A ceremony (UK: /ˈsɛrɪməni/, US: /ˈsɛrəˌmni/) is a unified ritualistic event with a purpose, usually consisting of a number of artistic components, performed on a special occasion.

Ceremonial at court during Prinsjesdag

The word may be of Etruscan origin, via the Latin caerimonia.[1]

Church and civil (secular) ceremonies

According to Dally Messenger and Alain de Botton, in most Western countries the values and ideals articulated in both church and civil ceremonies are generally similar. The difference is in what Messenger calls the "supernatural infrastructure" or de Botton the "implausible supernatural element".[2][3]

Most churches and religions claim some extra advantage conferred by the deity e.g. Roman Catholics believe that through the words of consecration in the mass ceremony, God himself becomes actually present on the altar.

Both church and civil ceremonies share the powerful psychological, social and cultural influences which all ceremony seeks to attain. Obviously, the style of music played, words used, other components and the structure vary.

Shared traditions

Leaders welcome a boy into Scouting, March 2010, Mexico City, Mexico.

As Edward Schillebeeckx writes about the marriage ceremony, there are a surprising number of ancient traditional elements in both church and civil ceremonies in the western world. Key ceremonies date from the pre-Christian Roman and Greek times and their practices have continued through the centuries. For example, from pre-Christian Roman times in the marriage ceremony, we inherit best men and bridesmaids, processions, signing of the contract, exchange of rings and even the wedding cake.[4]

Sharing non-supernatural content

Writer and philosopher Alain De Botton maintains atheists should appropriate many of the useful insights, artistic treasures and symbolism inspired by religion. He argues that the secular world can also learn from the religions the importance of community and continuity.[5] Messenger agrees, and points out that the success of civil celebrants in Australia has been partly due to their espousing of these principles, both in theory and practice, since 1973.[6][7]

History of secular ceremony

Senator and Mr Justice Lionel Murphy, founder of the civil celebrant movement in Australia, which has now spread to the rest of the Western World

The main impetus to the development of quality civil ceremonies in the Western world was the foresight of the Australian statesman, Senator and High Court Judge, Lionel Murphy. In 1973 in Australia the civil celebrant program entrusted appropriately selected individuals to provide non-church people with ceremonies of substance and dignity. This initiative to a great extent has now been followed by New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and some states of the US.[2][8]

Purpose of secular ceremony

According to Dally Messenger III secular ceremonies are “roadmap” influences which lead to an acceptable, ethical and dignified life. Ceremonies contribute to the unseen ingredients of psychological stability, a sense of identity, reassurances of life's purposes, and the personal sense of self worth. The mysterious cultural power of quality ceremonies lead our society along an honourable and ethical path. Lionel Murphy considered that personal genuine ceremonies were central to a civilised, stable and happy society. Here he echoed the conviction of the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell who had maintained the strongly asserted generality that the level of civilised behaviour in a society is directly linked to the practice of ceremonies and rites of passage.[9]

Serious communication

Ceremonies are the time and place setting wherein people communicate seriously. For example, in front of witnesses the groom tells the bride that he loves her and wants to be with her for the rest of his life. Such a statement has much more force than if said privately.

It is in the ceremony that groups of people come together. It is in the ceremony that they make compacts, recognise achievement, assert identity, establish connections, declare love, pay tribute, express grief.

In addition Messenger makes the following observations:

  • A complex of good ceremonies raise the level of human happiness in society.
  • Ceremonies assist humans to adjust to change.
  • Ceremonies are signposts of the culture and indicate that such a culture has life-affirming substance.
  • Ceremonies are an important means of expressing, reinforcing and transmitting values.
  • Ceremonies are constructed from the visual and performing arts. In a chosen setting they are an important vehicle for telling stories, reciting great poetry and prose, using symbolism, and performing great music.
  • Ceremonies, done well, leave lifelong lasting memories and therefore permanent good effects.
  • The better a ceremony is done, the better its psychological, cultural, and social outcomes.[2]

The components of ceremony

To be powerful and effective, such ceremonies, in the view of all the scholars in the field,[2]:3 had to have impact. This occurred when the ceremony was framed by the visual and performing arts. Great care had to be taken in creating and choosing the poetry, prose, stories, personal journeys, myths, silences, dance, music and song, shared meditations, choreography and symbolism which comprised a ceremony. To reinforce the psychological and cultural power of ceremony it should be enacted, as far as possible, in a beautiful interior and exterior place. Beauty is the essential core of ceremony, having always been part of “raising the spirit” and embedding the good in the memory.[2]:3–8

Ceremonies, as they always had been, are historically the bridge between the visual and performing arts and the people. Murphy and his followers, and international practitioners such as David Oldfield of Washington DC understand that ceremonies are core expressions of the culture. Done well, they can assist in major decision-making, bring emotional security, strengthen bonds between people, and communicate a sense of contentment. To quote David Oldfield[10]

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz salutes Yom Kippur War casualties at an official annual memorial service.

Rituals and ceremonies are an essential and basic means

for human beings to give themselves and others

the necessary messages

which enable the individual to stay human.

They communicate acceptance,

love, a sense of identity, esteem,

shared values and beliefs

and shared memorable events.

Every ritual contains tender and sacred moments.

And in those moments of sensitivity

We are taken out of the normal flow of life,

And out of our routines.

We are then in an event

that is irreplaceable and sacred.

In ritual we participate in

something deep and significant.

They are moments which move our heart

And touch our spirit.


Qualities of a celebrant

Lionel Murphy also knew that the superficial, the unaware, were not the right persons to bring this about. The civil celebrant needs to have a rich skill-set and knowledge base. Murphy is on the record as asserting that the civil celebrant needed to have a “feel” for ceremony and be professional, knowledgeable, educated, creative, imaginative, inspired, well presented, idealistic, and well practised.

The civil celebrant should be a person inspired to improve lives at a deep and lasting level. For this reason they must be carefully chosen. The ideal is that they be educated in the humanities and trained to expertly co-create, creatively write and perform ceremonies.[7]:16ff

Ceremonial occasions

Gogo tribe ladies from Manyoni Tanzania waiting to perform traditional dance during the ceremony of priest Joseph Makasi ordination

The funeral ritual, too, is a public, traditional and symbolic means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of someone loved. Rich in history and rife with symbolism, the funeral ceremony helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death, and offers continuity and hope for the living.[15]

Naming Ceremonies existed in human culture long before Christianity or any of the major religions came on the scene. Every community has a ceremony to welcome a new child into the world, to give that child recognition, and to celebrate the birth of new life.[16]

Celebration of events

Other, society-wide ceremonies may mark annual or seasonal or recurrent events such as:

Other ceremonies underscore the importance of non-regular special occasions, such as:

In some Asian cultures, ceremonies also play an important social role, for example the tea ceremony.


Ceremonies may have a physical display or theatrical component: dance, a procession, the laying on of hands. A declaratory verbal pronouncement may explain or cap the occasion, for instance:

  • I now pronounce you husband and wife.
  • I swear to serve and defend the nation ...
  • I declare open the games of ...
  • I/We dedicate this ... ... to ...

Both physical and verbal components of a ceremony may become part of a liturgy.

See also


  1. Grimes, Ronald L. (2000). "Ritual". In Willi Braun, Russell T. McCutcheon (ed.). Guide to the study of religion. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 260. ISBN 0304701769.
  2. Messenger, Dally; Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne (Australia), 2012 ISBN 978-0-86786-169-3
  3. Kelly, Fran; Radio Interview with Alain de Botton, RN Breakfast, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Podcast 2012.
  4. Schillebeeckx, Edward; translated by N.D. Smith:; Secular Reality and Saving Mystery. Volumes 1 & 2, Sheed and Ward, London, 1963. Note: later versions have these ISBNs: ISBN 978-0722076644 ISBN 0722076649
  5. De Botton, Alain: Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, 2013, Vintage Books, 2013, ISBN 978-0307476821
  6. Messenger, Dally; Alain de Botton and Humanists, Australian Humanist Magazine, no. 106, Winter 2012, p10
  7. Messenger III, Dally (1999), Ceremonies and Celebrations, Hachette -Livre Australia (Sydney), ISBN 978-0-7336-2317-2
  8. Messenger III, Dally. "The power an idea:the History of Celebrancy". International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  9. Messenger III, Dally, We Had a Dream, in the Australian Humanist, no 121, Autumn 2016, published by the Australian Humanist Society, Canberra ACT
  10. Oldfield, David. "Director". Midway Centre. Midway Centre for Creative Imagination. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  11. Oldfield, David, The Journey: An experiential Rite of Passage for Modern Adolescents, as a contributor in Mahdi, Louise Carus (Editor), Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, Open Court Publishing, 1996, Chicago p145ff ISBN 0 8126 9190 3
  12. Mahdi, Louise Carus; Christopher, Nancy Geyer; Meade, Michael (1996). Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage. ISBN 9780812691900.
  13. Fierst, Gerald, The Heart of the Wedding, Parkhurst Brothers, Chicago, 2011, ISBN 978-1-935166-22-1 p.76ff
  14. Messenger, Dally. "Weddings". www.marriagecelebrant.com. International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  15. Wolfelt, Alan. "Why is the funeral ritual important?". centerforloss.com. Center for Loss and Life Transition. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  16. Hurley, Kathleen. "Giving Your child a Name". Marriage Celebrant. International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
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