More people are choosing non-religious services to mark life’s milestone events. Alfred meets Shaftesbury’s own celebrant, Elizabeth Tricks, who explains how she started in this career and how a celebrant can enhance your special occasion.
If you’ve spent time ‘down under’, you might be more familiar with the role of the celebrant. In 1973, the Australian Attorney General paved the way for a new profession. He was aware that not every couple was comfortable with church services or the more business-like civil ceremonies.
Shaftesbury people are less familiar with the celebrant service and Elizabeth Tricks, who is based in The Donheads, has often had to clarify her job title. “I just want to really make it clear I am a celebrant. I am not celibate!” she laughed, before adding, “Should I be announcing that publicly?”
The Aussies chose the name for Elizabeth’s role well. Broadly, she helps friends, families and couples celebrate. “Along with multiple celebrants across the country, I believe that anybody, regardless of their orientation or gender, should be able to celebrate a ceremony with any content, ritual or belief,” she explained.
Elizabeth doesn’t carry out the legal registration and the paperwork for a wedding, but she can help point couples in the right direction. Her role is to look after the service and celebration. “What it means is that you can have your wedding ceremony anywhere, at any time and have any content that you want in it. The civil celebrant works within the Registration Service and they are authorised to conduct ceremonies in approved, licensed venues and work with a registrar, who will legalise the wedding.”
It is possible to undertake the legal ceremony of vows, which takes around 20 minutes, at the register office in Dorchester. It costs around £50. You can then have the wedding celebration in an unusual place – even on the top of Hambledon Hill if you wanted. Surprisingly, she has not officiated on the top of Gold Hill, yet. “I’ve conducted weddings, for example, in paddocks, on the edge of Chew Valley Lake, on Weymouth beach and in back gardens. That’s lovely when a couple want a really intimate wedding,” said Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is often asked whether she is a humanist. She is not. “Their beliefs are centred around critical thinking and evidence. They are closely aligned with secularism,” she said. And she is not what you might term a toastmaster, either. “I like to think of us as a little more glamorous than that,” she added.
In the last year that she has been working for herself, Elizabeth has officiated at fifteen couples’ ceremonies. It’s fair to say that she knows her way around a wedding, in part because of her former role. “I’ve conducted hundreds of them now, as a civil celebrant, and when I was working in the Registration Service. I was Shaftesbury’s registrar for over five years, until six months before they closed the office in Abbey View Medical Centre with the cutbacks.”
She says she knows quite a lot of Shaftesbury people, ‘in one way or another’ because of that. “As they say in the trade, I worked in ‘hatch, match and dispatch’. I was very involved.”
Her duties often require detailed research. Recently Elizabeth put together a ceremony for an Iranian groom and his British bride, which blended both their backgrounds and heritage together. It included a traditional wedding spread.
“We had a sofreh table, which contained all sorts of beautiful items that have different symbolism. You have sweets to bring sweetness to their wedding, and the couple had sugar cones ground over them,” said Elizabeth. The service also included coins to represent financial prosperity. “I also do a lot of lighting of unity candles,” she said, before explaining the practice. “You have one central pillar candle which the bride and groom light with a taper each. As the two flames meet, it symbolises the joining of different lives into one combined entity. Some couples will light this candle every year, on their wedding anniversary.”
Elizabeth says that reciting special words and significant phrases in unfamiliar languages presents the most difficult part of her job. “I’ve done a wedding where the bride was from Korea. It was a challenge learning how to say ‘congratulations’ in Korean at the end of the ceremony. I’m learning something all the time.”
Elizabeth refers to her wedding words as ‘a script’. Her speech is carefully composed following her meetings or in-depth conversations with the couple. “I am researching what their personality is and I weave all of this into the script. No script is ever the same. Each is totally unique,” she said.
Elizabeth says she tries to spend time with the two partners in the ceremony so she can get to know their personalities. “I recommend that every couple has a face-to-face meeting, either in person or on FaceTime or WhatsApp. Some couples might not connect with me. Others do. I am a vivacious, bubbly person but I believe that the spotlight is on the couple. It is not about me, it’s about them. I don’t take over the ceremony and that’s really important,” she said.
Elizabeth says things can go wrong, but her job is to make sure that nobody notices and the special day goes just as the couple had planned. “I’m there to provide an air of calm, elegant and flowing simplicity of the ceremony. But all the time, I am paddling like mad, checking that the ring bearer, who happens to be a dog, has not gone rogue or whether great-aunt Petunia is going to create an international incident by sitting on a key seat at the front. I am the event planner of the ceremony world.”
Lizzie is prepared to step in and sort minor issues before they escalate. “I am used to thinking on my feet and coming up with a quick plan. I always tell my couples I am here so they can enjoy the day and I will take the stress and the worry, because I don’t actually find it a stress or worry.”
Elizabeth became used to being able to cope in a high-pressured environment during her career before becoming a celebrant or as a registrar. She spent 20 years as a senior midwife in Abu Dhabi. “I know what the couple want from the day, through my discussions with them. I work closely with the venues and photographers, so should something occur, either the venue or myself will make sure that it gets sorted.”
Elizabeth says she hasn’t cried when reading a couple’s moving words, yet. “Hand on heart, there have been a couple of times when I’ve had to catch my breath because the words have been really lovely. It’s usually when the bride or groom are saying their promises, which I help them write themselves. Some like help, others are happy to go away and become Shakespeares. I try and keep the promises separate from each of the couple. It’s so lovely because you can see the feeling and emotion and how each member of the couple receives them,” she smiled.
Elizabeth is also used to hearing some humorous promises. “I promise to do your washing on a Thursday,” said Elizabeth, as she recalled one. She says it’s mainly the grooms that go for the funnies. “That’s the joy of having an independent celebrant. If you want fun and laughter or if you want it more solemn, you can have that.”
Elizabeth only takes one wedding each weekend. She says that she likes to focus on that occasion. She has looked after friends’ ceremonies and even been the celebrant for members of her own family. “I officiated at my mother’s wedding, when she married my stepfather,” said Elizabeth.
We joked that the research would have been easy. “I’ve officiated at several friends’ weddings now. It’s really lovely. I get a little bit more nervous, but once I get into the flow, I don’t think about it.”
Celebrants don’t only deal with weddings. Elizabeth also helps with vow renewals and naming ceremonies, which are a bit like a christening. “That’s a really lovely ceremony, to bring a child into the family, especially for the couples who might be adopting. I also do renaming ceremonies, which are really becoming popular within the LGBT community, with transgender people.”
There is one skill that an accomplished celebrant must master. “The skill of a good celebrant is being able to weave and write a script that is totally relevant to whatever the ceremony is.” And for Elizabeth, the comments she hears from couples, or friends and family, when she leaves the venue make all the work worthwhile. “I take it as a great compliment when I have an older member of the ceremony, perhaps a grandparent, who will say that the service was beautiful and different,” said Elizabeth.
Gaining recognition from her industry is also satisfying. Elizabeth has just heard that she is the regional finalist for the Southwest in the Wedding Industry Awards. The regional awards will be announced on 27th November. If Elizabeth wins, she will then go through to the national finals in January.
You can find Elizabeth online at ElizabethTricks.co.uk.