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Celtic Wedding Traditions

Background

The word Celtic or Celt is in reference to the cultural and geographical group of people known as the Celts. Today we generally think of Celtic as a wide reference to Irish or Scottish culture and traditions. Within these traditions there are many symbols. Many of them have rich stories behind them and others have meanings unknown. Surprisingly, a majority of the traditions the Celts celebrated for their weddings have found their way into other cultures, and even Pagan Celtic traditions were transformed into Christian Celtic traditions. Even certain expressions such as "tying the knot" were derived from the Celtic wedding ceremony.

Dress

Celtic dresses can be formal or informal, an overdress worn over a simpler dress or bodice, or an elegant one-piece style. These gowns often have lots of flowing fabric, particularly from the sleeves, and can be made of fabrics such as silk, velvet, cotton, or lace. They can be quite ornamented or simple and sleek.

The full formal kilt attire worn by the groom consists of a tartan kilt, Prince Charlie Jacket and vest, fur or leather sporran, kilt socks and flashes. A tuxedo shirt and black bow tie are worn but a less formal button-down Oxford shirt with a tweed day jacket or an Argyll jacket with tartan tie is also appropriate. Every Celtic clan, has their own family tartan. Traditionally the groom pins a "plaid" or sash of his family tartan on his bride after the exchange of rings. This symbolizes the bride joining her husband's clan.

The Ceremony

A true Celtic wedding might incorporate any or all of the nine parts of a ceremony. These include the following:

  • Casting and consecration of the circle
  • Presentation of the Bride and Groom
  • Statement of the Bard concerning marriage
  • Declarations of the Bride and Groom
  • Exchange of rings
  • Binding (or 'fasting') of hands
  • Passing of light
  • Thanksgiving and Oath
  • Blessing and opening of the circle

Other Traditions

There are many other traditions within the Celtic culture that can be used for your special event including the classis "Something Old, Something New" tradition.

Something Old, Something New

"Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a five pence in your shoe." Blue is considered a lucky color in Ireland. Something borrowed from a good friend is meant to symbolize friendship. A bridal handkerchief is usually something new for good luck and something old is the connection to family. The significance of five pence is that you will always be well off financially on your marriage.

Bridal Bouquet

Tuck a sprig of shamrock into an Irish bouquet or a branch of white heather for a Scottish wedding. Each is thought to bring good luck.

Celtic Pebble Toss

Couples in ancient times were often married near some sort of water source such as a lake, river or holy well, believed to be favored by the Celtic gods. Wedding guests were each given small stones to cast into the water while making a wish for the couple's future happiness.

The Irish Grushie

The tradition of tossing a handful of coins to the wedding guest is thought to bring good luck and prosperity to the groom and his bride. Likewise, individually wrapped candies can be tossed to the children to ensure "plenty" through the years.

Irish Horseshoe

Often the symbol of a horseshoe will be sown into wedding gown or tucked into the bridal bouquet. The horseshoe has always been associated with good luck because of the level of importance the Celts placed on their livestock - particularly their horses.

Irish Wedding Coin

During the marriage ceremony, usually after the blessing of the rings, the groom presents his bride with a silver coin and says, "I give you this as a token of all I possess." The coin symbolizes his willingness to share all that he has or will have in the future. The coin is kept as a family keepsake and is passed down from mother to her eldest son on his wedding day.

The Last Stitch

A tradition started in County Cork, marking the last stitch on the bride's gown on the day of her wedding is believed to bring good luck.

Lavender Tradition

Lavender, an ancient symbol of love, loyalty, devotion and even luck is placed in the bride's flowers to help insure a happy and long-lasting union.

The Marriage Bell

Celtic tradition has it that every young couple should receive at least one bell as a wedding gift. The bell is placed strategically in the newlyweds' home, visible to all. When an argument or disagreement takes place, one of the couples may ring the bell to end the discord and declare a truce without an admission of guilt or fault.

Hand-Fasting

In a hand-fasting wedding ceremony, the couple stands together with wedding guest forming a circle around them. No clergy was needed during the traditional ceremony, the couple simply pledged themselves and had their hands gently bound together with a cord or strip of cloth. The expression "tying the knot" may have come from this hand-fasting ceremony. It was originally a trial marriage contract that lasted for a year and a day, if the union did not work out, the couple went their separate ways. Nowadays hand-fasting can be incorporated into a Christian or civil ceremony as a part of a connection to Celtic culture.

Lighting of a Unity Candle

The unity candle ceremony is the lighting of candles to symbolize the joining of two families. The outside taper candles represent the families of the bride and groom while the larger, center pillar candle represents the new family formed by the marriage.

Quaich or Loving Cup

This two handled cup was traditionally used during wedding feast to symbolize sharing between the newly wedded couple. Presented using both hands, the recipient must receive it with both hands. Continuing the tradition, the quaich is still serving its purpose today, uniting friends and the two families in the Celtic wedding ceremony or at the reception following.

Symbolism

There are at least three easily identifiable Celtic symbols that are commonly used in Celtic weddings: the Claddagh, the Celtic Cross and the Celtic Knot (including the Triquetra or Trinity Knot).

The Claddagh

The Claddagh Ring can be worn to symbolize love or friendship. Although this symbol (or rather combination of 3 symbols) can be seen all over the world, and each piece of the claddagh has a universally understood meaning, the story behind how this design was made is not known by many. There are of course many different versions of the story and there are other stories that are a bit more fanciful, but the most likely history of its creation is as follows:

In the early 16th century, a week before he was to be married, an Irish fisher named Richard Joyce was fishing off the coast of Galway. While at sea, his ship was captured by pirates and he was taken to West Africa and sold into slavery to a Moorish goldsmith. Under captivity, Richard worked as a goldsmith for this man for years and became very adept at the craft. After several years passed, Richard was released (due to British rule) by his captor. However, his owner was so impressed with Richard's work that he offered Richard his daughter in marriage as well as half of his wealth if he would stay. Richard refused and returned to Ireland to find the girl whom he was to marry. Upon returning to Ireland, Richard found his fiancé still unmarried and waiting for his return. To show his love and respect for her, he forged the claddagh ring with three symbols. The first symbol what that of hands, which signified friendship. The hands held a heart, which signified love. The heart was topped with a crown, which signified loyalty. Richard gave the ring to the woman he loved, married her and they settled in the village of Claddagh (hence the name). Although the village no longer exists, the claddagh's significance has not diminished. It is now worn as a sign of love, loyalty and friendship.

The Celtic Cross

Predating Christianity, the Celtic cross is a symbol that combines a cross with a ring surrounding the intersection. A standing Celtic cross, made of stone and often richly ornamented, is also called a high cross or an Irish Cross. The most famous standing crosses are the Cross of Kells found in County Meath, Ireland; the Ardboe Auld Cross in Ardboe, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland; the crosses at Monasterboice, County Louth, Ireland; and the Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise, Ireland.

In Celtic regions of Ireland and later in Great Britain, many free-standing upright crosses were erected by Irish monks, beginning at least as early as the 7th century. Some of these crosses bear inscriptions in runes. In Ireland, it is a popular myth that the Celtic cross was introduced by Saint Patrick or possibly Saint Declan during his time converting the pagan Irish. It is believed that Saint Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity, a cross, with the symbol of the sun (or possibly the moon), to give pagan followers an idea of the importance of the cross by linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun.

The Celtic Knot

It is thought that the reason the Celts used intricate geometric patterns to decorate is because their religion forbade them from using images depicting the creator's works, namely animals, plants and humans. Although there are many interpretations of what these complex bindings mean, there are no documented sources stating their purpose. Some scholars feel that they are simply a way in which the Celts chose to express themselves artistically given the boundaries they put on themselves through their religion. Others feel that the unending knot designs stand for unending love, while some symbols carry even more specific ideologies.

Triquetra

The Trinity Knot or Triquetra has represented several different religious beliefs throughout Celtic history. This widely recognized knot has been used for the past two centuries as a sign of special things and persons that are threefold, such as Mother, Daughter and Grandmother - Past, Present and Future - and more notably in the Christian philosophy as the Holy Trinity; the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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