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A ceremony (UK: /ˈsɛrɪməni/, US: /ˈsɛrəˌmni/) is an event of ritual significance, performed on a special occasion. The word may be of Etruscan origin, via the Latin caerimonia.[1]

History of Secular Ceremony

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 charged appropriately selected individual to provide non-church people with ceremonies of substance and dignity. This initiative to various extent has now been followed by New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and the USA.[2][3]

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

Purpose of Secular Ceremony

According to Dally Messenger III secular ceremonies are “roadmap” clarifications 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. [4]

Ceremony is serious communication

He realised that ceremonies were the time/place setting wherein people seriously communicated. It was in the ceremony that groups of people came together. It was in the ceremony that they made compacts, that they recognised achievement, that they asserted identity, that they established connections, that they declared love, that they paid tribute, that they expressed grief.

In ceremony human beings expressed, transmitted and reinforced values.

The components of ceremony

To be powerful and effective, such ceremonies, in the view of all the scholars in the field, 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 fas 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.

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 signposts 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[5]:

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

He also knew that the superficial, the unaware, were not the right persons to bring this about. The civil celebrant has to have a rich skill-set. Lionel 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 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.[9]

Ceremonial occasions

A ceremony may mark a rite of passage in a human life, marking the significance of, for example:

  • birth
  • initiation (college orientation week)
  • puberty
  • social adulthood (Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah)
  • graduation
  • union (marriage)
  • awarding
  • retirement
  • death (Day of the Dead)
  • burial (funeral)
  • spiritual (baptism, communion)
  • Grand opening
  • Aging
    Newly commissioned officers celebrate their new positions by throwing their midshipmen covers into the air as part of the U.S. Naval Academy class of 2005 graduation and commissioning ceremony.
    Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz salutes Yom Kippur War casualties at an official annual memorial service.

Celebration of events

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

  • vernal equinox, winter solstice and other annual astronomical positions
  • weekly Sabbath day
  • inauguration of an elected office-holder
  • occasions in a liturgical year or "feasts" in a calendar of saints
  • Opening and closing of a sports event, such as the Olympic Games

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

  • coronation of a monarch
  • victory in battle

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

  • Builders' rites
  • Ceremonial dance
  • Cornerstone
  • Event planning
  • Gift
  • Groundbreaking ceremony           
  • Human condition
  • Liturgy
  • Opening ceremony
  • Ribbon cutting ceremony
  • Rite of passage
  • Tjurunga
  • Topping out (when the last beam is placed at the top of a building).
  • Worship


  1. Grimes, Ronald L. (2000). "Ritual". in Willi Braun, Russell T. McCutcheon. Guide to the study of religion. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 260. ISBN 0304701769. 
  2. Messenger, Dally (2012), Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne (Australia), ISBN:978-0-86786-169-3
  3. Messenger III, Dally. "The power an idea:the History of Celebrancy". International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 12 January 2020. 
  4. Messenger III, Dally, We Had a Dream, in the Australian Humanist, no 121, Autumn 2016, published by the Australian Humanist Society, Canberra ACT
  5. Oldfield, David. "Director". Midway Centre for Creative Imagination. Retrieved 13 January 2020. 
  6. 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
  8. Fierst, Gerald, The Heart of the Wedding, Parkhurst Brothers, Chicago, 2011, ISBN:978-1-935166-22-1 p.76ff
  9. Messenger III, Dally (1999), Ceremonies and Celebrations, Hachette -Livre Australia (Sydney), ISBN:978-0-7336-2317-2 pp. 16ff

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