How Does A Wedding Ceremony Actually Work?

Bride and groom in military dress say their wedding vows at belton woods hotel.
The happy couple saying their vows in a beautiful Celebrant led Wedding Ceremony last weekend at the Belton Woods Hotel near Grantham.

We quite often get asked this question, along with ‘when do you play music during the ceremony?’ and ‘what order do they do things in?’, and now that we are planning our own Wedding we’ve realised that even with a Civil Wedding Ceremony (i.e. not a Church Wedding) there are so many different things to consider that it can be quite daunting! So, we thought it would be worth doing a very basic blog post explaining just exactly how things go down, in chronological order, during a Civil Wedding Ceremony – it’s not quite as confusing as you might think! We will also talk about where the music usually fits in as well.

It’s worth bearing in mind that different counties have slightly different ways of doing things and of course you can customise your Wedding Ceremony to a certain degree (and we think you should), especially if you opt for a Celebrant led Ceremony rather than a Registrar led one (but we’ll go into that more later). Church Weddings are also a whole different ball game which we will probably do a completely separate post about at a later date. This is a very rough guide explaining the general format for a non-religious Wedding Ceremony (or Civil Ceremony – not to be confused with a Civil partnership).

Firstly – Registrar or Celebrant?

Flowers in the wedding ceremony room at Belton Woods Hotel.
Beautiful flowers in the Ceremony room at Belton Woods Hotel last weekend.

For a Wedding to be legal, you need to involve the local Registry Office at some point. Registry Offices can host Ceremonies and if your venue has a licenced Ceremony room a Registrar can attend your Ceremony to cover the legalities. However, many people opt to do a very basic ceremony at a registry office to cover the legalities, often with just two witnesses, and then get a Celebrant to conduct a larger ‘for-show’ Ceremony at a later date. Both options have their merits and are just as special as each other, so it really is down to you as a couple as to which you feel would be the best option for you.

Before the Ceremony

Most couples choose to spend at least some time apart before the Ceremony, whether this is just the morning of the Wedding day or the night before or even longer. If you are having a Registrar conduct your Ceremony at your venue they will want to talk you and your partner before the Ceremony to check you are who you say you are and also make sure they have the right details for the register. If you are spending the time before your Ceremony apart then the Registrars will talk to you and your partner separately however, you can talk to the Registrar together if you do not mind seeing each other before the Ceremony – you may have to request this specially. Venues often have rooms set aside for these ‘interviews’, they will often conduct the Groom’s interview in the Ceremony room itself.

Chanson de Nuit – Edward Elgar, Classical music works perfectly to set the right atmosphere before a Wedding.

When things are almost ready – usually not more than 30 minutes or so before the Ceremony is due to start – your venue staff and/or ushers will show your guests through to the Ceremony room. This is a good opportunity for some background music. Usually we recommend some light classical music as it is unobtrusive and just fades into the background to create a calm atmosphere, but slow pop songs or something similar can work just as well. We can set up anywhere in the Ceremony room where there is space, be it the front, back, or middle of the room! In most venues the music travels well no matter where we sit.

golf course and grounds of a wedding venue belton woods hotel.
Many Wedding Venues have beautiful grounds and gardens. Guests will want to relax and take in their surroundings before the Ceremony, especially if it’s a nice day. It’s best not to show your guests through to the Ceremony room too early. (these are the grounds and golf course at the Belton Woods Hotel)

Traditionally the Groom will wait at the top of the aisle for his Bride to make her entrance, however it is becoming increasingly popular for the Groom to have an entrance before the Bride – and why shouldn’t he have a grand entrance as well?! Once again, it’s best to check with your Registrars that this is appropriate, but we’ve witnessed this many times and more often than not the popular choice for the entrance of the Groom is (drum roll…) Star Wars!

Shortly before the Ceremony starts the Registrar might make a few announcements about fire safety, keeping phones switched off and you can also ask them to request that no-one puts anything on social media until later in the week. We will usually stop playing after the Registrar has given any notices so we can prepare for the Bridal Party entrance.

The Bridal Party Entrance

When everyone is ready and your photographers have taken their last shots of the ‘before-time’, the venue wedding co-ordinator will check the Bridal Party is ready, then give a thumbs up to the Registrar/Celebrant, who will ask everyone to stand for the entrance of the Bridal party.

A Thousand Years – Christina Perri. This is a very popular song for the entrance of the Bridal Party. Top tip, the rustling in the background is confetti packets, paper packets are always better than plastic packets.

Now, more often than not the entrance music ALWAYS ends up being shorter than people expect. Brides, if you want to hear more of your entrance song then wait for at least 30 seconds before starting down the aisle, and take your time! Enjoy it! It will be over in a flash, so take as much of it in as you can in the moment. If you have flower girls/page boys/bridesmaids walking down first it gives the music a chance to get going, so you will get to hear more. On a few occasions we’ve had to play more music than expected when a flower girl/page boy gets half way down the aisle, cries, then runs back! But it always works out in the end, when it comes to timing the music for Bridal Party entrances, we’ve had a LOT of practice!

Bride and groom in wedding ceremony room at the William Cecil hotel in Stamford.
We love that moment when the Bride gets to the top of the aisle and the happy couple see each other for the first time on their wedding day. There were tears from everyone in the room – especially the groom! (This was at a Registrar Led Ceremony at the William Cecil Hotel in Stamford)

In terms of song choices, any slow romantic song works well. Pachelbel’s Canon in D is a Classical piece that works very well, other common choices are things like Christina Perri’s ‘A Thousand Years’ and ‘Perfect’ by Ed Sheeran. We would like to stress that you definitely don’t need to have the ‘traditional’ wedding marches, we rarely play these any more. It is possible to walk down the aisle to a fast song, however, it is important not to walk too fast otherwise you won’t get to hear very much of the song at all. One of the Pros of having live music is you can ask your musicians to slow down a fast song, which can be a good way to make your music really unique to you and your other half.

Pachelbel’s Canon in D. For a more classical choice this works really well for the entrance of the Bridal Party.

For LGBTQ+ couples, the entrance of the ‘Bridal’ party (for want of a better term) can take any number of forms. For a more traditional ceremony format one partner can wait at the top of the aisle while the other has an entrance as described above. Other options include walking down together or spaced shortly apart. Every LGBTQ+ Wedding we have played for has been slightly differently so do discuss it with your partner and your Registrar or Celebrant to decide on a format that fits your relationship. It is also worth noting that it is perfectly acceptable for straight couples to walk down the aisle together and this is in fact what we will be doing at our own Wedding!

The Vows and the Ceremony itself

After a short introduction from the Registrar/Celebrant you will come to your vows. Different areas and Registrars have different ways of doing things so it is important to check before you make any solid plans. As a general rule you will need to declare that you are both free to marry and then you will make your vows, after the vows you can exchange rings and say more personalised vows if you want to. Most registry offices have an FAQ sheet with different vow wordings that they can send you and there are specific ‘hoops’ you have to jump through to make the marriage legal which they can explain. You can also have readings in between the different sections of the vows if you want to, 1-3 readings is fairly normal. Readings can be poems, short paragraphs from books or even song lyrics, but for Civil Ceremonies they can’t have religious connotations.

Bride and groom in military dress say their wedding vows at belton woods hotel.
The happy couple saying their vows in a beautiful Celebrant led Wedding Ceremony last weekend at the Belton Woods Hotel near Grantham.

If you have done the legal bit before the day, you have a lot more flexibility and Celebrants will often tell the story of how you met or include other symbolic gestures like lighting candles together or performing a sand ceremony etc… The vows you say at a Celebrant led ceremony are completely customisable as it is technically not a legally binding ceremony.

Usually after you have said your vows and exchanged rings the Celebrant or Registrar will declare that you are married and invite you to kiss. Do your photographer a favour and make sure to take your time and savour the moment! This will make sure that your photographer gets a good shot lined up.

Owl delivering rings at a wedding.
Persil the Owl delivered the rings at a Ceremony we played for in July 2019. We played the Harry Potter theme while he delivered the rings..

Again, all of this can vary slightly and there are lots of different options to customise this part of the Ceremony; we have seen owls and dogs deliver rings, family members sing songs, stamp on glasses, jump over brooms (to name but a few!) It is always best to discuss this with your Celebrant or the Registry office well in advance to give you time to plan and avoid disappointment if some things won’t be possible (some counties have banned animal involvement in Civil Ceremonies, so if this is something you’re considering make sure you check it’s ok!)

The Register Signing

All Of Me – John Legend. While this works really well for the signing of the register it is actually a really popular song for the Bridal entrance as well.

The Signing of the Register can take a while so it is good to have some music in the background. We usually ask people to choose 3-4 songs for this time. There is no set musical style to stick to, we’ve played slow pop songs, fast pop songs, film music, game music, classical music, Jazz and all sorts of other things before while couples signed the register. If there’s a song that’s special to you as a couple, the signing of the register is a good time to have it played.

Pompeii – Bastille. This is one of the first pop songs we covered, still love it 6 years on!

Photography isn’t allowed while you sign the official register because it is a legal document but Registrars will usually set up a ‘dummy’ register so that you can pose for photos afterwards. You also have the option of allowing people to come up and take some photos after your official photographer has taken their shots.

Say You Won’t Let Go – James Arthur. This is towards the end of the Register Signing, people are starting to go up to take photos of the newlyweds.

Wrapping up and your Exit

I’m Yours – Jason Mraz. We think an upbeat song works best as exit music. Slow, quiet songs are easily drowned out by clapping and cheering and you want to end the ‘official’ bit of the day on an upbeat note!

After all the photos are finished your Registrar or Celebrant will ask everyone to be seated. Depending on the area the Registrar might do an official ‘presentation of the marriage certificate’ and you may also opt to have another reading after the signing of the register. Once the Registrar/Celebrant has said a few final words they will ask everyone to stand once again and will introduce you as the new married couple and you will process out, followed by your bridesmaids and groomsmen. Exit music choice is once again up to you, pretty much anything goes, we think upbeat music works well as we think it’s a nice way to end the ceremony, but slow songs work well also. Now that the ‘scary’ bit is over you are free to enjoy the rest of your day surrounded by your family and friends!

Still Into You – Paramore. We often carry on playing after the Ceremony for the drinks reception and while you’re having photos.

We hope this (what was supposed to be a basic, but has turned into somewhat of an essay!) blog post has helped shed some light on what is usually involved in a Civil Ceremony. If you have any specific questions about something we haven’t covered please do comment below or send us a message through the website or social media 😊

Sarah james Cellist with her cello at a barn wedding venue for a drinks reception.
Sarah enjoying the sun in the courtyard of a rustic barn Wedding Venue.

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