A Traditional Celtic Wedding
Story by Rebecca Nolan of Once in a Lifetime Events and Photography
Photos by Chris M. Stanton
Le grá is Irish Gaelic for “with love,” and Celtic weddings are the epitome of romance. My husband and I both have strong Scottish and Irish heritage, so it’s no wonder we chose this ancient tradition for our mini-mony in the chaos of 2020. Surrounded by nature and our closest family and friends, it was the spitting image of what our ancestors would have done.
But you don’t have to be Scottish or Irish to have a traditional Celtic wedding, nor do you have to travel to the Emerald Isle to host one (though highly recommended—it’s gorgeous there). Instead, you can incorporate some or all of the customs to create your very own Celtic ceremony right here in Colorado. Now, when we say Celtic, we are referring to the many similar traditions, as well as unique ones, for both the Scottish and the Irish cultures—because yes, they are as different as their accents. A Celtic wedding incorporates all of them or a mix-match of both. Here are but a few of the practices that can take place.
I wore my mother’s dress, so I opted for some Scottish thistles in my bouquet and a four-leaf clover necklace to represent both my Scottish and Irish family.
First and foremost, the couple’s attire. This one isn’t as widely followed today, but you can consider it an alternate to the tux and white dress!
Traditionally, the groom would wear a kilt made from his clan’s tartan (patterned cloth consisting of crisscrossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colors specific to that clan), along with the family crest, button-up white shirt, Prince Charlie jacket and vest, a bow tie, kilt hose, garter flashes, and a sporran. (That’s a lot, right?) During the British rule, the wearing of tartans was strictly forbidden, but they’ve been making a comeback! My husband, however much he loves his tartan, opted for a forest green linen suit for our summer ceremony instead.
The traditional Irish wedding dress, on the other hand, used to be blue! While Scottish dresses were made from a variety of fabrics, they almost always included a tartan in the material. The tartan could be meaningful (the groom’s or bride’s family tartan) or simply chosen for its colors. Nowadays, you can incorporate the tartan into your white dress, or you can wear a tartan sash over it. If a sash doesn’t work with your dress, consider a shawl. I wore my mother’s dress, so I opted for some Scottish thistles in my bouquet and a four-leaf clover necklace to represent both my Scottish and Irish family.
On the off chance you yourself don’t want to wear the whole getup, you can incorporate the style into your bridal party, either by having the gentleman wear kilts or tartan sashes or having the ladies wear tartan dresses or shawls. Subtle details can be added to the bouquets or boutonnieres, but whether you go all out or keep it simple, you can show your Celtic pride.
A lot of Celtic ceremonial traditions stem back to pagan rituals or druidism. Eventually, they ended up morphing with Christianity into what we see today, though many Celts still practice both versions.
Celtic Wedding Circle Ceremony
Before temples and houses of worship existed, the Celts designated spaces of nature as sacred places to hold their marriage ceremonies. To do this, create a circle with flowers and greenery. Place a candle at each of the four cardinal points—though not here in Colorado because we’re constantly under a fire ban—with a bowl of water and bowl of salt. The officiating bard (officiant) consecrates the circle by saluting the four elements, lighting the cardinal candles, and blessing the circle. Elements such as water, salt, and incense may be used to consecrate the circle. This is one of the older traditions, but many still choose to integrate it in their ceremony.
Following the processional or presentation of the couple, the officiating bard then offers a welcome statement. This statement can include blessings, prayers, anecdotes of the couple’s ancestors, or readings of other sorts; it’s entirely up to the couple what they would like to include.
In all ceremonies, in order to be considered legal, a declaration of intent must be made, and vows must be performed and witnessed. (Colorado allows us to witness ourselves, which is neat.) This may be done through questions or inviting the couple to profess their vows to each other—again, it is the couple’s choice.
Blessing of the Rings
Similar to modern American weddings, the officiant may ask for the rings and either cast a blessing over them or incorporate another reading at the couple’s wishes. A different way to bless the rings is to hold a ring-warming ceremony, where you give your loved ones the opportunity to hold and imbue your wedding bands with a wish, blessing, or prayer for your marriage. By the time your rings make it onto your fingers, they will be saturated with the love of your friends and family. We recommend limiting this to immediate family so there is less of chance of the rings getting dropped or lost.
Ancient Celtic wedding traditions included making an oath over a holy stone, representing the permanence of the vows and even the foundation upon which the marriage would be built, just like a house construction would start with one rock. But you can extend this practice to your guests as well by holding an oathing stone (or blessing stone) ceremony, where each guest is provided a stone to hold during your wedding. The officiating bard addresses the attendees and prompts them to make an oath to support, love, and uphold the couple in their vows throughout their marriage. Traditionally, after the ceremony, the attendees throw their stones into a river or lake, almost as you would a wishing well. We did both!
Binding of the Hands – More widely known as “handfasting” and dating back as far as 7000 BCE, this act was originally a symbol of the betrothal rather than the marital union. Two people would go before a priest and have either a braided cord or ribbon tied around their hands as a public declaration of their intent to marry. If, after a year or so, the couple still wished to marry, they would return to the priest and have their formal ceremony. If they decided they weren’t a good match, however, they would break the engagement and find other suitors.
Nowadays, the act of handfasting is used as part of the wedding ceremony or as the ceremony itself. This custom is the origin of the phrase “tying the knot,” as you literally tie a knot around your hands when you handfast. Typically, a cord of three (easier to tie) or more ribbons or pieces of cloth are wrapped around the couple’s hands by the officiant, while either reading a passage or while the couple exchanges their vows. It can be made of practically anything long enough to be wrapped and tied—we recommend about a yard to be safe. In medieval times, the couple’s hands were to remain tied until midnight on their wedding day, which makes for a bit of an awkward reception, so today, couples usually take the binding off after the ceremony. Traditionally, it’s important to slip it off with the knot intact to represent your lasting union. You can keep it as a keepsake afterwards and showcase it at your reception!
Honeymoon – Now I’m not talking about the grand getaway vacation you normally take after you tie the knot, and this isn’t exactly part of the marriage ceremony itself, but more and more couples are finding ways to incorporate this into their wedding day, as well as after. Spanning through the medieval times, the honeymoon was considered the one-month period after the wedding. In Ireland specifically, it’s known as mi na meala, meaning “the month of honey.” For one month after, the bride and groom would drink honey wine, more widely known as mead, every night, as it was thought to help their virility and improve their chances of conceiving. While still practiced today, many couples may choose a less boozy alternative.
As an alternative, some couples will serve mead as a specialty drink for guests along with beer, wine, and liquor. Others have chosen a much simpler approach by replacing their champagne toast with mead.
These are but a few of the many different traditions held by the Irish and the Scottish, but they’re a great starting point to make your beautiful day feel a little more magical. Keep your horseshoes pointed up and your four-leaf clovers close, and you’ll have a day worth step dancing to!