What is a Symbolic Gesture, Anyway?

By Lucy Haden, Fuze Celebrant

Now I’m a fully fledged Humanist Celebrant, and I’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt (so to speak), I’m spending more and more time working with couples to get the perfect symbolic gesture for their wedding. That’s one of the creative and very personal parts of a humanist ceremony which I enjoy most.

There are many people who don’t really know what we’re talking about, and why it can be such a key part of a humanist ceremony. They vaguely remember something about ‘tying ribbons round your hands, what’s that called?’, but that’s about as far as it goes. It’s called handfasting, and is an ancient Celtic marriage ritual which dates back to 7,000 BC. Creating a figure of eight with ribbons or cords is a symbol of infinity and means that your wedding will last forever. Handfasting is also where the expression ‘tying the knot’ comes from, so now you know.


Don’t Stop There

When we meet with couples to plan their ceremony we always ask if they would like to have a symbolic gesture as part of their wedding. It’s a way of expressing your feelings, and it’s made in a way that is important to you. And it can be absolutely anything you like! Some people are wary of having a symbolic gesture and just want a very simple ceremony – and that’s just fine, it’s your wedding after all. But I think that some of that wariness is just because people don’t really know the possibilities. It’s part of my job as a celebrant to explain that and to give people ideas.


Drinking form the Quaich is also very popular – Photo credit Carolyn Henry Photography

Handfasting is a lovely tradition, but with a little more thought you can make it even more personal. A Scottish couple can use ribbons in their separate tartans. For the wedding of a Spaniard to a Scottish bride, we plaited ribbons in the colours of their countries’ flags. Or how about making the ribbons from your mum’s wedding dress, or the dress you wore when you first met / got engaged? Crocheted ribbons made by your 5 year old daughter, perhaps? The possibilities are endless.

What if the thought of handfasting doesn’t appeal to you? Let’s find something that does appeal, that really speaks to you and of you.

There’s an old African/American custom called Jumping The Broom, which symbolises sweeping away your past lives as you start your new one together. One for the more active couple, and preferably not if you’re wearing fabulous high heels.

Or you can release doves or balloons – again, watch your past lives float away. Chinese lanterns make a spectacular gesture if you’re getting married at night, and you want to watch your troubles disappear. And don’t forget that photography is so important at weddings – your photographs will be your memories, and your symbolic gesture will often make the most fantastic photograph that you can cherish for many years to come. Just imagine those Chinese lanterns glowing as they fade away into the Scottish night sky. And drinking form the Scottish two handled drinking cup, the Quaich is also popular as the happy couple get to share their first legal drink as a married from it just as the ceremony is concluded.



The lighting of candles is a popular gesture, with the bride and groom each lighting a candle to symbolise their own self, and both lighting a third to symbolise their union, as two become one. Take it further if you like – why not make your own candles, with colours or scented oils that have a special meaning for you.

But my personal favourites are those with flowers and trees – part of humanism is respecting and being part of our environment after all, so let’s invite nature to the wedding. Flowers and trees both have their own languages. We all know that roses are red and violets are blue, and flowers mean I love you, but you can spell out your whole marriage in the language of flowers if you want to.



At a small wedding (and let’s face it, all weddings are small at the moment), you could ask each guest to bring a particular flower that symbolises trust, or loyalty, or beauty, and so on. Then you can create a gorgeous wedding bouquet that all your family and friends have helped to make. You could even take some of the flowers later and have them set in resin, so you’ll always remember them. How about lavender for devotion, or myrtle for good luck in marriage. Daffodils at a spring wedding symbolise new beginnings. Pansies with their sweet faces symbolise thoughtfulness, and red salvias mean ‘forever mine’. Irises show respect, sunflowers are for loyalty, and white lilies are for purity. But watch your lilies (and roses), different colours mean different things and not all of them are good!

Trees have their own language too, if you’re getting married in a venue where you could plant your own marriage tree. Did you know that the gorgeous wisteria symbolises romance? A birch tree represents a new beginning, an oak tree is for strength and courage, a Japanese maple is for great blessings – and the list goes on.

I was thrilled to create something a little different for my daughter’s wedding. Marrying a chef, their relationship is full of the  joy of good food and cooking and eating together. So we developed a spice gesture. Yes, spices have their own language too, of course they do. Star anise actually means ‘Joining the attributes of both individuals in the bonds of marriage’, which is fairly precise. Basil means serious intentions, while cinnamon is for stability, fennel is for strength, coriander is for health, rosemary for fidelity, nutmeg for sensuality … We asked key guests to bring a chosen spice, and when the time came, each came forward and put their spice in a beautiful jar, saying what it meant and what they wished for the couple as they did so. Shades of Sleeping Beauty’s good fairies, I know. That was a fabulous smelling wedding, and they will have their wedding spice jar for many years to remind them of their day.

Make It Your Own

So, think about it. Are you a nature lover, do you love the elements, or does the thought of using an old tradition like handfasting make you happy? Do you want a gesture that all your family can join in with, do you want something a little quirky and different? Do you want something that really shows who you are as a couple? Joining the laces of your hiking boots as you get married on the top of a Munro?

Let’s get creative and make your wedding day that little bit more special.


Livy's Naming Ceremony at The Quay
Real Life Wedding Love Stories - Monique & Chris, Voco Grand Central, Glasgow