Holly Austin-Davies qualified as a humanist wedding celebrant in 2018 and conducted her first ceremony the following year. But soon after that, she moved across the country, the Covid-19 pandemic hit and everything changed. Holly explains why she became a humanist celebrant, what she learnt from the training and what she loves most about the role.
‘When I got married in 2014, I had never heard of humanism or humanist ceremonies. We had a nice, but standard, civil ceremony.
‘I first heard about humanism in a surprising way – through the music of Tim Minchin. I was looking on his wikipedia page and noticed he was a humanist. This took me down an internet rabbit hole until I reached the Humanists UK website. I did the ‘how humanist are you?’ quiz there.
‘When I saw the result, it was a revealing moment! Humanism was a shortcut to everything that was important to me, from faith schools to assisted dying. I realised that there are people who think the same way as I do.
‘I became a member of Young Humanists, but I was still only vaguely aware of humanist weddings.
‘I was working as a librarian, and I wanted to find something interesting and different to fill my spare time using the skills that I had. I enjoyed writing – but was never going to write a novel – and performing arts. I thought being a celebrant might be a good fit, so I looked to see if there was a need in my area.’
Humanists UK training helps you find your own style as a celebrant
‘The training was hugely useful because it was so thorough. I have always been a grade A swot – so it was a shock not to pass the first assessment. It made me wonder, am I doing the right thing? But when I looked at the trainers’ comments, they were so insightful. There were things I had missed, but was now able to consider.
‘The trainers are there to push you further. I hadn’t failed, I just hadn’t found my flow yet.
‘I didn’t know everything, so I had to work at it. It’s a developmental process, about finding your own style, and that takes time.
‘The course isn’t just about paying your money, turning up and then, job done. It demands a lot. I’m glad that was the case, because it meant that I was properly prepared for my first ceremony. It’s a big responsibility to conduct someone’s wedding, so it’s helpful that the course is so thorough.’
Preparing for the wedding: allaying fears and getting excited
‘My first ceremony wasn’t a big, expensive bash, it was just 40 guests in a little village hall.
‘At the rehearsal, I helped set out the chairs and put up the bunting. The rehearsal is about much more than just telling people where to stand, it’s a chance to catch up with the couple, allay their fears and get them excited about the day.
‘I was living in Kent when I started out as a celebrant. I found a supportive local group of celebrants who helped me get on my feet – I was just getting going by the time we moved away. Then it took a while to build my celebrant ‘brand’ in Bournville, our new home, just as lockdown was starting.
‘This year and last, there have been a lot of weddings that were booked for 2020, but had to be postponed. The final one of these was at the end of last month, but we started planning it three years ago!
‘I got to know the couple really well, because each time as we got nearer to a possible date, we would catch up and refresh the script.’
The words are important, but the feeling comes first
‘Being a celebrant can be intense, I have 16 weddings to do this year and I still work full time.
‘Even though most years it won’t be this busy – we are still dealing with pent-up demand post-pandemic – it can still be a lot to juggle.
‘But I genuinely love it – you get such insight into people’s lives. You are responsible for crafting something truly meaningful for them.
‘What I love most is the feeling you get once you start telling the story of the couple. It’s hard to describe this, but sometimes there comes a moment where you feel like everyone is totally swept up in the story – when you’ve captured the essence of the couple in a quirk or a story or a family in-joke, or even an unconscious gesture which everyone recognises, when it’s obvious that the celebrant knows the couple, because the ceremony is so right for them.
‘The words are important, but the feeling behind them comes first. My role is to channel that and make the couple feel as at ease as possible, so that they can go out there and totally enjoy their special day.’
Our thanks to Holly for being interviewed and to photographer Becky Morris Knight for the images.