Wedding Lexicon 101: The Unity Candle

bouquetIf you are in the middle of planning all of the events of the wedding (one: congratulations, and two: breath, you can do this), then you’ve probably noticed there’s a large number of tiny traditions that add up to one big ceremony.

Not just the vows, of course but also things like the cutting of the cake, the use of ring bearers and flower girls, bouquets and even throwing the bouquet. Many of these traditions span multiple cultures and have survived for thousands of years. Take the bouquet, its use can be traced back to ancient Celtic weddings before being adopted in Rome. Okay, in those times it was a wreath of herbs and garlic, and the symbolism of purity, wisdom and fertility was eventually transferred to flowers (isn’t it nice to be born in our time?).

Then there’s The Unity Candle.

A rite where before the vows, members of both families (usually the parents, but this can be siblings and even close friends) light two candles. Then, after the vows, the couple each take one candle and together light a third, larger candle. This can represent many things. The joining of families, the promise of unity (as another vow) and a joining where two people become one.

The symbolism of two flames joining together as a single, brighter flame is pretty obvious. But in many ancient traditions fire also represents cleansing. The burning of the old makes way for new life. In this way, The Unity Candle represents the couples’ old selves being burned away. Their fears and mistakes forgotten as they become one whole and new person.

The origins of this tradition is mired in hearsay. There is staggeringly little documentation of its early uses, making it a modern folk tradition. Passed on through word of mouth as opposed to long-standing religious traditions. The Unity Candle is both nondenominational and secular. No single culture can claim it as its own.

At best, it can be speculated that The Unity Candle is a modern variation on many wedding traditions. The tradition of breaking bread –a metaphor for trust –is sometimes done between families. A similar Hindu tradition uses salt, where a bride passes a handful of salt to her groom. He then passes it back to her, and this exchange is repeated three times. Like The Unity Candle, the mixing of salt between hands symbolizes the joining of two people.

This massive universal appeal is undoubtedly a major factor in its skyrocketing popularity. Are you Christian? It has Christian significance. Are you Buddhist? Hindu? Muslim? Jewish? Does it simply hold value as a secular, philosophical rite? All of these are valid uses of The Unity Candle. As a tradition, it’s not only contemporary, it’s downright post-modern. A melting pot tradition for a world that’s sharing cultural values more and more.

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