Our lives are marked by significant life milestones that define the cadence of our lives. For millennia, generations before us have similarly commemorated these critical moments. Traditionally, a wedding is an opportunity to honor your cultural or religious heritage, carrying forward the torch of tradition for whichever cultural or religious tradition you may inherit.
These moments inspire us to consider what is personally important to each of us. At a community level, we articulate what connects us to others, from friends and family to nations and ethnicities.
The wedding ritual itself is comprised of particular ritualized components, most of which you might be familiar with such as the procession and ring exchange. Some of these rituals are required for legal recognition by the state, which connect us to a national community identity (and legally secure the commitments made). All additional choices help make the moment personal, memorable, meaningful and reflective of your own cultural identity.
Wedding readings fall into this latter category.
If the only goal of your wedding is to fulfill a legal checklist, then you really don't need a ceremony; just go to a government office. A great ceremony is supposed to go beyond minimum requirements and speak to what is unique about the marrying couple. The inclusion of readings can be helpful to that end.
What is a Wedding Reading?
If you’re not already familiar with the concept, wedding readings are a traditional inclusion in wedding ceremonies where a special guest or the officiant takes a moment to read aloud a prayer, piece of poetry or literature, or even an excerpt from a film or TV production. It is typically addressed to the couple primarily, but also to all of the guests present, with the aim of communicating an inspiring and celebratory message.
Why Include Readings?
Readings recall key moments, influences, or lessons that contributed to your arrival at this moment. Whether your ceremony is highly personalized and secular, adhering to religious customs, or is a blend of multiple traditions, any ritual or reading can be understood in the context of three symbolic categories that guide the structure of the event: connecting with community, acknowledging commitments, and celebrating the newlyweds.
Every moment of the wedding ceremony addresses one or multiple of these three themes.
By inviting a special member of the audience into your moment read aloud, you honor them and they honor you. This is connecting with community.
The reading you select, depending on what it is, can be heighten the commitment you are about to embark on. This is acknowledging commitments.
And no matter what reading you select, it should at its core be a celebration of the life you've already shared with your partner and the life you are entering into. This is celebrating the newlyweds.
We find thinking in terms of these three themes is helpful in orienting almost every component of the ceremony and its structure.
Thoughtfully Selecting Wedding Readings
Knowing why you are including a certain wedding ritual or reading is absolutely necessary. Defaulting to standard sample readings and abandoning an opportunity to include something personal is, to tell it plainly, likely to be forgettable.
Here are the main considerations you should keep in mind to ensure that you choose a special inclusion that flows smoothly within your ceremony.
Plan Ahead of Time
If you would like to call on a friend or family member to speak, make sure you speak to them well in advance of the big day. They may have suggestions of which reading to include, and they will want to practice in any case.
The officiant should make introduce each reader briefly with their name (pronounced correctly, of course), their relationship to the couple, and the title of their reading. They should also coordinate with the reader if they want to do any or all of this introduction themselves to make sure your words and the script are not redundant.
Consider the Timing
Ideally, each reading should take less than one minute to recite. But again, like the rest of the ceremony components, this is up to the design and discretion of the couple in collaboration with the officiant. Two to three readings are usually enough to enhance the ceremony. Any more will risk stalling the emotional momentum of the ceremony.
A great time to include a reading would be just before the couple shares their vows and their declaration of intent. This is usually also right after the officiant's speech. Having a space for readings here allows the emotional stage to be set for the most intimate moment of the ceremony. When it is complementary with the officiant's speech, the reading will cultivate a special atmosphere. A reading could go before the officiant’s speech as well, but it is up to you and the specific readings you select.
Find Personal Significance
A reading should not be generic. There should be a clear reason why you are including a reading or ritual and it should connect personally to the memories, experiences, and aspirations of your own life and your partner's.
Choose something that speaks to your personal history as a couple. Can you find a relevant excerpt from a text that has inspired you in the past? Perhaps it is an excerpt from a movie, opera, book, a theatre performance, even a mysterious quote found as graffiti in the street.
The more unique and the more personal, the better. We suggest you highlight what makes the reading special with a few words of introduction by the officiant or the reader.
Match Readings with Reader
The selected reading should first and foremost be relevant and meaningful to the couple. But just as importantly, the reading should be relevant to the person performing it. This is someone who has been placed in the position to read aloud and should themselves be representative and reflective of the material.
For example, you could have a mentor that has influenced you read an excerpt from a book they once recommended to you if it resonates strongly with where you are now in life. Or one of your parents could read an excerpt from a book that was one of your childhood favorites.
These are direct examples of the idea, but in every case you should find a way to weave readings into the ceremony that link well with the person who is reading them.
Aim for Momentous
Go for something unforgettable! Make it unique, personal, and memorable, not something out of a can. Strive toward authenticity to your partnership — and declare it with vigor.
You might feel an inclination to hold back and play it safe with readings. Understandably so, as it can feel like an intimate moment both for you and the person reading. Like sharing a love poem or words of inspiration, you might feel like you are running the risk of being a bit cheesy.
The cheesiest thing is being generic! Now is not the time to be timid — choose a reading that boldly proclaims what you want to say and be confident in your selection.
Flow with Emotion
Wedding ceremony readings should contribute to and heighten the emotion of the ceremony. Consider what emotion you want to evoke at each stage of the ceremony and think about how a reading would fit in. You don't want there to be a disconnect between what's evoked by the reading and the feeling of the rest of your ceremony.
Think specifically about the vibe and atmosphere you're aiming for in the moments just prior to and just after the reading. If done correctly, the reading should go with the flow of the ceremony.
Say you're creating a wedding ceremony with a forward-thinking vision or a contemporary theme emphasizing progressive ideals — an excerpt from a 14th century sonnet, however timeless, might not be the best choice.
Explore Rituals and Readings
We'll continue to update this page with a broad selection of readings that you can draw directly from. You can also use these as inspiration for your vows or to reflect on values and ideas you want the ceremony to reflect more generally.
An officiant should be sure to appropriately introduce any ritual into the written ceremony script. For readings, the full text should be included in the script. This way, the officiant can prepare for any transitions needed as the wedding ceremony progresses.
If you are planning an interfaith wedding ceremony, make sure you've made all of the proper considerations by reading our piece on addressing the expectations of a mixed-faith wedding ceremony.