Ceremony Planning Advice


I am always happy to steal and pass along a creative, fantastic idea! At one of my cool NJ wedding ceremonies this weekend, my artistic couple had a vintage Polaroid camera resting on the table with their place cards and their guest book; M and C are both excellent photographers, and their “save the date” was a photo booth strip of them goofing it up for the camera! (When I got that in the mail, I knew the wedding was going to be fun!)

Towards the beginning of their ceremony, when we talked about how thankful the couple was to have all their far flung relatives and friends attend, I announced that there would be a camera at the cocktail hour, and that they fully expected to enjoy photos of all their guests along with their best wishes.

Their guests were just having a ball with this, and it was such a great idea on so many different levels!!

You can’t really take a picture of yourself (well, okay, you can if you’re Andy Warhol…); and many of their guests met each other by asking for willing photographers. The photos captured the day differently than their pro photographer, and it really expressed their personality in a fun and unique way.

Tipping Point

We never like to see a “tip cup” on the bar at a hosted event like a New Jersey wedding, but this might be an exception that warms everyone’s hearts and does some good in the world.
Advise your bartenders that soliciting tips is not what you had in mind,and take care of them ahead of time. Then station a big brandy snifter (or dog bowl!) at the bar, and a photo or two from either this wonderful charity that places puppies with prisoners who train the puppies to be service dogs for returning vets (Puppies Behind Bars), Unicef (www.unicef.org), or any other cause that is dear to you. At the end of the celebration, you’ll have a great donation,and you can thank your guests for their generosity in your thank you notes.

Why does my wedding officiant charge so ^@$&#%$& much?

Whatever number your potential officiant has uttered, it probably seems to fall somewhere between, “Oh Really?” and “That’s insane”. Many people don’t budget enough for an officiant simply because they don’t know the range of pricing. (This applies to a lot of wedding services; I had no idea what makeup cost until I asked a colleague what she charges. I was a little shocked but when she explained why, I got it….) It’s even a bigger shock if they were planning to have a family member step in for free or assumed that their parish minister would officiate for a small donation.

So why DOES it cost that much?

A good, independent officiant will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15 hours between your initial phone call until they email you a confirmation that your license has been filed. My first consultation call or skype or meeting with a couple is usually over an hour (even if they don’t book me..). I walk through the entire ceremony, part by part, to give the couple an idea of what elements they might want to include (remembrances, unity rituals, readings, poems, dogs)….(cont) and explain what will happen from the time I arrive (an hour before, so I can make sure the photographer, musicians or DJ and venue coordinator have their cues). We talk about different rituals the couple is interested in; sand, chocolate sharings, etc) and how their family dynamics will impact what they want to do. Is everyone divorced? Antagonistic? Estranged? Just plain nuts? That all has an effect on how we write the ceremony together. Are you religious? Differently religious? Not religious at all? That needs to be right too.

When I start to write, that usually takes 2-6 hours and then we revise that script until it’s right.

My couples are welcome to pick my brain about other vendors, venues, etiquette and anything else that comes up. They can send me anything they want to include and anything they want to avoid; after all, I am writing their love story, not just reciting a canned ceremony that could belong to anyone. I want the first part of the celebration to be completely remarkable and so unique that their guests start the day feeling NOT like they sat through something, but that they learned about the couple, laughed and cried, and came away knowing more. I want them to be as wowed as they will be when they see the bride walking down the aisle or discover the fabulous tablescapes that grace the reception table.
Now, that being said, that isn’t what everyone wants. Many of my couples want the ceremony to be short, sweet and over; I understand that and I respect that. But even the most standard, short ceremony process is still going to require conversations between you and your officiant, time on site, and followup. That is all time, and time is money. The ceremony, like limos and dresses, is a thing that can’t be defined as a specific percentage of your budget. It’s a stand alone item that costs what it does, based on where it falls on your priority list. Only you can decide that.

Wish Upon a Wedding Lantern

My colleague Shaun Gray posted blog about a lovely wedding tradition that one of her couples included in their celebration. I just LOVED it! Thank you for sharing with my NJ wedding couples!
Wish Lanterns are very popular in Chinese culture for all types of celebrations, especially for weddings. In weddings, guests are encouraged to write their wish for life, or for the couple, on the rice paper wish lantern. Then, normally during the couple’s “send-off” the guests release their lantern into the sky and let their wish fly up to the heavens. A picture of a wish lantern can be seen below, courtesy of wishlantern.com

There is no questions about it, this is a beautiful way to celebrate love and eternal happiness, but how do you get around the legalities of releasing fireballs into the sky? If you’re having your wedding in an area that is even moderately populated, the answer is probably, you don’t. Never fear though, because we’ve been through this very predicament, and after being transferred to numerous departments within our city government, we were ultimately told that our couple would not be able to honor the tradition of a wish lantern. We knew we had to come up with an alternative that was beautiful and still captured the essence of making a wish, but how?

We suggested to the Bride that she purchase 100 metal lanterns. We then added 100 white, non-scented votive candles to her floral invoice. As the guests arrived to the reception site they saw a table set up with different colored sharpies, candles, and a sign instructing them to make a wish on one candle and place it in the basket next to the table so that their wish could be “Sent off with the couple”.

Thirty minutes before the couple exited the reception space, we teamed up with members of the banquet staff from the reception location to line the exit pathway with the 100 lanterns, lit the votive candles and placed them inside each lantern. Here is a glimpse of what that process looked like below.

The end result is pictured below, both with an amateur picture and with a close up of the gorgeous lanterns courtesy of G Pictorial Photography.

It was a gorgeous way to send-off the special couple, and also a thoughtful way to honor a time-honored tradition.



Give a LLama to your Mama

So, what are you going to do about your wedding favors? Even as a wedding minister, clients ask me about this. I may not have the perfect answer to the wedding favor question (actually, I do…it’s having a wonderful wedding ceremony that gives your guests an experience they’ll never forget, but I digress…), but I have some good suggestions and not one of them involves hand rubberstamping little boxes full of…well…anything.

If you’re searching for a cool charity for your favor-less wedding favors, you’ll find a REALLY cool one at Heifer International. Their mission is to work with world wide communities to end hunger and poverty, and care for the earth in the process. They send the livestock (along with training on care and feeding) to families and communities. They refer to these animals as “Living Loans” because in exchange for the gifts of livestock, the families agree to give one of the animals offspring to another family in need. It’s quite a remarkable program. (I actually DID give my mama a llama; Heifer sent me a printable card of my llama wearing a santa hat. Mom loved it.)

They have lots of different levels of giving, from a 20.00 flock of ducks to an 85.00 camel, to an ark, full of duets of different species (5000.00) to a gift of transformation, at 25,000.00. That’s a lot of critters. It’s the perfect choice as a favor for your green wedding, (and the perfect holiday gift for those who have everything. Whose mama wouldn’t love a llama?) You could even substitute animals for your table numbers, to represent the donations that will be given. “Mrs. Jones, you’re at the bunny table.”

Wish upon a Wall; the Story of a Guestbook

You need a guest book. Or a guest quilt. Or a guest picture frame or plate…you get the idea; you need a place for your friends and family to write you a little message of good luck and love.

How about something totally different? How about this beautiful wall of wishes? Your guests can pick their favorite color, write you a secret note and add their wish to this keepsake. Or, you could buy one for yourselves, and add wishes as you think of them, opening them on your first anniversary. The possibilities are endless! I’m always on the lookout for interesting and beautiful products that can add a unique touch to my couples’ weddings and wedding ceremonies. And when those unique items can do some greater good, it is just a win win win!!!! This beauty is from a great company called Uncommon Goods, and I guarantee that when you go to their site or look through their catalog, you’re going to get a LOT of great ideas!~

Help, I Need Somebody!

Not just anybody! No, you need a New Jersey wedding officiant, and a cool one at that. Someone who will listen to you, learn about you, and help you write a ceremony that really expresses your relationship; the inspiring, the funny, the poignant. How, how, how can I find someone great to do my wedding ceremony, you’re thinking.

Funny you should ask; I have eight colleagues (besides myself, of course), that are all wonderful, unique, professional and fun to work with.

How can I find these people!!! Well, it’s easy. Go to NJ Vows Now and you’ll find all of us (that’s me,below, at Mohonk House in New Paltz). All of us are registered as New York City wedding ministers, and at least two of us do wedding ceremonies in Pennsylvania too. If any of you would like to have us go to Aruba, I’m sure we’d manage that.)

Your wedding ceremony should be as much fun to create as it is to experience,and all of my colleagues and I will strive to make that happen. Congratulations!


A recent post on a bride’s forum asked the question, “How can we convey romance at our wedding?” I have a sense that she was thinking about answers like, “a lacy dress, beautiful invitations that send a sense of delicious anticipation, gorgeous, sparkly rings”. That is not what came to mind for me.

I write weddings for a living, and I truly think that telling the couple’s story; how they met, how they got engaged, what they love about each other, their little quirks; this is what really conveys romance. Many or these stories remind us all that love is often a bumpy road, and even that conveys romance.

Sometimes, I’ll have the couple hold each other’s rings from the very beginning of the wedding ceremony, and ask them to let the rings take on all the emotion they feel in those moments. I ask them to take a minute before I start the vows and really think about not only that day, but the years ahead. I remind them that they won’t always see eye to eye, as they do that moment, but if they keep the upcoming promises in their hearts, they can overcome any odds. (You can find that reading right here; along with many others.)

That being said (shameless plug for interesting ceremonies, lol), one of my couples decided to whisper their vows to each other. They leaned very close together and said the words they had written to each other. (I also printed them on pretty paper and we put them by the escort cards so people could see them…) The photographer was right behind my shoulder as I stepped away, and the potential photos, from my viewpoint, was so beautiful in made me cry (truth be told, it’s making me cry now…..but I’m a big mush…..)

The first look? I can tell you from experience that even if the “First Look” is the second first look, when the bride (or other groom or other bride) comes down the aisle in front of friends and family, it’s always an amazing moments, even if they have taken photos before.

Romance is different for everyone, and expressing what it means to you, whether it’s walking down the aisle to the theme from Star Wars or walking down the aisle together or inviting four people to go hiking on your favorite trail and witnessing your vows on a mountain top. When it’s all over, you’re going to be just as married. You might as well do it your way.

Rehearsal Reversal

Wedding rehearsals are good; they let everyone know where they need to be during the ceremony. Why not start with the end first? Your banquet hall director, New Jersey wedding coordinator or ceremony officiant will probably be running your rehearsal; it may or may not take place on the traditional “rehearsal dinner” night before. With couples increasingly choosing Thursdays, Fridays and other weekdays for their events, your reception site may not be available the night before; in that case, the rehearsal can be done on the same day. (And if the bridal couple is planning to NOT see each other before hand, the whole thing can be done without the bride….) Having the rehearsal the week before the wedding, or at another place entirely is not worth the precious time it will take. No one will remember anything, and it just puts one more “to do” on your “to do” list.

A “Reverse Rehearse” can get everyone straight on their role in a minimum of time.

Start by placing the entire bridal party, including kids, dogs, pot belly pigs, ferrets, in the places that they will end up as they await your arrival at the ceremony focal point,(could be an altar, a table, a gazebo). This way, they can all see what the ceremony tableau would be like in a perfect world; they will see the bigger picture,and their part in it. They will know what to do, and this will be relaxing. Relaxed bridal parties are wonderful things.

Your maid or matron of honor will need to be close enough to take your bouquet when you enter into the ring vows. The best man needs to be close enough to hand you or your officiant the rings, which should be in his pocket, NOT in a box; this minimized fumbling at a moment that is key to the flow of the ceremony. (I prefer to have the rings handed directly to the couple; if one of them drops a ring, it’s funny and memorable; if I drop one, it’s unprofessional.) You want everyone close enough to you and each other that the photos will get capture everyone
After that, rehearse their departure down the aisle; this is a detail that is often overlooked; the grace of the recessional is just as important as the organization of your entrance.
A nice touch that one of my clients incorporated was to have the two sets of parents accompany them as they recessed down the aisle with the bridal party. It was an intentional and heartfelt gesture of respect for their part in the lives of the bride and groom.

Favorite Links

Music of All Types: ElegantEnsembles.com

My “Go To” Guitar Guy for Ceremonies and Receptions: MarkSganga.com

Beautiful Voices for Ceremonies and Authentic Greek Music! KenandJulie.com

Wine (like duh!): WineGuy.com

Intuitive and Intimate Photography DanEpstein.com

Joyous Creative Photographic Team: ShelleyandKeith.com

Gorgeous Flowers: BlackEyedSusies.com

More Gorgeous Flowers: AnnaRoseFloral.com

Stunning Photography

Pinterests Interest

How much do we love Pinterest? LOTS! If you’re not familiar with it, it’s like a digital scrapbook for you to save all the things you might rip out of magazines,write on scraps of paper…or just forget. You can browse for rustic and barn weddings, wedding vows and ceremony readings, gowns, rings, recipes and even fitness ideas. Are we on it? Of course we are and if you click on the big pinterest logo, it’ll bring you right to us! There are ideas for wedding readings and vows, for ceremony decor, and a guide to some very cool venues for your small, intimate, NJ/NY wedding celebration. BUT I will warn you; it’s very, very, very addicting…..in a good way!

Smile! You’re in a Photo Booth!

Our friends and colleagues at My Royal Photobooth were nice enough to write about us just about one year ago! I’ve seen photobooths at LOTS of weddings,and everyone seems to just love them (oh, and my profile pix at the bottom? It’s from a photobooth, lol!)

Vendor Profile; Celia Milton; NJ Wedding Officiant

Finding the perfect person to marry you is such an important decision – after all, they will have a huge influence on setting the tone of the ceremony and beyond! You’ll want to make sure that you find someone who is willing to perform the kind of ceremony you are envisioning to make it your DREAM WEDDING. Meet our friend and wedding officiant, Celia Milton.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I knew that there were couples who didn’t want to be married in either a religious building or the basement of a courthouse, and there was really no great alternative for them. They wanted something inspiring, fun, and meaningful, but traditional officiants just didn’t seem like a good fit. That’s where I come in!

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

I get to meet really interesting couples with love stories that are often unique, always heartwarming, sometimes, actually heartbreaking. I have the privilege of getting to know their stories and tell them to a group of people who all care for that couple deeply, but may not know them as well as they think. And I get to wear black. Everyone looks great in black.

How has the wedding industry changed since you started?

Couples have so much more information at their disposal because of the internet has made many wedding resources available to them. It’s a mixed blessing really; there are infinitely is so many more choices, so many more ideas that planning can be as confusing as it is exciting. You want a mason jar centerpiece? In five minutes you can find a hundred of them. While it’s great to have the access, I think it can become overwhelming.

What makes you different from other officiants?

Rather than taking a traditional ceremony and adding the couple’s names, I write a story about them; their meeting, their love story, their proposal. We can include their friends, their families, their music, even their dogs. It’s really a celebration of two people and two families coming together, rather than a reenactment of a historical ritual.

What are some important questions couples should ask a when hiring an officiant?

How long have you been doing this work and what is your training? Why do you love doing this work? Can we include things that we love (readings, people, pets)? How much is your fee and
does it include travel, overtime, consultations? Why should I hire you? Is it going to be fun?

What was the most out of the ordinary or unique requests you’ve received from a couple?

Hmmmm….one of my recent couples wanted to whisper their vows to each other; literally no one heard them except each other. It was unusual, but it was very touching.

Do you have any tips for couples planning their ceremony?

Think about what is the most important to you and what make you such a unique couple. Pick a great officiant and let them know those things. Work with them, enjoy the process and relax! (But ask to see a final script so you know exactly what will be said. )

Any advice on a person having trouble writing their vows or expressing them in writing?

Your vows are not meant to be great literature. They are words from your heart; promises you make to your partner with the idea that those promises will enhance and nurture your relationship. A public acknowledgment of what you love about each other.

Here is a trick I use with my couples; take a deck of cards. Split them in half. Take your 26 cards (throw the joker out, lol!) and write one thing on each card that you love about your partner and how you’ll support that. You then have a great start to writing your vows!

Your favorite place you’ve ever done a wedding and why.

You know, that is a hard question; I did a wedding on first base at Yankee Stadium; I’ve done weddings with four people in their sweatsuits in their backyard. It’s not the place really, it’s the couple. (That being said, I did get to marry the first gay couple at the Empire State Building, thanks to Colin Cowie. It was beyond cool.)
Name three inspirations: 1 person, 1 place, 1 thing.

Anne Lamott/David Rakoff (who make me want to be a better writer) ….the Jersey Shore, (the place, not the show….for the sense of limitless possibility that horizon presents) and colored Sharpies.

What’s your current obsession right now?

Poodles. Champagne. Punctuation. (I am a total grammar freak.) Any “Sur le Jardin” perfume by Hermes.

When you aren’t doing this, what are you doing?

Hmmm….when am I not doing this, in one way or another, I’m still doing this. (Ideas come from all kinds of places when you’re not necessarily in ‘wedding mode’!) When I’m not doing this I’m either cooking or blowing glass. Or drinking champagne with my poodle, Sofie. It’s good to keep the poodle and the torch as far apart as possible.

After spending a decade in the fashion biz and another owning an upscale catering business, Celia returned to Union Theological Seminary in New York, and then Celebrant Foundation. She works with couples in NJ and NY, collaborating to create wedding ceremonies that are funny, moving, and personal, incorporating her couples’ favorite readings, music, friends….and even their dogs. She is an expert at creating new and unusual rituals that speak to her clients’ individual stories. And if you need the perfect chocolate mousse recipe, she’s got you covered!

In the six years that she has been marrying couples, she’s been featured by TLC’s “Four Weddings”, Fox 5?s “Good Day Street Talk”, Colin Cowie’s “Wings of Love”, ”Contemporary Bride”, “NJ Bride”,and “201 Magazine” and “Four Aces.com”. She is regularly quoted by industry websites and blogs.

She has won “Wedding Wire Brides’ Choice in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012?, “Best of the Knot 2011, 2012? and been profiled on Sage Wedding Pros, Natalie Bradley’s “Bride Attraction”, Small Business Opportunities.com and So You’re EnGAYged.com.

You can follow Celia on Facebook and Twitter.