Unity Candle Ceremony

by Jennifer Cram Brisbane Marriage Celebrant  © (27/04/2019)
Categories: | Wedding Ceremony | Wedding Rituals |
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Three lit candles
The Unity Candle is the central candle in a set of three or more candles. It is usually a pillar candle that is flanked by two shorter and slimmer candles often referred to as side candles or tapers.

The traditional Unity Candle ritual (often referred to as a ceremony) is a two-part ritual that symbolises the union of a couple, each entering this new phase of their relationship with their own history, personality, and family influences, and, by extension, the joining of two families. In the first part of the ritual representatives of the couple or their families light the side candles, often referred to as the family candles. In the second part of the ritual the couple takes the lit side candles and together they light the Unity Candle.

 A common alternative version of the ritual involves only the couple, symbolizing their commitment to one another in their union. In that version the side candles are taken to represent the pre-marriage separateness of the marrying couple.

You should set up the Unity Candle area in such a way that guests will have a good view of the lighting of the candles and your photographer will be able to capture the moment. You should position the table so that  you can stand behind or on either side of it. With that placement nobody participating in the ritual has his/her back to the guests or to the photographer.

While it is the symbolism of the act of lighting the candles that is central to the Unity Candle ritual, paying attention to utility and safety considerations in choosing and using them is important.

What you will need

Minimum requirements are:
  • A pillar candle for the central (Unity) candle
  • 2 side candles
  • Candle holders, stands or plates
  • A means of lighting the candles.
If you choose to involve more people in the ritual, you may need additional candles.

Choosing your candles

The most important consideration is the quality of the candle because they burn well, whereas cheap candles, however beautifully, and expensively, decorated, do not. The quality of the candle is particularly important if you are buying colored candles. A quality colored candle is the same color all through. Cheaper colored candles may be white candles covered with a thin flaky layer of dye. The type of wick also plays a critical part in how the candle burns.

For the Unity Candle, choose a larger candle that will burn with a bigger flame. Make sure that it has an even flat base, so it will stand perfectly upright and therefore be less likely to drip wax. For the side candles choose candles thick enough to ensure they can safely remain alight throughout the ceremony.

Traditionally the Unity Candle is white with silver trim, if any. This is possibly because the Unity Candle ritual became popularized as a feature in traditional weddings predominantly held in church. If you plan to keep the candle to relight every wedding anniversary choosing a plain white candle will allow you to refresh the candle by giving it a good rub with an old nylon stocking when it loses its gloss. However there is no reason why you should not choose colored candles to coordinate with your color scheme.

Candle holders

Typically the unity candle is positioned in the middle with the flame at a higher level than the flame of the candles on either side. You can purchase a variety of special Unity Candle holders that comply with this configuration, either as a table model or freestanding tall candelabra. Or you can stand pillar candles directly on heatproof plates.
The central candle, the Unity Candle, can be placed in a tall narrow glass container such as a straight-sided vase and the space between the candle and the glass sides filled with real rose petals, decorative sand or pebbles, or water gel crystals to about one third of the height of the candle.

When you place the candle in a container, candle chimney, or hurricane, make sure that the candle is no more than two-thirds the height of the container and that the opening at the top is adequate to ensure that heat does not build up inside the container.

For a different look the candles can be positioned so that all three flames are at the same height.

Candle safety

A burning candle is never 100% safe. Any open flame is a potential hazard, something that is recognised by total fire bans and individual venue policies. Some venues ban open flames of any type because of their insurance company's restrictions.

If you are able to include a Unity Candle ritual in your ceremony, there are a number of things you can do to minimize the risks associated with the use of candles:
  • Choose your candle wax carefully. If you or your guests are allergy-prone beeswax and soy candles, which release no toxins when burned, are good. However, beeswax burns hotter than paraffin wax, increasing the severity of burns. Soy wax has the lowest melting point and burns cooler, longer, and safer than the other waxes.
  • Ensure that the surface under the candles will cope with the heat generated by the burning candle. If using pillar candles place them on non-flammable plates, tiles or a mirror for safety and to protect the table/altar and/or tablecloth from wax stains.
  • The surface should be stable and sturdy to ensure that the candles do not fall over.
  • Keep candles at least 5mm apart.
  • Burn a candle no longer than one hour for each 25 mm of its diameter.
  • Ensure that any decorations on the candle are low enough so as to minimize the possibility of them catching fire and avoid using candles with dried flowers or leaves embedded in them. Where the candles are placed at different heights it is important to ensure that the shorter candles won’t ignite the decoration on the taller candle.
  • If using a hurricane or candle chimney make sure it is large enough and made of appropriate material so that it won’t overheat and shatter.
  • If candles will be held in the hand or carried by members of the bridal party ensure that each has a protective collar so that wax doesn’t drip onto hands or clothing, and practice with lit candles at the rehearsal so everyone is used to holding the candle absolutely vertical.
  • Never put candles on the floor because they could ignite clothing or, if kicked, could splash hot wax on legs and feet.
  • Be careful about putting candles at eye height because they can ignite veils and hair and wax could be splashed in people’s eyes. Where there are children in the bridal party you need to take note of their eye height as well as that of the adults.
  • Be careful when extinguishing candles. Use a snuffer. Blowing out a candle, particularly a pillar candle, can cause the wax to splash and possibly cause a bad burn.
  • After extinguishing a candle wait until the wax hardens before moving it. If you need to move the candles out of the ceremony space quickly, ensure that the person you delegate to collect them up has a pre-prepared container to pack them in so that they are supported and won’t spill hot wax. A few ice-blocks popped on top of a pillar candle will cool the hot wax and speed up solidifying.
If you're interested in learning more about the history of the Unity Candle Ceremony and the related Unity Sand Ceremony, I cover that together with specific examples of different types of Unity Candle Ceremony in my book  Unity Candle & Sand Ceremony: A Definitive Guide to the Creative Use of Candle and Sand Rituals in Wedding and Commitment Ceremonies (available from Amazon.com)

Thanks for reading!

Jenny xxx Let's talk
                      soon about how you can have the best ceremony

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