked the beginning of winter, the cyclical ‘death’ of the natural world, and the two have been thoroughly conflated in the modern consciousness. Many of the ‘modern’ practices associated with this hybrid festival aren’t modern at all. The oft-maligned ‘trick-or-treat’ for instance. There’s plenty of evidence spanning centuries of people disguising themselves as spirits or faeries and going door-to-door asking for favours. Guising and Souling were just two variations of this. And the pumpkin lantern is merely a North American variant of the turnip or mangle wurzle lights used in Europe. And what of modern Halloween’s association with horror? That’s something else that isn’t modern. Medieval Christians believed that the faeries, elves etc. would penetrate ‘the veil’ and walk amongst us on Halloween. Most of these were iterations of the old pagan deities that Christianity had demoted and re-imagined as mischievous or evil spirits. Victorian Gothic novelists and Hollywood film makers simply provided us with new names and clothes for these old characters. I’ve often heard people say (sometimes lament!) that we’ve imported our celebration of Halloween from America; that it’s all a bit un-British. Au contraire! Although there is plenty of historical evidence of Americans celebrating Halloween, it was actively discouraged by the Puritan authorities during the colonial era. It was the Scots and Irish immigrants of the later 18th century who introduced the special degree of Halloween enthusiasm that we might think of as 'American'. And Halloween has become pan-cultural. There are those who oppose its spread on religious grounds, for instance within Islam and Judaism, but even in these traditions there are scholars who have ruled participation in Halloween celebrations acceptable. And some worry that it threatens to eclipse indigenous cultural traditions. It’s a tricky issue to be sure, but there’s something about Halloween that appeals across cultures. In many ways it has parallels in Christmas, an equally popular (and contentious) festival with pan-cultural appeal. I suppose it has the advantage (?) over Christmas of a more diverse, exotic and debatable pedigree and a much more organic and anarchic evolution. Meaning what? Meaning that it’s arguably harder these days to accuse it of being the property of any one culture. Or perhaps you feel that’s half the problem? For good or ill, Halloween is now a big event in our cultural calendar. If you want to celebrate there are so many ways you can do it. But there’s only a week left now to get your plans together so you’d better crack on! As soon as you’ve finished reading this of course. “A soul cake, a soul cake, please good missus, a soul cake. an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry” Whatever you do, have a soulful Halloween y'all.
Mabon, and a bit about 'the Wheel of the Year'
What's this Mabon thing? You've heard of the Equinoxes, right? (if not, there's a post on its way soon). Modern pagans, particularly in the Wiccan tradition and those influenced by it, call the Autumn Equinox ‘Mabon’ (and the Spring one 'Ostara'). The name Mabon is believed to have been coined by Aidan Kelly, an American writer, poet and influential figure in the development of American Wicca during the 60’s and 70’s. His inspiration was Mabon ap Modron a character from Welsh mythology with links to Arthurian legend. The name Mabon is probably derived from the Romano-British deity Maponos (‘Great Son’) while Modron is related to Matrona (‘Great Mother’), a Gaulish goddess. So Mabon is basically ‘the Great Son of the Great Mother’. Quite auspicious I think you'll agree! The festival of Mabon is the second of the three Harvest Festivals of this modern pagan calendar, preceded by Lammas/Lughnasadh (at the beginning of August) and followed by Samhain (the end of October). It's a time of thanksgiving for the bounty of the Earth, coinciding with the end of the grain harvest and the time of the fruit harvest It’s also recognition of the need to share the riches of these harvests to safeguard the whole community against the dearth of approaching winter. We're poised in a moment between great abundance and great scarcity, and this finds a cosmic echo at the Equinox in the balance of day and night. From tomorrow the Sun rules less than half of the day and its share diminishes each day until Winter Solstice. Mabon is one of the festivals of the ‘Wheel of the Year’. This is a modern pagan festival cycle based on archaeological and anthropological evidence of pagan Celtic and Anglo-Saxon practices. The former celebrated four seasonal rites with fire festivals while the latter observed the Solstices and Equinoxes. From the early 20th century, pioneer Neopagans like James George Fraser and Margaret Murray were drawing on the (admittedly scant) evidence of late medieval witchcraft practices, testimonies from the 17th century witch trials and folklore to create a festival calendar for the Neopagan movement. The term ‘Wheel of the Year’ emerged in the mid-1960s. It acknowledges the belief, common to many spiritual traditions, that existence unfolds in ‘cycles’. It embodies both the Celtic fire (Solar) festivals and the Anglo-Saxon seasonal festivals in a syncretic ritual calendar. How to celebrate Mabon? Autumn in general is harvest time, so think of 'gathering-in', literally or symbolically. Nature sheds layers, so choose something to shed or release. Energy returns to the core or roots so make a commitment to an inward-looking project (study, meditation). And as with all the festivals of the Wheel of the Year, make an effort to actively notice the natural world around you; its colours, textures, smells, sounds, shapes. What are the birds, animals and insects doing? How does these things make you feel? Light a red, orange or yellow candle, bake an apple pie and share it with friends. At Mabon I like to reflect on what I’ve learned and experienced during the preceding summer months (harvesting my abundance, as it were). I invest this personal harvest in preparations for the next season of growth. I promise myself to dial down the 'busyness', wrap-up projects and clear out what I don't need any more. I'm about to hibernate: I'd rather my cave was roomy and comfortable wouldn't you? This year I'll probably mark the day in a simple way (no explanation needed!). Perhaps I’ll buy a bottle of organic cider, go up to the woods, drink a toast to the season and offer what’s left to the Earth, the trees and the spirits? Then tonight I’ll get my thinking cap on and start gathering in my store of riches. Winter is coming! (to quote Ned Stark).
The romanticism of an elopement is undeniable and irresistible. Two lovers running away to be wed far from the scrutiny of the crowd. It might evoke a moonlit flight to some secret ruin where a sympathetic minister conducts the clandestine nuptials witnessed only by the Moon and the night creatures. Or you might imagine a jolly romp to Gretna Green and the blacksmith’s forge where your union will be sealed by the ring of the hammer on an iron-black anvil. The history of elopement is full of stories of couples fleeing the disapproval of families or sundry authorities to join in magnificently defiant wedlock. Hurrah! Love is the Law, and sweeps all obstacles before it! But there’s also a much darker history of elopement. Of desperate men - social outcasts, paupers, criminals, ‘the wrong types’ – seizing women and bearing them away to be ‘married’ against their will. The abductee's greedy parents might have set a bride price so high that her beau had no alternative but to abscond with her. She might even forgive him! And people being the fabulously bonkers creatures they are, there’s also a tradition of ‘pretend’ bride kidnapping. A couple might conspire to fake a deliciously dramatic abduction for the sheer thrill of it. Everyone’s in on it and everyone has a thoroughly marvellous time. Hurrah! But enough of the shenanigans! Eloping appeals because it's simple and direct. It’s just you and your beloved. No fuss, no logistical nightmare juggling family dynamics. You don't have to appease Aunt Flo with a chorus of “All things bright and beautiful” or making sure that strange cousin Steve doesn’t freak-out the bridesmaids. And elopement gives you much more flexibility! There are all sorts of fabulous places you could have your ceremony if there’s only you (and your celebrant) to accommodate. Think of the quirky follies and moody ruins dotted all over the countryside. Think of the turf-springy hill tops with epic panoramas, the woodland glades dappled with sunlight or moonshine. The islet reflected in a still, black lake. A Victorian bandstand in the park! - who can resist a good bandstand? A modern elopement won’t necessarily be totally spontaneous. You’ll have to arrange for a boat to get you to that islet. That fairy tale folly might belong to someone who’ll have an opinion about your plans for it. You may want to run away to your beach hut in Whitby but it’ll probably need a good clear out and perhaps a lick of paint (if you want to fill it with candles please have an extinguisher handy!). It'll still be far less fuss than agonising over who to invite and where to seat them. And cheaper! Even if you want something fairly lavish, with expensive props and do-dads, you’re only budgeting for two (and your celebrant of course!) so the money will go much further. There’s no doubt that elopement is gaining in popularity. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many millennials planning to get married would seriously consider eloping. And many who are already married would elope if they could do it all again. Even the Covid pandemic has played a part. With thousands of wedding ceremonies cancelled or postponed, elopement has gained in popularity as an alternative. Some couples chose it as a 'place-keeper' until their big day can be rescheduled. So what do you think about elopements? Is it something you’d consider? And if you have an idea for an elopement ceremony of your own get in touch; I’d love to discuss it with you.
Light my Candle!
There’s something intrinsically magical about a candle, right? It can’t be a coincidence that over a century after the invention of the electric light bulb people are still buying candles in their hundreds of thousands. We can buy them in every fragrance imaginable, and a vast array of shapes and colours. I have a line of pretty little tea lights on my windowsill which are lit two or three evenings a week and there’s something hypnotically primeval and elementally beautiful about the dancing flames. That very hypnotic quality is one of the reasons candles have been a mainstay of religious rites and ceremonies for centuries. Another reason is the symbolic power of that single point of living light in the darkness. Tenuous and transient, yet vital, bright and hopeful. So how can you incorporate candles into your ceremony? One of the most popular candle ceremonies requires a single large candle and a number of smaller ones (or wax tapers). You can light the large candle before the ceremony begins (you might want to shield it in a hurricane style lantern) and place it in a prominent place at the front of your ceremony space. Each person participating in the ceremony receives one of the smaller candles and when the time comes they take turns to light their candle from the main one. Alternatively, if your ceremony involves just 3 or 4 active participants you could choose a large multi-wick candle. In this configuration the smaller candles are lit first and each participant uses theirs to light one of the wicks of the larger candle. Here are a few pointers to make your candle ceremony go more smoothly. I’ve already mentioned that you might want to place your large candle in a hurricane lamp. The candle flame is immensely symbolic and you don’t want to create the wrong kind of symbolism by having your flame blow out at an inopportune moment! Lighting the candles also requires some thought. I’d recommend using a wooden spill or taper to light the participants’ candles. And try not to use matches; they’re messy, smelly and unreliable. Use a lighter instead. Also, make sure that each participant knows when to step forward to light the large candle and where they should go when they’ve done it. You don’t want people colliding with each other! A candle ceremony can be used in lots of contexts. It’s great when you want a symbol of blending and sharing, so it works well in couple ceremonies (weddings, civil partnerships etc.). But you could equally use it in ceremonies of renewal and affirmation. Oh! And make sure you use those candles safely! Too many people brandishing naked flames in a tiny space is not a great idea. You might also want to think twice if children are going to be involved. And some venues simply might not permit the use of naked flames, especially indoors.
Sand in your ceremony. Much better than sand in your sandwiches.
You may have witnessed or taken part in a sand ceremony and if you have you’ll probably agree that the pouring and blending of sand is a powerful symbol of unbreakable union. One possible origin for the sand ceremony is the Hebrew ‘salt covenant’. Salt is a great preservative and was a widely prized and valuable commodity. Two merchants might seal a deal with salt (the salt would make the deal symbolically permanent). Salt is also a powerful cleanser so any agreement sealed with salt would be symbolically ‘pure’. I like to think that sand is a great substitute for salt because it is (a) predominantly created by actions of salty waves and (b) is itself comprised of lots of mineral salts. That’s my theory anyway. Back to the sand ceremony. Sorry! Typically a small quantity of sand will be placed in individual containers and these will be arranged on a table in the ceremony area. Accompanying them will be one big jar or vase which is left empty. During the ceremony the stars of the show will come forward one at a time, chose a container and pour its sand into the empty vessel – top tip! - make sure your blending vessel is big enough. Not having enough room for everybody’s sand is not the kind of symbolism you’re aiming for. Alternatively, if there aren’t too many participants, they can gather round the blending vessel and all pour together. As for the sand itself, there are lots of options. Clearly if your ceremony’s on a sandy beach, the local stuff would make for a simple and fabulously ‘grounded’ ceremony. But please, as in everything, be mindful of the environmental impact and don’t take too much! You can buy coloured sands which look great when poured in distinct layers, and you can chose colours that are symbolically significant though personally I think you lose some of the ‘blending’ symbolism with this one. I’d prefer coloured sands to be thoroughly mixed into a colourful melange (More about this below). You can customise your containers too. Ideally they’ll be transparent but otherwise it’s over to you. The big one may be something you wish to keep and display so chose something you like and can live with long term. Why chose a sand ceremony over say, a unity candle? There might be several reasons. Not least of all sand is safer than fire! If your ceremony involves children or your venue doesn’t allow naked flames this might be a decisive factor. Candles also have associations with many traditional religious rites so sand might suit you better. It’s also more convenient if lots of people are taking part – if having two or three naked flames waving about makes you edgy, lots of naked flames waving about might make you too anxious to enjoy the moment. Use a sand ceremony to accompany your vows if you’re getting hitched. Use one if you’re bringing together two families. Use one to symbolically seal an important deal (Remember the salt covenant? You might even want to use salt). So, there’s the sand ceremony in a nutshell. If you want to know more there’s plenty of information out there, or contact me for ideas. Here’s one as a parting gift. Remember how I said I prefer my sands mingled rather than layered? Here’s a little ritual add-on if you want to get mingling. Chose a blending jar a bit bigger than you’re going to need and with a lid. Once the sand has been poured in, secure the lid then give it a good shake! Pass it from participant to participant. If you like, and there aren’t too many of them, pass it round your guests. Ask them to think good loving, blending thoughts as they give you a shake. But ask them to try very hard not to drop it!
Time Capsule Ceremonies: seeding tomorrow's memories.
I think most of us would love to time-travel. Just sneak forward or back a bit to nudge our lives into a more favourable groove in the ‘present’. But the time capsules I’m talking about now don’t work like that. They carry us through time on the backs of memories and emotions, triggered by the lovingly assembled contents of a jewellery box, an antique luggage trunk or a pretty biscuit tin. A time capsule ceremony sows seeds for the future. But before I talk about how to seed the future, I’m going to ask you to harvest the past. Think of a time when you were rummaging in some neglected corner, the attic or a closet, and came across a forgotten box. Perhaps it was a shoe box, tied with ribbon. You opened it and inside were a sheaf of letters and photographs, maybe some old birthday cards. You could see they belonged to your grandmother, or a long lost love. You started flicking through them, mildly curious. But two hours later you were sitting on the floor with the contents strewn around you, rapt. In those two hours you laughed out loud several times. You may have shed some tears. And when your reverie ended, you put those items carefully back in their box and placed it somewhere safe where it wouldn’t be forgotten again. People often say this is the perfect symbolic action for a Naming ceremony. And it is! Families gathering to welcome a new life. To bestow the gift of a name. To start the magical process of nurturing a unique soul. If everyone contributes a special item, invested with love, imagine the power that will be released when that capsule is opened years later! I think it would work brilliantly in a couple ceremony too, a wedding, commitment or vow renewal. Pop some lovely things in the box before the ceremony; love letters, a bottle of fizz, some jewellery. Seal it up (you might even want to do this in your ceremony – whip out a hammer and nails and set to. No - really!) and open it at a pre-determined date, maybe your first anniversary. The choice of container is up to you. Think of something beautiful or unusual. Consider durability. Do you plan to bury it? You could do so literally or metaphorically, hiding it away somewhere for the required span. If it’s for an infant, remember they’ll be a young adult by the time they open it. Think as carefully about the container as what you want to put in it. And when it comes to the contents, rather than a pot pourri, how about having a theme? Everything hand-made. Hand written wishes. Pledges or promises to be honoured when the capsule’s opened. The possibilities are endless. As a parting thought, how about reburying the capsule once it’s worked its magic? You could add some items and maybe remove a few. And why not include a written or recorded account of how it felt to open your capsule the first time? Then set a date and live your life. You’ll carry on travelling through time, but your capsule will fall further and further into your past until the next time you open it. Then POW!!! See, you can time-travel after all.
The Quaich Ceremony; supping from Gaelic tradition.
The first thing I want to say is don't worry too much about the pronunciation! With apologies to my Scottish friends, you'll probably be forgiven for pronouncing it 'quake'. It's Gaelic, originally quaigh or quoich, and ultimately derived from from cuach meaning cup. So, the quaich is a venerable form of drinking bowl and it's still principally associated with Scotland. It was most commonly made of wood and might be stave-built (like a barrel) or turned. It could also be found in stone, brass, pewter, horn or, if you were really flush, silver. It might be plain or engraved, and the wooden ones often had a decorative metal rim. But the feature common to every quaich is its pair of flat, horizontal handles. Because the quaich is specifically designed as a drinking vessel for sharing. It's now thought of, and used, primarily as a 'loving cup', a job it performs beautifully. But its historical uses went much further than that. Chieftains would share a quaich to seal alliances between their clans: a two handled cup left no hand free to wield a treacherous blade. And because both men were drinking the same liquor it was unlikely to be poisoned! No less a person than King James VI of Scotland is said to have presented a quaich to his bride, Anne of Denmark, possibly one of the earliest recorded uses in the context of a wedding. The symbolism, then as now, was the blending of two separate lives to create a new shared life. We don't know what they drank (whisky maybe?!) but whisky was traditional and is still a popular choice for the ceremony. Another option is for the two parties to each chose a special tipple and blend them in the quaich. If alcohol isn't appropriate you can use non-alcoholic alternatives or fruit juice, cordials etc. When it comes to actually passing the quaich around, there's a range of options. One method is for the couple to hold one handle each and manoeuvre the bowl between their respective lips (cue lots of hilarity over dribbles and spills!). Another way would be for one to pass the bowl to the other using both hands (much like those Highland chieftains of old). You might want to extend the symbolism of blending and sharing by bringing others into the ceremony. Ideal for a wedding, a member of the groom's family could pass the quaich to the bride who would then pass it to the groom. He in turn would pass it to a member of the bride's family, thus completing a circle. I'm sure you can think of lots of other permutations. However you decide to do it, here's a nice little toast you might want to recite while the quaich's making its rounds: "Strike hands with me, the glasses brim, the dew is on the heather, for love is good and life is long, and two are best together.
Bless the union of these two, eager for marriage, eager for love. May they begin life together, live that life together, and come to the end together" But why restrict the use of the quaich to a wedding ceremony? As I described above, it was used in the distant past as a gesture of trust to seal truces and alliances between Highland clans. I think any group of people coming together to celebrate a common purpose could adapt the quaich ceremony to seal their commitment. You might need a bigger quaich though (perhaps you could make your own?). Or you could use a 'Porringer' (basically a big quaich). Which sort of makes me think I could give a shout-out for the Wassail Bowl, a very distant cousin that might also have two handles. Or no handles. Or lots of handles! But that's really another story for another time so I won't. Sorry Wassail Bowl!
Independent Celebrant or Humanist Celebrant. What??.... Help!
There's a lot of coverage about Celebrants in the British press and media at the moment. Six couples are appealing for reforms that would give Humanist 'weddings' legal status in England and Wales (The law has already been changed in other parts of the UK). Now, I'd just like to draw your attention back to the Humanist bit of that last sentence, because the proposed legal reform would only apply to Humanist Celebrants and the wedding ceremonies they conduct. Why I am I mentioning this? Because Humanist Celebrants aren't the only Celebrants. There's also a legion of Celebrants who're commonly called Independent Celebrants. And the proposed legal reforms would continue to withhold legal status from the 'wedding celebration' ceremonies conducted by Independent Celebrants. "So what?" You might say. "'Humanist Celebrant', 'Independent Celebrant' blah! Does it matter? If the law is changed just hire a Humanist Celebrant if legal status is important to you." Let me unpick that. It may not matter to many aspiring couples. If you're considering a Celebrant for your 'wedding' you've probably already decided not to have a traditionally religious ceremony. You may be an Atheist and opposed on principal to religious philosophies and beliefs. Perhaps you're a convinced Agnostic and feel that a religious ceremony would be a bit hypocritical. Then again, you might be 'people of faith' but not the same one, and to avoid causing awkwardness or offence, you've plumped for a Celebrant-led ceremony. Fine. But what if it does matter? What if you're a couple whose beliefs do not conform to 'Religion' but are none-the-less decidedly spiritual? What if you aren't big on 'God' but you are deeply metaphysical? What if you positively identify as Pagan, Heathen, Druid, Shaman, but don't adhere to any particular creed or tradition and consequently don't have access to an 'officiant' for your ceremony? What if you follow diverse New Age beliefs and are similarly unrepresented? This is your Big Day we're talking about. You want it to scream of YOU! You want it to be an undiluted, glorious expression of your soul, your truth, your essence. So tell me; are you going to be genuinely happy and fulfilled with a Humanist ceremony? No 'Religion' allowed. Nothing 'numinous'. No supernatural references. No Metaphysics. No invocations. No spells. No 'Guardian Spirits'. No 'Guides'. Many Humanists will incorporate 'secular cultural traditions' in your ceremony but in truth, many of those are based on 'superstition' and folk magic, and they'll be reluctant to include those. Don't get me wrong. I have no issue with Humanists. None at all. It's just that I'm simply not one. And the thousands of people who choose an Independent Celebrant over a Humanist Celebrant every year probably aren't either. And I yearn for the legal reform that will allow people of all belief systems to enjoy a personal union that is recognised in law. But the proposed changes will not achieve that. If they happen all they will do is take us one step to equality. Welcome yes, of course, but certainly not the end of the matter. Some Humanists genuinely believe they can provide for all people who aren't 'Religious'. The Humanist UK website, commenting on the current legal challenge, even says it's campaigning for the day when the relationships of people of all faiths and none have parity. I'm sorry Humanists, but you can't provide for everybody. You can't provide for me any more than a Catholic priest or an Imam could. And I know I'm far from being alone. I'm glad you're campaigning for reform and I wish you luck. But can I mention that the Wedding Celebrancy Commission (WCC), which represents Independent Celebrants, has also been campaigning long and hard for reform of Marriage Law. You'd think that everybody campaigning for this laudable end would pull together, wouldn't you? But when Humanists UK were invited to join the WCC, they declined. I'm sure they had their reasons at the time. But whatever they were, there's now a real chance of getting this issue over the line, so wouldn't it be better for everybody if you were to reconsider? So I'm throwing this challenge out to Humanists. If you really are working for the day when ALL marriage ceremonies, for people of ALL belief systems are legal, please use the platform you now enjoy to argue for us Independent Celebrants too. We're not enemies or competitors. We're partners, along with Registrars and 'Ministers of Religion' (and btw, I mean Ministers of ALL Religion), and we should be striving TOGETHER for the rights, choices, dignity and equality of EVERYBODY.
"Come a little baby let's jump the broomstick"
Another contentious one this! Like most of the fun things you can do at ceremonies, the origins of this ritual are debatable. And like many of those other fun options, the consensus is that it was widely regarded as something not entirely 'official'. When the Prince Regent (the future George IV) secretly married his mistress Mrs Fitzherbert in 1789, the scuttlebutt was that "their way to consummation was hopping o'er a broom, sir" Whether the 'broom' in question was the long-handled brush you're surely imagining is also debatable. There are suggestions it might be a reference to a bough of Cytisus Scoparius or Common Broom (possibly originating in Wales amongst Romani people) or even, through a truly horrible 18th Century translation of a French reference, a pair of crossed swords. Anyway, by the 18th Century 'broomstick' was a common term for anything considered a bit dodgy or sham. So a 'broomstick marriage' was one of wobbly pedigree, regardless of whether anybody had actually jumped over a broom. Or a pair of crossed swords. Or a yellow-flowering bush. Even Dickens mentioned one in "Great Expectations"! Some academics insist that some actual jumping must have taken place historically, while others believe that since the term 'broomstick marriage' was in wide circulation, folk etymology created the belief that people must once have jumped over broomsticks to signal a sort of folk wedding. Hmmm.... The version most people are familiar with today gained popularity after its depiction in Alex Haleys novel 'Roots'. A ritual documented amongst enslaved Africans in the 1840s and 50s (adopted because legal marriage was denied them) was reclaimed and reimagined by new generations. And it now enjoys huge popularity all over the world. In this guise, it usually takes place near the end of a marriage ceremony. Two guests hold a broomstick at about shin height. The couple are asked to stand in front of it and are invited to close their eyes (blindfolds are optional). They then clasp hands and on the count of three they jump. Take a leap of faith! Hurl themselves into the unknown. You get the picture. The couple pretends not to know that as soon as they close their eyes the broom is lowered to the ground! The symbolism is multifaceted. There's trust of course – the couple are putting trust in each other to help them safely over life’s hurdles. There's also the acknowledgement that a marriage is in any ways a leap into the unknown. And then there's the symbol of the broom itself, a tool for sweeping things away. Marriage can be seen as the 'sweeping away' of two old, separate lives to create a clean start for one new shared life. Just remember to lower the broom!
Circles, circles everywhere
Circling (not to be confused with ‘casting a circle’) is a wedding custom with numerous variations and alleged origins. The diversity of these sources means it doesn’t belong to any specific religion or belief system, so if you’re looking at including a symbolic action in your wedding, you might want to include a version of this one. Here’s some background, just for context and inspiration. If you’re interested in Circling, please feel free to invest it with your own symbolism and significance. I’ll look first at how it features in Jewish tradition. After her entry to the wedding space, the bride may circumnavigate her husband-to-be seven times. This action has a number of interpretations. For some it represents the ‘seven wedding blessings’, or (perhaps somewhat controversially to a contemporary mind-set) to signify that the bride’s life now revolves around her groom. Judaism has a rich numerological tradition and one quality of the number seven is its association with good fortune. Another explanation for the seven circumambulations is that it ritually removes ‘seven shells of solitude’ that are said to enclose a groom’s soul. Some sources claim that Circling represents the creation of a new world; that of a husband and wife, just as seven ‘days’ (cycles) encompassed the Creation of the Universe. Another tradition states that when Joshua attacked the city of Jericho he was instructed to circle the city seven times to bring its walls crashing down. ‘Walls’ exist between any two individuals and one of the challenges and promises of marriage is to break down these walls. In total contrast to this, Circling may be seen as the act of building walls; magical ones to protect the couple from ill-intent. Some believe the bride is symbolically creating a new family circle. In modern ceremonies, the bride and groom can circle together or around each other, demonstrating their independent and complementary orbits. More prosaically but no less powerfully, circling may symbolise the creation of a new family circle. In marriage we leave the orbit of our parents and start orbiting each other, and this is reflected in many modern ceremonies where the bride and groom circle one another. The seven cycles can be divided in any way you like but it’s widely accepted that the bride takes three, the groom takes three and then they link hands and do one together. The precise choreography is up to you. In some traditions, the couples’ mothers circle the groom as well (you could adapt this however it feels right for you) while in another version the bride is escorted by two bridesmaids bearing candles. Again, there’s lots of room here for creative adaptions using other participants. I’ll now briefly describe how Circling is used in another tradition; the Vedic (Hindu) tradition of India. ‘Saptapadi’ (or Saat Phere) means ‘seven steps’, refering to seven cycles of the sacred fire, Agni. In the Vedic tradition the bride and groom circumambulate Agni seven times, literally and symbolically bound to each other by a white scarf or by securing their hands with a thread. At each passage round the fire the couple offer specific prayers and vows to the Divine. I’ve outlined the basic principle of these vows/steps below (with huge apologies to all the Hindus out there for my vagueness!). Circle 1 - provision and nourishment Circle 2 - strength in sickness and health, good times and bad Circle 3 - prosperity Circle 4 - family solidarity Circle 5 - progeny Circle 6 - health Circle 7 - love and friendship The completion of the seventh circle officially seals the marriage. It’s obvious that there’s a massive amount of symbolism in this ceremony that could be applicable whether you’re a Hindu or not. Fire is a near-universal symbol of purification and passion; it has a strangely hypnotic effect and brings a sense of energy and focus to any ritual. Reciting vows or promises to each other (even if not to a deity) while circling the fire is undoubtedly a powerful gesture. And as always, you can write your own vows, promises or aspirations. There are many other versions of the Circling tradition. I hope my brief outlines of just two of these, Jewish and Hindu, demonstrate the huge array of possibilities available to anyone who thinks they might want to include Circling in their ceremony. And while it’s traditionally associated with weddings, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to adapt it to another type of ceremony.
The Native People of North America have developed a rich corpus of tradition involving the humble blanket. One of these is the ceremonial wrapping of guests of honour at important ceremonies and there are few more important ceremonies than a wedding! The indigenous blankets were crafted from animal skins or textiles woven with plant fibres. When European traders arrived with woollen blankets, native people were quick to adopt and adapt them, adding embroidery and adornments and using them to create all manner of garments. Bride and groom would arrive at their wedding wrapped in individual blankets signifying their separate status. During the ceremony these were put aside and the couple would be wrapped in a single large blanket signalling that they had become one. If you chose to use a blanketing ceremony, you might want to follow the precedent outlined above. Or you could simplify the ceremony by just having a couple blanket. Whichever way you go, think of the opportunities for symbolism! If you want to use individual blankets they might be personalised with colours, patterns or other decorations that represent your singleton self. Your couple blanket might then be crafted to incorporate and blend these decorations to symbolise your union. Or you might save all the decoration and symbolism for your couple blanket and keep the others plain. I personally love the idea of a visually and texturally sumptuous couple blanket. You might want to choose a beautiful, ready-made textile. Or, if there’s time, how about inviting your families and friends to contribute fragments of cloth (preferably with some significance to them) to the creation of a bespoke patchwork blanket for you ceremony? If this seems too daunting, why not buy a good quality plain textile and ask your friends and family to contribute charms, trinkets and other personal tokens to attach to it? If you’re arty you could even decorate it yourself with fabric paints. At your ceremony, your best man and head bridesmaid (or other VIP guests) can be appointed blanket bearers. You might want to showcase it as part of the ceremony, presenting it to your guests and explaining its symbols and significance. And when the moment arrives you’ll be wrapped in your beautiful wedding blanket and you’ll exchange your pledges/vows/aspirations. And what about afterwards? You could give your blanket pride of place in your home, or pack it carefully away as an heirloom to be used by future generations (You could start your own family tradition). Or you could do the opposite: divide the blanket up and gift a piece to each guest (keeping a couple of significant pieces for yourselves of course!). Some might say this sends out the wrong signal, fragmenting what is meant to be a symbol of unity. But it might also be an acknowledgment that marriage exists in the context of a community of families and friends. You might decide that gifting a fragment of the symbol of your union to your guests is a powerful gesture of trust, faith and respect in their future support and goodwill. And Blanket Ceremonies are not only for couple celebrations. In Native American culture they’re used in investiture ceremonies for newly elected tribal officials or to honour outstanding individuals, so you might want to think about one in the context a Coming-out, Re-birthing or Coming of Age ceremony.
Sacred Space 101, Episode 2
So you've cast a circle (maybe!). I hope I managed to convey something of the symbolic significance of the circle and some of the countless ways you can use one in your ceremony. But what if you want to take things a bit further? I invite you to consider some other 'universal' elements. The Classical Elements to be precise. Earth, Air, Fire and Water. For millennia these were believed to be the four essential constituents of all matter. And it's easy to see why. Never mind the Periodic Table. Everything on it is essentially a solid (Earth) a gas (Air) or a fluid (Water) and each is more or less energetic or volatile (Fire). We can evoke these qualities to create a special kind of energy in our ceremony space. And we can ally them to that circle we cast (or didn't). Think about the qualities of each of those elements. The solidity of Earth. The changeability of Water. The heat of Fire. The expansiveness of Air. You could outline your circle four times, once for each element. Another method of bringing the elements into your circle is to assign each one to a compass point. Once the circle is cast each element is invited in turn. In many traditions (though certainly not all) you start by calling Air to the East compass point. Then turn to the South and invite Fire. Continue to the West and call in Water and finally turn North and invite Earth. You can have huge creative fun with the wording of these invitations, especially if you have a flair for poetry. Each one infuses the circle, and everything that takes place within, with its qualities. Maybe you can work the elemental qualities (and there's a thousand subtle ways of characterising and describing them) into you vows? There's a world of things you can do with the symbolism of the elements. I might return to them in a future blog but in the meantime do some research and have fun.