“What is the ‘normal’ ceremony?” and “I want my ceremony to be unique” are often spoken lines with much cross-over.
“Normalcy” and “traditional” are relevant concepts. It’s true that the “I take you to be my lawfully wedded spouse to have and to hold from this day forward, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, and to love, honor, and cherish for all the days of my life” are probably the most frequently used vows in both Christian/religious and civil ceremonies. It is also true that couples have used variations for centuries. Until the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s, marrying in Church was not mandatory. And the State acknowledged marriages so long as the couple resided — worked and played — as a family. Most couples in rural areas “married” with a simple exchange of vows or exchange of something or other and a communal feast followed. Clandestine marriages were frowned upon, yet recognized by Church, State, and Community for the most part — unless the couple were public figures and someone contested the relationship for political reasons.
Yes, since the ninth or tenth century, many of our European ancestors exchanged rings — sometimes just for the woman and sometimes for both. Rings, however, are not mandatory. Rings come after the wedding vows traditionally as a reminder that they are “tokens” of “troth” (truth) rather than the penultimate sign of marriage.
While many view the unity candle as “traditional,” it is actually not. Only since the 1970s have couples widely adopted this practice, although it is certainly probable that couples lit candles on their wedding day three hundred years ago.
On the other hand, “unique” customs, such as including readings or exchanging personal vows or adding a special touch, reflect past and contemporary times. Many rites we fabricate today to indicate the creativity of the couple exist in an historical continuum. If you think it’s a new trend to create your own vows, consider that for centuries couples simply exchanged a promise — a plighting of the troth — in any way they wanted before setting up house together as husband and wife: not until recently did Church weddings become the norm. One hundred and fifty years ago, renegade feminists and the new agers of the day read passages to each other and the congregation revealing their feelings for each other and their very non-traditional notions of gender roles — at least non-traditional when contrasted to most currents of thought at the time. The famous minister Henry Ward Beecher presided over many of these.
In some ways, the State compulsion to get a marriage license is the newest of traditions. Although some American colonies introduced a marriage license, getting one was not traditional for most couples. Indeed, the license has a seedy history, as some states made it compulsory specifically to prevent interracial or otherwise illicit marriages. (No, New York did not have such regulations against interracial marriages.) Because clergy were not widely available (church records contain marriage records), States began appointing “Justices of the Peace” to conduct weddings; JPs would then submit their little marriage record books to the State, but the certificate they gave the couple granted the pair a record for whatever purposes they needed. By the late 1800s, it became the norm for folks who were having a civil ceremony to secure the marriage license, but Church ceremonies correspondingly rose in popularity, so probably only about fifteen to twenty percent actually got one.
I love the New Deal and all it represents. I am also grateful to those enlightened entrepreneurial pioneers of insurance and other such benefits. Yet, it is very easy to argue that the introduction of social programs, including Social Security benefits given to spouses of deceased partners, solidified the importance of the license. To get benefits — governmental or private — couples must produce that magic piece of paper that has the duel (yes, not “dual”) purpose of legalizing some marriages and make other intimate commitments unrecognizable, such as same-sex commitments or domestic partnerships.
Ideally, all you need to do is to marry in front of witnesses (thereby preventing a he-said-she-said situation) and someone who has some kind of authority and responsibility to record marriages for posterity. Ideally, the ceremony blends together the couple’s unique bond with a few ethical reflections and communal support. But, above all, ideally, the intent and vows selected by the couple to bind them together matter most.