Choosing the right celebrant to officiate your wedding is a decision that can be more impactful on your day then you might think. Not only will they be right there with you at the altar, they lead the ceremony, guide you through the legalities and truly set the tone for your day.
So, when you’re standing there about to be wed, surrounded by your loved ones, who do you want to set the vibe for your ceremony?
When it comes to celebrants, we love people who are full of energy and good humour and can keep your guests entertained (without stealing the spotlight!).
We’ve interviewed three of our fave Australian celebrants who meet these criteria to a tee; Hayley Belle from Queensland, Aaron McDonnell , covering ACT/NSW and Claire Paterson from Victoria, who are all unique and wonderful celebrants in their own right.
So, settle in, grab yourself a tea and find yourself a comfy spot on the couch—this article is a longer read, but we promise you’ll learn loads of practical tips you can apply to your own wedding planning.
1. Tell us a little about yourself and why you decided to become a celebrant.
“I’m 30, a wife, a mother and a coffee lover. Before becoming a celebrant, I worked in radio for 12 years. When I got married, there was not much choice when I was looking for celebrants. It didn’t occur to me how important it was to have the ‘right’ celebrant. Someone who reflected our style, relationship and sense of humour, until I met a few and realised that there was a massive gap in the market.”
“Long-term friends of mine, one a Catholic and the other a non-religious person decided that they didn’t want a traditional wedding and didn’t want just anyone they found on Google or in the Yellow Pages to be their celebrant. So, they took me out for dinner, put the idea in my head, asked me to think about it and yeah, the rest is history!
I married them both last year and it was not only very special but a very nerve-racking experience for me because it was thanks to them that I had become a celebrant and had the honour and privilege of marrying them.”
(And here’s Aaron with that couple!)
“As a mum of three very small babies, I had to get my brain working again. So I decided to study, and with that, I entered into a world that I had admired for so long. Marriage celebrant.
The course was really intensive, and with two two-year-olds and a 6-month-old at home, I found it quite challenging, but my instructor at the International celebrancy course – Yvonne Werner, was extremely understanding and very helpful. The actual work involved is extensive and the law side of the course was very hard. I was over the moon once I had been accepted by the Attorney General, as the Exam part was intense, to say the least.
Most celebrants that you come across are very friendly and most are a hoot, so to stand out from this bunch is very hard. I like to think that when a couple looks at my photos or my website, they have already made some form of connection with me.”
2. How would you like couples to brief you on their requirements? What is helpful for couples to let you know?
“It’s good to know what you want – show me all your Pinterest boards. But it’s also good to know what you don’t want. Think about weddings you’ve been to and what you liked or didn’t like in the ceremony; don’t like poems, sand ceremonies all that… let your celebrant know. How long do you think a ceremony should go for – as a trial, stand together in the living room or backyard (depending on where your ceremony is) with a stopwatch—how long is long enough for you?”
“The more information couples give me the better! I always meet with couples over coffee, a beer or a wine and ask about them, how they met, what they do for work and for fun, they usually open up and tell me some really funny, interesting and personal stories. This personal interaction helps me to get to know them – ever so briefly – and tells me more than I would get from a piece of paper.
That being said, I don’t have the memory of an elephant and not every couple opens up immediately with their funniest or most personal stories, so I do provide couples with a questionnaire asking them questions like, was it love at first sight or a gradual journey, fun things they do together, what they like and maybe what annoys them about each other… these and the funny, intimate stories and memories help to paint a really vivid picture for me about the couples and ensure that their wedding is, as I like to say, unique, personalised and one of a kind.”
“More information than less makes for a better ceremony. The content is created around the personal information that is collected by the celebrant from every meeting, every phone call and every connection. Mostly though, the story that you have created together as a couple is the most important for a celebrant – don’t leave any information out!”
3. Can you talk us through your process of planning a wedding with a couple?
“We meet up for a coffee, or even FaceTime and have a chat about life, how you met, your engagement story, and get a gauge of each other – are we ‘clicking’? If it’s a yes, awesome!
I send all my couples a questionnaire filled with heaps of questions, some mushy love ones, some completely random ones that have nothing to do with the wedding, but to help me get an idea of your personality and sense of humour.
We meet again to fill in the first legal form – Notice Of Intended Marriage, which needs to be lodged one month prior to the ceremony (with the celebrant).
We chat again about anything else. I usually start writing and planning ceremonies 2 – 3 weeks prior to the ceremony, so I’m completely focused on the couple and not try and compile something from notes I took six months ago, and usually your ideas and wants change within six months of Instagramming #realweddings.”
“Couples usually email or send me a message on Facebook, asking if I’m free on a certain date or what my fees are – no beating around the bush, they come in hard and fast, are you free on this date and how much do you charge?!
I always respond, letting them know my fee and my availability but also what my services include, the guarantees I provide and how I’m different to other celebrants.
I then offer to meet with the couple and arrange a date for us to meet at a café, restaurant or bar when we have a relaxed, informal chat about them, their ideas and what they want their wedding to look like.
After that, it’s down to the paperwork! I complete the government paperwork, ensure that’s all sorted and touch base periodically with the couple confirming details, bouncing ideas and asking and answering questions and close to the final day, provide the couple with a draft of their ceremony and then – that’s it, usually having a rehearsal the night before the big day and following up with the couple afterwards, providing them with a copy of their ceremony, their certificate and certified copies to help making the name changing process a whole lot easier.”
“The process can be quite long or quite short, depending on the couple. First, we start off with initial contact, this can come from many ways – social media, word of mouth, Attorney General’s website.
Once the initial meeting has happened and the couple has engaged your services and legal forms filled in, it’s basically game on – information has to be collected in any form, pictures, stories, conversations…. wine all help.
Once the information has been gathered and the order of service has been agreed on with the couple, we can then write the ceremony and move onto the rehearsal.”
4. How can a couple personalise their ceremony?
“Personal vows are a really nice way to personalise a ceremony, but also having friends and family included, get one of your bridesmaids/groomsmen to do a little speech during the ceremony, cuts time out from the speeches later in the night and it’s nice to hear a more familiar voice during the ceremony and they have most likely thrown in an old story or joke for a laugh. Music is also a big part of the ceremony which I think often gets overlooked, have a few key upbeat songs you both like as part of it – when you kiss, sign the paperwork, when you are declared Mr & Mrs, Mr & Mr, Mrs & Mrs.”
“There’s plenty of different ways couples can personalise their ceremony. Knowing that there are really only four compulsory (government mandated) elements to a wedding the rest of the ceremony is up to the couple. Whether they include a dance, a traditional custom, a cultural ceremony or ritual it’s completely up to them. I love it when couples personalise the ceremony to make it more unique, special and about them rather than what everyone else thinks they should do or have.”
“I have many ideas to personalise your wedding day, depending on how daring the couple can be. Recently I had a couple fighting over who would do their vows first, so we incorporated Beer pong into the service to decide on who would say their vows first. That idea is not for everyone, but for this couple it was perfect and the guests got right into it.”
5. What actually happens on the day?
“Your celebrant will arrive around 20 – 40 minutes before the ceremony and calm the groom’s nerves. I think a ceremony should go no longer than 20 minutes, it doesn’t seem that long, but again, stand together in one place with a stopwatch for 20 mins… it’s a while. Each celebrant is different, and each couple’s ceremonies are different, but as a guide, this is how I structure my ceremonies; Welcome | Story About Bride & Groom | Vows | Rings | Kiss | Sign Certificates | Introduce newlyweds. That’s based on a basic ceremony, through readings, rituals and speeches can all be added in.”
“No two weddings are the same. Anything and everything can go wrong, but it’s how you deal with the hiccup that spells how the wedding will go.
Whether it’s the band not turning up, the bride arriving before the groom, the best man forgetting the rings or the wind continuing to blow the arbour over or the remembrance candle out, there should always be a Plan B or at least a good way to improvise and I’m quickly becoming an expert at doing so! Ha ha.
I arrive an hour before the ceremony is due to start, make sure everything is in place, my equipment is working and I’ve got the paperwork ready and the other service providers are all okay and ready to go.
The groomsmen arrive along with the guests, these days pretty close to 15 minutes before the start time – it does worry me a little that people do cut it fine, what if the bride is actually on time for a wedding?
The bride arrives, everyone stands and the magic begins…”
“Ceremony day comes along, normally one hour before the time of the ceremony your celebrant will arrive, set up and start to meet and greet the guests, the service will be conducted with the final legal paperwork signed and the couple can then celebrate their special day. Once the celebrant leaves they will have the paperwork completed and sent off to the attorney general.”
6. Any tips for couples when writing their vows?
“When writing your vows, 100% of the words don’t need to come from your brain – at the end of the day, we aren’t all Pablo Neruda’s or Shakespeares! You will get a lot of ideas out of the questionnaire I send, but also think about song lyrics you like or poems that really explain exactly how you feel, add them to your vows, most celebrants will offer their support and guidance with writing them as well, use us as much as you can/want, that’s what we are here for.”
“Don’t over think your vows, it might sound corny, but write what comes from the heart. If you love the way he says goodnight before bed, or I love you every time you part or picks up after himself – tell him. You can’t get enough of her gorgeous smile or the infectious laugh – tell her. The vows, apart from the legal line “I take you to be my lawfully wedded husband/wife” … can be or say whatever you want them to say.
They can be promises, affirmations or expressions of love and emotion, even with a hint of sarcasm and humour if you like. One groom promised to always hold his bride close and her bottom tight and to always be her upper because no one likes a downer… be creative, be sincere, be you.”
“Vows are such a personal thing, who knows what will come out, funny, sad, hilarious, romantic. There is no right or wrong, what is important to know is that you are standing in front of your witnesses acknowledging commitment to this one special person.”
7. If you had to choose, what is your fave memory of a wedding that you have officiated?
“As a wedding gift the entire family and wedding guests performed a song, they had re-written words to “Lola” by The Kinks, the whole song was about how the couple met, and their relationship, like a timeline. I can’t even get four family members to turn up for a Sunday barbeque, let alone all learn the lyrics and practice a song together! It was awesome!”
“I don’t like choosing, but my funniest memory as a celebrant would have to be marrying the couple that asked me to become a celebrant and embarrassing myself in front of everyone, proudly declaring that we had “all come together today to witness Ryan and Sarah make love with each other” … rather than “express their love for each other” …. It was a horrifyingly honest mistake that certainly got plenty of laughs from not only the bride and groom but everyone in attendance, left me red-faced, but made for a memorable moment.”
“One of my couples I will never forget. When it came to the vows, the first partner had the most heartfelt vows, they had the whole crowd including me, blabbering and bawling their eyes out, when it came time for their partner to read their vows, no one understood a word of it as she was wailing, so loudly, it must have been so difficult trying to read her own vows – best ceremony yet.”