If you’ve been to any beach weddings in the past few years or you remember the three-part saga of Trista and Ryan’s wedding on the 2003 season of The Bachelorette, then chances are you’re familiar with the sand ceremony, one of the most up-and-coming trends in modern weddings. Although the age and origin of wedding sand ceremonies is shrouded in history and debate, there’s no doubting the abundant symbolism and growing popularity of the practice — don’t expect to see it disappear any time soon. Read on to learn the story behind the sand unity ceremony and to find tips for how to make this tradition a unique part of your wedding day.
The Process of the Sand Ceremony
The sand ceremony, in its simplest form, features two glass containers that are each filled with a different color of sand and placed on either side of a larger glass container. The container can be empty or filled with a base layer of neutral-colored sand — some versions also include an additional small container of colored sand used by the priest or officiant.
The bride and groom then take alternating turns, usually accompanied by a short reading or statement from the officiant, pouring layers of sand into the center container until it is filled. The officiant next caps the container with a cork, wax, or airtight lid. The sealed vase then becomes a colorful keepsake that serves as a powerful reminder of the couple’s wedding day.
Sand Ceremony Symbolism
What’s nice about sand ceremonies is their elegant symbolism is immediately identifiable. The different colors, of course, represent the individual lives of the bride and groom. Although combined into a single sand ceremony vase, the layers of color show that both the bride and groom have retained their unique identities and personalities. Yet, looking closer, it is virtually impossible to define the exact point where one layer ends and the next begins — the grains of sand can never be separated. This is a strong and beautiful representation of the “two becoming one” concept that has resonated with couples all over the world.
Create Your Own Look and Style for Your Sand Ceremony
There are, however, no formal rituals or steps to follow for holding a sand unity ceremony of your own. Though they are performed at weddings in many faiths, wedding sand ceremonies are not a traditional part of any major religion. This fact accounts for the large number of variations of the practice — so many, in fact, that sand ceremonies are often unique to each wedding.
The colors of the sand, for example, are left up to the bride and groom (though sometimes neutral colored sand representing God is also used) and can have deeply personal significance or simply look pretty. There is also no standard size or shape for the containers — they can be any shape or size, combined with other wedding accessories or decorations, and couples are free to use whatever works best for them.
In the same way there are also no rules about when during the wedding the sand ceremony should be held. The most common time is immediately after the bride and groom speak their vows, but many couples choose to perform the ceremony as an introduction to them. Other couples have even begun to make the ceremony a part of the vows themselves, pouring additional sand after each pledge.
Sand Ceremonies and Blended Family Weddings
One variation of the sand ceremony in particular has become popular among couples with children. During these blended family weddings the children of the bride and groom are invited to the altar; each child adds his or her own layer of colored sand to the container, turning the vase into a symbol of two families coming together as one. Some couples also choose to involve other close family members such as their parents and grandparents for the same reason. The fact that there’s nearly no limit to the number of colors that can be used makes wedding sand ceremonies a unique and easy way for couples to broaden their celebration to be about more than just them.
Sand Ceremonies as an Alternative to Unity Candles
Another variation of the sand ceremony, meanwhile, actually excludes the bride and groom. In this version the sand ceremony is used as a replacement for the better known unity candle ceremony, which in some denominations is performed by the mothers of the wedding couple. The process here is essentially the same, though in place of each mother using a taper candle to light a central pillar candle, they pour layers of sand instead.
Regardless of who pours the sand, sand ceremonies are an increasingly popular alternative to unity candles, particularly at beach and outdoor weddings where wind can be a significant factor. The keepsake quality of the sand-filled vase and its durability relative to candles is also appealing, as candles can be more difficult to display at home and may melt or deform over time.
Possible Origins of the Sand Ceremony
Just as the process of holding a sand ceremony has been left up to interpretation, there is no accepted historical origin of the practice — some have claimed it is primarily a 20th century phenomenon while others argue the practice dates back hundreds if not thousands of years. Sand ceremonies do seem to have first gained popularity among both native Hawaiians as well continental Native American communities, but it is unclear if these groups developed the practice independently from each other or which group did so first.
There are compelling cases for both sides. Hawaiian weddings often take place on the beach, for obvious reasons, and many traditional Hawaiian weddings have long involved the bride and groom scooping sand from around their feet with seashells and pouring it into a shared container. Native American sandpainting, meanwhile, is a well-documented and ancient practice that involves artfully mixing layers of colored sand. Although traditional sandpainting is associated with healing and not weddings, the longstanding use of sand in Native American culture, and its continuing use today, suggests that wedding sand ceremonies may be older than we realize.
A Meaning that Is Universal Across Cultures and Time
Although the exact origins of the sand ceremony will likely never be known, in many ways its blurred history demonstrates just how universal its symbolism is to the nature love and the human spirit. The idea of contrasting colors of sand that are each distinct yet permanently mixed together can be found in other cultures all over the world, from the ancient mandalas of Tibet, to the parlors of Victorian England, to the sand tray art of Imperial Japan, to the ceremonial sand imprints of aboriginal Australia.
The bright colors and simple-yet-majestic meaning behind the sand ceremony makes it far more than a beach wedding trend or a gimmick from a reality TV show. Indeed, regardless of how old the current practice might be, its roots can be traced back to the oldest days of human civilization. So no matter what type of sand ceremony you hold, rest assured its significance will endure for as long as there is love.
Susanna Stefanachi Macomb, The Wedding Sand Ceremony, Idotaketwo.com
Eugene Basstsoslanii Joe, Mark Bahti, Oscar T Branson, Navajo Sandpainting