Wednesday, December 1, 2021

‘I’ve Had a Couple Who’ve Had to Postpone Their Wedding 5 Times’ – What it’s Been Like Working as a Celebrant Through the Pandemic

There isn’t a job on this planet that hasn’t been touched by the pandemic in one way or another, but even in the hardest times, life goes on and people adapt. Capsule is talking to workers from all sorts of fields who have had to find ways to keep serving people, while almost every aspect of their jobs changed. First up, a wedding celebrant talks love in the time of Covid-19.

“The venue manager and I were looking at each other, going, ‘I think this will be the last one we do for a while, won’t it?’ And it was pretty much the last big wedding I did for six months.” Melanie Stuart has been working as a celebrant – on top of her regular job in education – for 11 years and it’s no exaggeration to say the past 18 months have been like nothing the wedding industry could ever have planned for. (Full disclosure: she was my celebrant as well!)

Mel can distinctly remember the last wedding she did just days before Aotearoa moved into Level 4 for the first time in March 2020. A guest had arrived from overseas just 12 hours before the rule quarantining all international travellers took effect and the couple’s big day was in total flux as the ground shifted beneath them. In retrospect, it was an indication of what was to come for any couples planning a wedding ever since. You only have to remember the phrase ‘Bluff wedding cluster’ to recognise just how high the stakes are for some families – and the wedding vendors working alongside them.

“I look at photos from those big ceremonies and I think, ‘that may never happen again…'”

It’s bittersweet, Mel says, when she thinks back to the magical and large scale “fairytale” weddings she officiated at, early on in 2020 – big budget, big guest list. “I look at photos from those big ceremonies and I think, ‘that may never happen again… or at least, not in Auckland, for quite some time.’ Couples’ priorities have changed – not only can they not have overseas guests jetting in anymore, they are not even permitted to celebrate their love with a large group of friends and family. Moreover, if the pandemic has affected their livelihood they now need to focus their budget on the mortgage, childcare; the basics, rather than a wedding.”

One of the last big weddings Mel worked on. Photo by Stephan & Nakita

Mel says she’s booked a handful of large weddings for next year, but that’s well down from her pre-pandemic average of 25 ceremonies in a normal summer. And while in 2020, most of Mel’s couples were very “philosophical” about having to postpone, that mood has shifted throughout 2021 as the relentless nature of plan/pause/postpone has increased. “I had one couple who postponed by 12 months and they are now excited about their ceremony next year. I’ve had another couple who have now postponed five times within 18 months, and they are so despondent they almost can’t bear to email me anymore,” she says. “Every time they picked a new date, it was only a few months away and we kept bouncing into lockdown. That’s devastating. They were three weeks out from their “Plan D” wedding, when Delta struck.”

“I’ve had another couple who have now postponed five times within 18 months, and they are so despondent they almost can’t bear to email me anymore.”

The optimistic sense of ‘postpone and try again’ is waning for a lot of couples, Mel says. “Optimism is when you say ‘we’re going to reschedule for two-three months from now and even if we’re in Level Three, we will proceed.’ I don’t really even know what the opposite of optimism is when you’ve reached the point where you can’t even bring yourself to re-book your wedding date at all… It might be realism. Couples can’t bear the disappointment of missing out on their big day over and over again.”

Mel’s pre-booked November and December weddings have all just been postponed, and now there’s very little certainty in the diary at all. “Normally, I’m doing one a weekend from now on until March.” But there has been a big move towards couples booking Registry ceremonies, (previously conducted at the Births Deaths and Marriages Office, and now officiated by designated celebrants in their local community.) For these micro-ceremonies, it’s the couple, the celebrant and a smattering of guests, two of whom will be formal witnesses. (Currently in Auckland’s Level 3-ish settings, the gathering is capped at 10 or less, and for Mel, that’s outside only).

It’s a style that is very popular for those with family overseas, who know there is no short-term solution to getting non NZ-citizens into the country. “The couple are here working hard, or studying and getting married is important to them, and Zooming their parents in their home countries is important to them, but their parents have given their blessing to get married without them being physically present. Their registry ceremony with me is joyous and loving and almost all tell me they will go back to their home countries when they can and have a big celebration.”

A beautiful small wedding, photo by Memories By Alena

Mel estimates she’s done more than 100 Registry weddings since May 2020 and Auckland’s regular Level 3 Lockdowns mean these ceremonies sometimes become a family affair of a different nature – with her own teenage children acting as witnesses or taking photos of the event. These small ceremonies are intimate, happy and lovely, Mel says, and can be a great option for people who are focused on a marriage right now, rather than the party aspects of a wedding which are currently uncertain. Registry ceremonies and very short simple personal ceremonies are also a) possible in the shifting sands of Level 3 lockdowns, and b) more financially practical.

But it’s not just wedding-planning couples who are vulnerable right now – all wedding vendors are in an enormously financially vulnerable position; their livelihoods, careers, and passion for their work is at stake. Typically there’s a lot of money tied up in weddings – especially the big-ticket items like venue hire, catering, photography and flowers – and there’s increasing frustration about delays as 2021 drags its locked-down feet.

“These are, after all, businesses that depend on the endorphin rush of happiness and love, not fear, anxiety and disappointment.”

“There’s much more underlying agitation and stress on all parties because of the financial impact of what’s happening,” Mel says. The wedding industry is called an industry for a reason – from the clothing, to the locations, to the food – and ties into one of the hardest parts of the pandemic; that it is near-on impossible to plan anything. Mel’s wedding vendor colleagues are resilient, and finding new ways to work, but things are very, very stressful. “These are, after all, businesses that depend on the endorphin rush of happiness and love, not fear, anxiety and disappointment,” she says.

And then there is the vaccine curveball, which is a new challenge that celebrants have to face, as the decision to become vaccinated against a deadly pandemic becomes inexplicably controversial. Mel stated on her Instagram that she was double vaccinated and immediately received DMs telling her off for ‘shaming people who want the freedom to choose.’

It’s an added layer of time-consuming admin that those organising or working on weddings now have to navigate – the celebrant and bridal party can be a known quantity when it comes to vaccination status but what about the wedding guests themselves? “Outside of Auckland or Hamilton, you can have a wedding with 100 people around you right now,” Mel says. “Is the celebrant responsible for checking in with every single guest? Is the couple? Is the venue manager? The waters are so muddied and confused.”

In a way, Mel feels she’s come full circle from that last ‘normal’ big wedding she did in March 2020, where she wore a mask but felt like the odd one out for doing so. “I was only taking my mask off for the briefest of times, to deliver the ceremony, but now it’s just normal and comfortable to rock up to a wedding, not shake someone’s hand, not touch anything they’ve touched and keep the mask on. It feels normal – even though it goes against my instinct as a very tactile person, as celebrants often are! I’m quite proud and delighted to share photos where I’ve got a mask on but you can tell I am still finding and creating joy for the couple in the moment of their marriage. It’s a moment in history.”

“I’m quite proud and delighted to share photos where I’ve got a mask on… It’s a moment in history.”

One silver lining of this moment in history is that the gravitas of what a wedding means has only become strengthened for some couples, as they continue on in uncertain times. “I spoke with a couple yesterday and they’re hoping to get married in January, and they’re hoping to have their wedding rehearsal with me at a big venue in December. And neither of those things may happen,” Mel says. “But they said, ‘we’re just so lucky that the end result will be the same. We’re going to get married on the ninth of January and that’s what’s important. Whether it’s 10 people, or 100.’ And I was just so proud of them. Because for my couple to say ‘we’re lucky,’ well, that just sums it up, doesn’t it?”

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