In 2010, Nancy Sen was an attorney working for an insurance company. After officiating a friend’s wedding, the Boston resident fell in love with the process and decided to make a business out of it, becoming a certified life-cycle celebrant shortly thereafter. “I’ve always loved writing, and I have a background in theater, so the idea of using those skills for something as fun as marrying people was very appealing,” she says. “I used to joke that I was the world’s worst superhero…lawyer by day, wedding officiant by night.”
These days, Sen works with brides and grooms to create ultra-personal, bespoke nuptials that can feature everything from blended religious traditions to their favorite Bob Marley song. “Everything about the ceremony is keyed to the couple: who they are, what they’re all about, and the life that they want to build together,” she says.
What makes celebrant ceremonies unique?
One of the centerpieces is the couple’s love story. The way I describe it is the love story goes in place of the sermon you’d have in a church wedding. It’s really a great opportunity to bring some levity to the ceremony, crack a joke here or there, and allow people to laugh and relax.
How do you go about writing it?
One of the tools in a celebrant’s toolbox is the questionnaire. It tells me who they are, how they met and fell in love, what they like about each other, how they proposed or were proposed to—all of those details that allow me to really get to know them. I’ll use that to put together the first draft of their love story, which we’ll go back and revise as many times as we need to. There will be nothing that comes out of my mouth on the day that’s not approved ahead of time. They have a lot of control over the process.
What other elements can you build in?
One thing I’ll do with a couple is go through some of the common ceremony customs and ask what they do and don’t like. Then we talk about ways we can customize things. So, for example, if you love Dr. Who, how can we work that into your ceremony? The questionnaire helps me get a sense of what’s important to them so I can make recommendations for readings, unity rituals, and quotes.
How do you incorporate different faiths and cultures into one ceremony?
There is a ton of stuff you can do to pay homage to faith and tradition. I did a wedding last year where the bride was Indian and the groom was Jewish. We combined Hindu and Jewish traditions to honor their cultures and beliefs, but also to make something new and beautiful out of them. That can be nice, especially if the families are chafing because they always thought their son or daughter would get married in a synagogue or a church. Including elements that are familiar to the family and make them feel like their history is being honored can be a nice way for the couple to ease that discomfort.
When it comes to ceremony music, are people still going with the traditional “Wedding March” or is it okay to branch out?
Some couples definitely still opt for the traditional music, but I would say it’s a smaller percentage of the weddings that I do. The couples who decide to use a celebrant like me are usually looking for a ceremony that reflects their own specific tastes. One of the favorite choices from the past few years has been “Marry Me” by Train—which I loved but my husband vetoed! Another popular and beautiful choice, usually for the recessional, is Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”
What are some ways brides and grooms can acknowledge departed family members?
A lot of times I’ll recommend that we have a part of the ceremony where we honor family, living and deceased. We’ll start out by thanking parents or siblings or whoever plays a big role in the couple’s lives, and then we’ll say, “There are also some family members who are not here with us.” Sometimes we’ll read names, include a moment of silence, or light a memorial candle on a table with a photo. That can be a nice tribute.
Are there any traditions that are considered passé?
Unless a couple wanted me to, I wouldn’t be comfortable saying “man and wife.” I’d say “husband and wife” or “bride and groom.” And I’ve never said, “Who gives this bride away?” which implies that she is property. Instead I’ll say, “Who supports this couple in their marriage?” Then Dad, Mom and Dad, or both sets of parents say “We do” or “We will.”
Personalized vows: heartfelt tribute or gaffe in the making?
Some people are really uncomfortable with writing; in those situations, I certainly would not recommend it. I do give out sample vows to get their wheels turning. Some couples who don’t want to take the process too seriously will say things like, “I promise to kill all the spiders and not give you a hard time for smoking” and things like that. It’s often a combination of serious and fun.
Ditch the unity candle for one of these creative ceremony rituals, recommended by Nancy Sen.
Wine and Letters Ceremony: The couple places a bottle of wine and two letters into a box. It’s like a time capsule, and just as wine gets better with age, so shall their marriage. The couple can choose when they open it—I usually recommend 10 years.
Tree Planting: This is great for nature lovers, particularly those getting married outside. It represents the way that the ecosystem in which the tree will grow is like the community in which the couple will grow their marriage.
Sand Ceremony: The bride and groom each pour a different color of sand from smaller vessels into a larger vessel to symbolize two parts coming together to create a much greater whole.
Handfasting: In one version of this Celtic ritual—the origin of the phrase “tying the knot”—couples cross their wrists and clasp their hands to create the eternity symbol.
Ring Passing: At the beginning of the ceremony, guests pass around the rings to imbue them with love and blessings for a happy life.
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