Wedding venues: Taking it out of the church

When I was 10 or so, I became an altar boy. There was something about the polished wood of the pews, the smell of incense, the kneeling...even though I got to know every nook and cranny of the church, it never stopped being mysterious for me, and I never stopped loving the feel of hallowed spaces. In fact, when it came time to propose to my girlfriend, I did it in the snow outside a cathedral in Poland while listening to a trumpeter sound out the hours. For me, churches are magical, wonderful places, and I make a point of visiting as many of them as possible.

That having been said, I am not a churchgoer, and neither is my wife. I was touched and honored when she offered to convert to my religion, but I also understood the look of relief in her eyes when I told her that it was unnecessary. While some of my favorite weddings have happened in churches, I wasn't really eager to get married in one. Given that my wife's flesh starts to smoke when it comes into contact with holy water, she also was interested in pursuing other options.

Of course, this put us in kind of a bind. Churches often host weddings, and generally have planners and guides on staff, which makes things a lot easier. Better yet, they are usually attached to social halls or gymnasiums, which provide convenient venues for receptions. In the absence of this easy solution, we decided to get creative.

When making a list of possible wedding venues, we considered a lot of options. Our area of Southwest Virginia was rife with old homes, state and local parks, outdoor amphitheaters, and other assorted places that were available for hosting our nuptials. After a few calls, we finally decided on Fairy Stones State Park, which was located about 45 minutes away from our home. In addition to a beautiful lawn overlooking a picturesque lake, the park had a lodge that was large enough to seat all of our guests (in the event of rain), and an industrial kitchen that was available for our use. The total cost was $280 for the two days of the wedding. For seating and dining, we rented tables and chairs, paying a little extra for setup and removal.

If you live near Fairy Stones, I heartily suggest it as a place for a wedding. We had a beautiful time, and the staff was incredibly helpful. If, however, you are not among the 50 or so people in the area, I would suggest that you consider the venues in your neck of the woods. Federal, State, and regional parks often permit the use of their facilities for a pittance. Alternately, many historical mansions are available for rental. My friend Leanne rented a former plantation in our area for a very reasonable price; it turns out that the owners use the rental fees to pay their mortgage.

Another benefit to taking your wedding out of the church is that doing so gives you the opportunity to share a treasured spot with your family and friends. We chose Fairy Stones because of a minor mishap: during a previous excursion there, we blew out a tire. While I fixed it on a blind curve, with my girlfriend directing traffic, we marveled at the beauty of the place and vowed to return. Ten months later, we did.

Of course, one downside to choosing a non-church wedding venue is the small matter of the officiant. Churches have priests and ministers, which makes the whole wedding thing a lot easier. It's worth noting, however, that many states permit non-professionals to officiate weddings for a small fee. In fact, I'm going to officiate a wedding in California in a few months. It cost a mere $50.

Even if your state doesn't allow this option, you can always cheat. My wife and I got married in front of a court official two days before our "actual" wedding. The court charged $30, which was a standard fee for all recorded weddings. The actual ceremony was free. On the special day, we enlisted one of our friends to officiate. While this might not be your cup of tea, we found that it made the ceremony a little more intimate.

For some people, getting married is a political thing, a great way of getting health benefits, citizenship, or a new last name. For other people, it's a religious thing, a way of affirming your love before God. For still others, it's a way of making a solemn vow in front of your loved ones. Depending on your views, the ideal site for a wedding might be a lawyer's office, a church, a state park, or death row. When your time comes, make sure that your wedding venue is a reflection of your relationship!

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