Cultural appropriation vs appreciation

handfasting ceremony

As an Independent Celebrant, you may be asked by some of your couples to include elements in their ceremony that are based in cultural tradition. It is vital that we educate ourselves on these unity ceremonies. Are we, through our lack of research, guilty of Cultural Appropriation? Undeniably. I see it several times a year at weddings, vow renewals and even life celebrations. And much like the law states that ignorance is no defence, we need to take responsibility for learning about the ceremonies we include.

Which culture is that from?

When I started reading about cultural appropriation, specifically in the unity ceremonies I was seeing, I thought I had a pretty good base knowledge. I was confident, for example, that I knew where the traditions I have listed below, originated. Take a look at the list (the answers are below the picture) and see how many you know:


•Jumping the broom

•Garland exchange

•Honey ceremony

•Hand washing

•Crowning ceremony

•Circle – of flowers or elements

•Unity Cup

handfasting ceremony

And the winner is…..

•Handfasting – Celtic, Druid, Wiccan, Romany, Irish

•Jumping the broom – Celtic, pre-Christian Romans, African American slaves

•Garland exchange – Hawaiian, Hindu,

•Honey ceremony – Persian, Christian,

•Hand washing – Hawaiian, Jewish,

•Crowning ceremony – Greek orthodox,

•Circle – of flowers or elements – Celtic, Wiccan, Druid,

•Unity Cup – Jewish, Celtic, German

This could get complicated! There are often many origins of ceremonies. They may have regional variations or elements that are only used by one group or faith.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural appropriation takes place when members of a majority group adopt cultural elements of a minority group in an exploitative, disrespectful, or stereotypical way.

One of the best explanations I’ve found

It occurs when a person or group from one culture adopts the fashion, style, iconography, traditions, rituals, etc. of other cultures that aren’t their own—particularly those of oppressed and marginalized cultural identities—for personal interest or gain without understanding the history and meaning behind it.  -from

What is Cultural Appreciation

Cultural Appreciation is when we seek to understand and learn about another culture in an effort to widen our perspectives and connect with and celebrate others’ cultures.

How can we ask a couple why they want to include a unity element in their ceremony?

It can feel a little confrontational to check whether it is appropriate to include a ceremony that your new clients are asking for. The best approach here is to be direct and clear. I think of this as an opportunity; they are either going to tell me something about their heritage and I will learn. Or, I will get to explain to a new couple, a bit about this important subject and they will learn. Win, win.

Some of the ways you can approach this are:

•Why is this appropriate as part of your ceremony?

•Why did you want this included in your day?

•Is this element of the ceremony part of your own culture?

•Whom are you honouring by including this in your ceremony? What do you know about the history of this tradition?

When to say no

There are going to be times that you need to say ‘no. I would not be comfortable including that.’ And please note, the word ‘sorry’ does not get included in this sentence. Standing by your values is never soemthing to apologise for. So when would it be a good idea to say no?

•When the request is because it’s on-trend

•You have established it’s not part of either their cultural heritage or belief

•The culture it comes from has been persecuted

•There is any element of ‘dress-up’ rather than respect When you feel (even just a little) uncomfortable

When to say yes

On the flip – and rather wonderful side – there will be times to say a resounding, and positive YES, please! And these will include:

•When either of the couple is part of the culture

•The couple, or one of them, wishes to honour their ancestors

•To encourage guests to learn about and be part of that cultural experience that each of the couple bring to the relationship and to the ceremony

•When you have done your own research

If you want to offer unique ceremonies

There is another way to include a special part of the ceremony for your couples, without the risk of cultural appropriation. And that is to offer elements that have not been used before:

•Create your own.

•Don’t ‘copy’ cultural practices.

•Ask your couples to help create their own ‘new tradition’

In my work as an Independent Celebrant, I created a ‘Gratitude Ceremony’ where families, couples or friends could express their gratitude for each other. A chance to focus on what they had to be grateful for, often after coming through a significant challenge. This ceremony allowed the people I crafted them with, to start a new tradition in their family. One that I hope they will continue for generations.

Sources for more information

•Jumping the Broom –  piece by Diane M Stewart   

•Cultural Appropriation – whose problem is it? BBC short

•Appropriation vs Appreciation –

•Traditions by country: :

•Wedding ceremony rituals:

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