Sunday, March 11, 2007

The origin of the Unity Candle ceremony?

When Kathy and I were married in May 1969, the minister who performed our ceremony challenged us to re-think the function of the various traditions about weddings and if necessary, create our own.

We wrote our own vows (now commonplace), and instead of a traditional wedding cake we distributed scripture portions we had signed and dated as souvenirs of our wedding. But the innovation that seems to have been completely original and had the most lasting effect on others was our decision to improvise a ceremony involving two candles.

Early in the ceremony, we had our candle-lighter light a pair of tall candles standing in separate bases side-by-side on a table near where we were going to stand during the ceremony. These two candles symbolized us, the bride and groom. When the minister pronounced us "husband and wife", we rotated the candle bases. We had deliberately inserted the candles into the bases not quite vertically, but at a slight tilt. The tilt was originally leaning away from the congregation, to make it almost unnoticeable. When we rotated the bases, the two candles now tilted toward each other and touched at the top, burning with a single flame and becoming welded together by the wax running down and filling the gap between them. We kept these merged candles on our bedroom dresser for many years after the ceremony.

Neither of us can recall ever seeing or hearing of such a ceremony before our own wedding. We believe it was an original idea that came to us as we planned our ceremony. A year or two later, we attended the wedding of a friend (who had attended our wedding) and saw a similar ceremony, except that this time the original two candles were used to light a third, central candle and were then extinguished, so that only the central candle remained alight.

After that, we began to see similar ceremonies at many of the weddings we were invited to. Today, the minister often announces "the lighting of the unity candle" as if this had always been an integral part of the wedding ceremony. Wedding planners have a checkbox for "Unity Candle ceremony" on their checklists. Catholic websites explain why this ceremony contradicts Catholic tradition concerning the use of candles. There are catalogs of expensive unity candles. There are websites that describe the correct etiquette for the ceremony, and give versions of the ceremony that involve the couple's parents and even their children from previous marriages.

Yet there are also websites that claim the tradition is only ten years old, and Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Unity_candle) was able to trace this ceremony back only as far as 1976 in Illinois. The church we were married in (Mennonite) is a very close-knit community with many congregations in Illinois, so it's entirely possible that our ceremony had taken root there by 1976.

Given the above facts, we (Alan and Kathy) sincerely believe that we invented this modern ceremony. Of course we would be happy to relinquish this claim if anyone can provide evidence that it is even older than 1969. There are many instances on record of someone producing what they believed was an original work, only to learn that it was based on a forgotten memory. So if you can prove an earlier instance of this ceremony, let me know.

Update 2007-07-30: When I first wrote this in May 2007 I added a brief summary of it to the Wikipedia entry on "Unity Candle", with a link to our website for the full story. Amazingly, an anonymous user felt free to alter the details of our wedding, claiming that Kathy and I created this ceremony because "their mothers...insisted on a significant role in the ceremony." The truth is that on our wedding day, my mother had been dead for nearly three years, and Kathy's mother wasn't involved in our candle ceremony. Another user removed the link to our website and replaced it with a link to this blog entry, which has the exact same content. Wikipedia is a useful resource, but apparently it's also a playground for those with time on their hands and/or an axe to grind.

3 comments:

Full Frontal Centrist said...

Your posting implies that your wedding was intra-denominational (Mennonite), but the unity candle, regardless of its (your) original intention, is now used as a way to add an air of "tradition" to decidely un-traditional ceremonies, particularly inter-faith ceremonies where the "joining" of faiths may be considered controversial. I first saw the unity candle at a Jewish-Catholic ceremony ten years ago, with a rabbi and priest officiating (talk about awkward!), and thinking "Wow, that 'ritual' is so obviously thrown in to make people think that there's a legitimate grand tradition of Jewish-Catholic weddings." Funny how something popularized on General Hospital is a common go-to to awkwardly legitimize a wedding ceremony. Weird.

James Makau said...

I recently attended a wedding in Kenya where i saw the unity candle used and i thought it was long catholic tradition funny huh. This year there will be a traditional maasai wedding

Anonymous said...

This claim that the unity candle ceremony was popularized on General Hospital? It sounds interesting and provocative, and has been spread far and wide all over the internet. But sadly, it doesn't seem to be true.

I'm a historian researching wedding practices. I've watched the 1981 Luke and Laura wedding, which takes place in a garden outside. Folks, that couple doesn't light a unity candle. It just doesn't happen. If somebody can prove otherwise, please feel free to prove me wrong.