Couples reveal the hidden meanings behind their unity ceremonies.

This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Columbus Weddings, published December 2018.

Weddings come in all shapes and sizes, but for decades, one tradition remained an untouched wedding staple: the unity ceremony. For many couples, this ceremony consists of two candles merging to light a combined flame on a third candle, a traditional symbol of two souls becoming one. Recently, couples are reimagining this ceremony in the hopes of creating a personal experience.

For Shelby and Nicklaus Jurden, who were married in March 2018 at the Athletic Club of Columbus, the unity ceremony had two purposes: to be unique and something that would reflect not just two becoming one, but three becoming one. The celebration incorporated Nicklaus’ daughter.

“We did a candy unity ceremony,” says Shelby. “We picked out our favorite candy—me, my husband and my stepdaughter—and combined our favorite candies into one jar. I chose salted caramel Ghirardelli, Cayden did M&Ms, and Nick did Kit Kats.”

In the generous, pooling sunlight of a bay window, under a glass, beaded antique chandelier, the couple stood on either side of a table with Cayden in between.

“We wanted to include her, and we tried to think of a fun, creative way to do that,” Nicklaus explains. “It was pretty much her favorite part of the ceremony. She was all smiles, and that made us both feel so good.”

For couples like the Jurdens, who chose to put an original spin on a very traditional part of the wedding ceremony, it’s not about being different just for the sake of being different; it’s about embracing the very things that make their new family unique.

While some couples choose to deviate completely from the traditional unity ceremony, others—like Lauren and Brett McPherson, who wed in July 2017 at Irongate Equestrian Center—wanted to honor the tradition of the unity ceremony in a way that felt true to them.

“We have very traditional families, and our sand ceremony was a way to blend the traditional with what was personal to us,” says Lauren.

She laughs as she recalls their first idea for the unity ceremony.

“Brett and I are huge movie buffs, and we were joking that we should get a unity lightsaber because we are both big Star Wars fans,” she says. “But then we thought that would be a little too out there for most people.”

For the McPhersons, honoring the traditions that their families expected to see was an important goal. The sand ceremony is something of a new tradition, gaining popularity since the early 2000s, though its roots can be traced back to the Hebrew custom of salt covenants. In both, sand (or salt) is combined, typically into a new container. And once the grains are mixed, they become impossible to separate—much as a newly married couple is meant to be.

At the McPhersons’ reception, their guests could view the combined coral and brown sand, in its glass-covered wooden box, as they signed the guest book.

“It’s just a unique way to put your stamp on your ceremony. That is a day you are going to remember forever,” says Lauren.

Nathan and Jennifer Bruggeman took this concept a step further, customizing their unity ceremony to their venue, the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

The May 2018 ceremony featured a string quartet, paper lanterns and a staircase lined with candles. There, under an iron gazebo threaded with red and pink peonies, they each poured different colors of sand into a single vase, which the Conservatory had blown into a glass bowl. Two weeks later, they picked it up.

“I was born in a traditional Catholic family,” explains Nathan, “so the unity candle was what we grew up seeing. My mom had never seen anything like [our version of a sand ceremony], but she said it was kind of cool, because it was something different that you could put on display.”

The Bruggemans’ unity ceremony was about creating a unique experience, but it was also an issue of utility: What is something we could put on display?

“[A unity candle] was something I knew we would never put on display or be that significant, so we did a unity glass ceremony. The piece is absolutely gorgeous,” says Jennifer. “Nate picked navy blue, which is so significant because we are both police officers.”

For her color, Jennifer chose teal, to commemorate growing up in the seaside town of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The glass bowl and its ebbing patterns of blue and teal bear a striking resemblance to ocean waves, making it a fitting centerpiece for their beach-themed living room.

“Every day I walk past it, it reminds me of us becoming one and the love we have for each other,” says Nathan.

Couples planning their weddings continue to ask the tough questions: Why do we do what we do in wedding ceremonies, and how can we do it better? How do we make it more authentic, more personal to who we are?

Whether the answer is caramel-filled candy or teal-colored sand, the deeply personal meaning behind those elements is what creates the kind of memories that last a lifetime.