Personalization has been a growing trend in weddings for well over a decade. Brides and grooms want their celebration to reflect their uniqueness as a couple, along with their personal interests, beliefs, and backgrounds. This might explain why more couples are opting for civil marriage ceremonies, where they have complete control over the content of their wedding ceremony.
Many couples in Vermont choose a Justice of the Peace, an elected position in every town, to perform their civil ceremony. We contacted Mitzi McInnis, a Justice of the Peace in Stowe who has officiated at nearly 600 weddings, to find out more about the ins and outs of civil ceremonies. Here’s what she had to say:
How long have you been a Justice of the Peace?
I was first elected in November of 2000, but the two-year term doesn’t start until Feb. 1 of the following year.
What do you enjoy about your work?
It’s always positive and happy. Being able to marry couples statewide provides the wonderful opportunity to meet interesting people. I love the stories about how they met or were out of touch for 25 years and then found one another again, or that they’ve been living two blocks away their entire lives and never met until they went away to college or how they’d given up until Match.com… good stuff.
I believe in marriage and I think it is in the top five of the best journeys in life you’ll ever be on. Without sounding trite or cliché, I find being the officiator an incredible honor.
Why do couples typically decide to use a Justice of the Peace?
The reasons vary. Sometimes “the big” wedding and the details that go with it isn’t at all how a couple envisions their day. Sometimes family gets too involved. Most times, when it’s an elopement, the couple is very certain this moment is just for them to share. A big celebration party usually follows on a later date with family and friends.
How do you approach the ceremony planning process with couples?
Because I don’t have a rote ceremony, each one is different. I provide an organized packet that allows the couple to create something that truly reflects the two of them and supports their vision of marriage. I am always available for arranging, editing, and suggestions. It’s a lot of fun to help make their desired outcome a reality. The intonation, emphasis, and sincerity with which I deliver the words each couple has chosen are very important to me. Therefore, I like having at least 24 hours to prepare for a ceremony, as I do practice! Discussing and developing a plan for the physical ceremony, i.e., the processional, recessional, and the other tiny details, before going into rehearsal is a must. From grandparents to bridesmaids and groomsmen, everybody appreciates knowing where they need to be when. There are many creative ways to get everyone up and down the aisle.
How does a civil ceremony differ from a traditional religious ceremony?
As a Justice of the Peace, I have no personal agenda, so the civil ceremonies I perform don’t hold to any one belief or protocol. A uniquely crafted ceremony has more potential of being less rigid.
In what ways do couples customize their ceremony?
Tradition can be very different from rigidity. It’s wonderful to see how some of the more traditional expressions are important to couples. Such as “for better, for worse…” or “Will you have this man/woman…”, etc. Incorporating less conventional forms of celebration, such as a bowl ringing or Calling of the Directions, with the traditional individualizes a ceremony. Not as common, but very special indeed, is when a couple scripts their own vows. When it’s time, a handwritten card or even the hotel notebook paper emerges from the groom’s pocket while the Maid of Honor passes the bride’s note to her. A deep breath in, a hard swallow, and eyes glistening with happy tears precedes the first heartfelt words that will follow them into their future. It is often so very moving that even I get a little weepy!
What kind of support do you offer in regard to decision making around readings, music, and vows?
I respect their ceremony, reading, and music choices and decisions. Advice usually falls around arrangement and fluidity. Also, if they choose pre-set vows that are lengthy, I encourage them to read them to one another. Repeating after me takes away the meaning and weight from, what I consider to be, the pillar of the ceremony. By reading their vows, personally written or pre-set, they stay present and connected and are more able to fully express their love and commitment. It is quite an intimate moment, so I usually step away to give them as much privacy as can be given in the circumstance.
How have you helped couples blend different family traditions, beliefs, and special tributes into their ceremony?
Honoring a tradition, heritage, or belief, and/or remembering a family member absolutely personalizes a ceremony from the perspective of both the couple and the guests. It really isn’t as complicated as it may seem. Again, appropriateness of placement with flow in mind creates a natural cadence.
Can you tell us about one of the most unusual wedding ceremonies you’ve performed?
Two come to mind. A wedding license is valid for 60 days from the date of purchase. You really do want to be sure the 60th day is your wedding day! This particular wedding was scheduled for Saturday, but the couple’s license fell shy by one day, expiring on midnight Friday night. They didn’t want to pay for another license, and, of course, all the arrangements were set for the next day. Our sole option was to get them married on Friday. We met in the common living room of the inn and visited for a few moments before I said, “Ready?” Now, the only part of a ceremony that I must perform to make it legal is the pronouncement of marriage. They held hands, looked at one another, and I said, “By the power vested in me by the state of Vermont…” etc. and that was it. They were married in the nick of time!
The second wasn’t so much an unusual wedding as the circumstances were unusual. Under the guise of a birthday celebration, the boyfriend planned a leisurely day in Stowe which started with gifting his girl with a smart outfit in winter white and boots to match and lunch at the Cliff House at the top of the gondola. He told her they would stop to see the new Stowe Mountain Lodge before lunch. Unbeknownst to the “bride,” my friend, wedding photographer Larry Asam, and I were hiding in the upper living room. The groom proposed; she said, “Yes!”, and then he walked her across the room to meet us and be married on the spot! From one side of the room to the other, it was the world’s shortest engagement! Larry and I had been a bit nervous. We thought, “This will either go really well or it will end up on YouTube!” It was like a fairy tale with a very happy ending.
Any particularly heartwarming moments?
Heartwarming is when a couple is so excited to be married they can’t contain their joy. Stealing kisses, quiet words, giddiness, and the rapt state where they hear my voice and respond but are clearly in their own world. When I finally speak the long-awaited words, “Husband and Wife,” their whole world lights up with endless possibility.
Ain’t love grand?
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