Our Wedding: The Civil Ceremony

Dutch law is a lot stricter than American law about where you can get married. In the US, you can be married in your backyard and have the officiant be a cousin who just got ordained this morning. Here, only some places are approved as official wedding venues, and only a handful of people per city can serve as a legal officiant. If you want to get married somewhere (or by someone) other than those pre-approved by the government, you need a separate civil ceremony at city hall.

Ken and I wanted our family friend, a minister, to marry us. Since she’s American (and not, coincidentally, one of the 10 people who can perform legal marriages in Leiden), we set up the paperwork to have a civil ceremony the day before the wedding. While we planned for it to be small and casual, it was also a lot more personal and meaningful than I’d expected!

Me holding our wedding bands

The night before

I slept terribly the night before the civil ceremony. Hoping to look (and feel) well-rested the following day, I dutifully went to bed at 11; but by 1:30, I was still tossing and turning, unable to sleep from nerves. I picked up my phone and saw Taylor, one of my bridesmaids, was on messenger.

“I’m having trouble sleeping. So many thoughts in my head,” I texted. “Want to go chat somewhere for a few minutes?”

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll come down.”

My bridesmaids and I all stayed together in a beautiful, historic hotel the week before the wedding, which made midnight chats like these easy. We met downstairs in the hotel lobby, but the lounge had closed. So instead, we sat on the stairs in our robes and talked a little, trying to stay quiet so as not to wake up our friends staying on the ground floor.

“Are you nervous?” she asked.

“Yeah, but not about Ken,” I said. “It’s just a lot. All the wedding stuff, you know. It’s just a little stressful.”

She wrapped her arms around me and we sat on the steps for a while, swaying and talking and, in my case, crying just a little. Weirdly, most of my feelings weren’t even nerves; they were a strange mix of overwhelm and joy and, especially, gratitude for the many people I loved who traveled across the world to be here. And while I felt scared for tomorrow, I also felt safe with Taylor. Best friends are good like that.

When it was time to go back up to bed, having said what I needed to (or having gotten some much-needed hugs), I hit the pillow and fell right asleep.

The morning of

The next morning, I woke up feeling achy and nauseous from crying and lack of sleep — not the vibe you want on your wedding day, civil or not. Funnily enough, I got all my nerves out in these hours. On the day of ‘real’ wedding on Saturday, I felt happy, excited, and calm. But this morning, I tried to shove my nerves down with some paracetamol and a croissant, and got ready for our civil ceremony.

This is the part where I tell you what I wore, right?

Walking up the steps to city hall

Us walking up the steps to city hall; traditionally there’s always a photo of the couple walking up these steps, so we have one of my aunt and uncle on these same steps in 1989. This photo, and all photographs of the wedding and in this post, was taken by Shannon May Brown.

Ken and I wanted to keep the civil ceremony casual. He wore a short-sleeve button-up shirt and gray jeans. I wore a white eyelet sundress with an ivory cardigan, with some cute white tennis shoes by Kate Spade. For good luck (or just good vibes), my jewelry was all given or passed down to me by loved ones: a pearl bracelet my childhood best friend Maya gave me for my 22nd birthday; pearl earrings Taylor gave me for my college graduation; and two necklaces from my grandmother and my godmother, Kirsten.

Ken and I met up with my parents for lunch before the civil ceremony, and left a bit early to get to city hall, where our friends were waiting. The ceremony started at 2:00, so at around 1:45, we took some photos with our photographer, Shannon, a friend from Wellesley: us walking up the steps to city hall, us hugging outside, us chatting with the officiant. At about five to two, our officiant went in to get ready, and Shannon went to go get our friends from outside, so it was just Ken and me.

Flowers in the civil ceremony hall

Flowers in the wedding hall at Leiden’s city hall

In that moment, standing in this cavernous gold and marble room with Ken, I felt overcome with the same feeling from the night before.

“Hey, come here,” he said, pulling me into his arms. “I love you. It’s okay, I love you.” We hugged each other for a few minutes. I thought about who we were when we started dating, and how the girl I was then would be so surprised and secretly thrilled to know we’d be doing this seven years later. And then our friends and parents began streaming into the room. In a matter of seconds, the energy shifted from a private, intimate moment to the excited hum of hugs and greetings. And being around them, my nerves melted away.

Hugging in the civil ceremony hall

Hugging guests hello — these are family friends who had just arrived in the Netherlands that morning

Ken at the civil ceremony

Ken as we met guests in the moments before the service began

Our moms hugging

Ken’s mom and my mom hugging hello

Once everyone had arrived (my parents were late because, incredibly, they got lost on the five-minute walk from where we had lunch), the officiant ushered everyone but Ken and me into the main hall.

The wedding hall at Leiden's city hall

How beautiful is this room, considering it’s for civil ceremonies?

Two of my bridesmaids sitting in the civil ceremony hall

Two of my bridesmaids and best friends getting seated for the ceremony

Ken and I had been asked to prepare a USB stick with three songs on it: our entrance song; the song we wanted to play as we signed our marriage certificate; and our exit song. Though Ken had put together the USB and even tested it on another computer, the coordinator couldn’t get it to open, so we ended up having my brother use my phone’s Spotify playlist. So, once everyone was seated, he pressed play — and Ken and I danced down the aisle, hand-in-hand, to DJ Khaled and Chance the Rapper’s “I Love You So Much“.

Why not, right?

Laughing out some last-minute jitters

Laughing out some last-minute jitters

Dancing down the aisle

The ceremony

Dutch wedding ceremonies are traditionally seated; the couple stands during vows and the kiss, but sits most of the rest of the time. Once Ken and I danced our way to our seats (half-way down the aisle, about 15 seconds into the song, he laughed “this was a mistake, we mis-calculated how long the hall would be”), we sat down; the officiant made a joke about our ‘unique entrance,’ and we began the ceremony in Dutch.

Ken and me facing the officiant during the ceremony

Facing the officiant as the ceremony begins

Ken and me holding hands during the ceremony

I was surprised at how personal and meaningful the ceremony was. We’d had the opportunity to meet our officiant once before over coffee, so he could ask us some questions about how we met and why we wanted to get married. Later, he had us answer some questions about each other over email, and ended up weaving our answers together into a message for us and our friends.

If Sara had to describe your relationship in one word, she would say “home.” Ken, you are the place where Sara always feels safe and welcome. You are the support when she is struggling, and when she’s happy, you multiply her joy. She doesn’t fear for the future, because she knows you’re in it.

The officiant's table

The officiant’s table during the ceremony

Sara, I also asked Ken to describe your relationship in one word. For him, that is the word “harmony.” To him, it encompasses balance; you complement each other, and in that way fit together perfectly.

Looking at each other during the ceremony

The vows

Then came the moment for vows. We faced each other and grasped each other’s right hands, repeating after the officiant. We kissed; I cried. We exchanged rings, and afterwards we hugged (not a legally-binding part of the ceremony) and, of course, I cried again.

Ken putting a ring on my hand

The witnesses

In the Netherlands, there’s no ‘maid of honor’ or ‘best man’ — instead, the couple can choose up to four getuigen, or close friends who serve as legal witnesses to the wedding. This is a really nice moment to honor some of the most important friends in your life: Ken asked his brother and his best friend, my cousin who introduced us, to be his getuigen. I asked two of my best friends.

Watching as my friend signs our marriage license

One of my very closest friends (and my bridesmaid) signing our marriage license

After Ken, I, all four of our getuigen, and our officiant had signed our license, he gave us a final blessing and pronounced us husband and wife. Time to celebrate!

The casual reception

Us holding our marriage certificate

This is a ‘trouwboekje,’ or wedding book. It’s not a legal document, but our witnesses signed it, and it serves as our memento from the civil ceremony, as we don’t get to keep the legal document itself

Ken and I ran outside to the terrace to take photos and celebrate with our guests.

Laughing with Taylor, who cried even though she didn't understand a word of the ceremony

Laughing with Taylor, who cried despite not understanding a word of the ceremony

Ken hugging a friend

Ken hugging a friend

Me hugging Ken's mom

Me hugging Ken’s mom

After lots of hugs and some family photos, we went down to the pavilion to have coffee and take a boat tour with our out-of-town guests. After that, Ken and I had a casual, private dinner, followed by a quick rehearsal at the bridesmaids’ suites for the real thing the next day. And trust me, after all of this, I slept like a baby!

Ken and me on the boat tour after the civil ceremony

Ken and me on the boat tour after the civil ceremony

It was a beautiful day, and by the end, all my nerves and nausea had evaporated and faded into blissful laughter (and, admittedly, some exhaustion). In my next wedding post, I’ll let you into our wedding the following day: getting ready, my bridesmaids (read how I asked them here), the dress, the ceremony, and the celebration. If you have any specific parts you’d like to read about, please ask away in the comments. Thank you so much for reading along, and for being a small part of our joy on this big day.

Sara Laughed

Author: Sara Laughed

I'm Sara, a writer, programmer, and American in the Netherlands. This blog is about my life, discoveries, and mistakes. Follow along, and thank you for stopping by!

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  • Thank you for sharing your innermost feelings and emotions you underwent the day before and on the day of your wedding ceremony. It was truly heartfelt and reading it I was drawn to imagine that day with you through your words. I have been following your blogs for quite a while and your writing moves me a lot.