A relative presides

Peter Joost presides at the wedding of his niece, Katie Joost, to Nick Garber. They were married May 4 at the Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills. (Maximilian Franz / Handout / June 14, 2013)

Featured in SceneFor their May nuptials, Mount Vernon residents Katie Joost and Nick Garber made careful preparations.

They booked a gazebo at Owings Mills' Irvine Nature Center, accessible by a quarter-mile hike. They selected readings that had special meaning to them, including one from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And they prevailed on Katie's uncle, Peter Joost, to officiate — prompting him to become ordained online through the Universal Life Church.

"It was really great to be able to create a ceremony that really represented us as a couple," said Katie.

The Garbers' particular tastes — such as including the wisdom of Dr. Seuss in their nuptials — may not be universal. But their choices are representative of a trend among couples to create a wedding that reflects their personalities, without rigid adherence to rules they perceive as outdated. They're staging surprises, incorporating children and pets, having both parents give away the bride (or eschewing the "giving away" business altogether) and otherwise making the day their own.

"A lot of couples are writing their own vows now, which is nice. We're seeing a lot more friends officiating, especially with the rise of same-sex weddings," said Stephanie Hallett, editor of the Weddings page for Huffington Post. "More couples are even walking down the aisle together. ... They don't necessarily need to be quote-unquote given away."

Beyond anecdotal evidence, some data support the idea that more couples are tinkering with tradition as well. A study of 18,000 couples married in 2011, conducted by TheKnot.com and WeddingChannel.com, noted a rise in "casual" weddings and autumn weddings. In Maryland, the percentage of civil weddings rose from 30.9 percent in 1970 to 45.1 percent in 2011.

The ceremonies are changing partly because couples themselves are changing. This year in Maryland, same-sex couples are in the mix, rethinking traditions that don't work for them. Among couples generally, many are already living together, are older (the average age of first-time brides and grooms has risen by five years since 1970) and are more financially established. If couples are paying for all or part of the wedding themselves, "there's a lot less influence from family," Hallett said.

Hallett says the shift away from tradition begins with the proposal and extends to invitations and the gift registry. But she cautioned that traditions exist for a reason and noted that too much change can be startling, particularly for older relatives.

In the case of Katie, 30, a project manager for a nonprofit, and Nick, 33, a software engineer, the pair paid for most of the wedding themselves. Katie said her uncle runs an eco-hotel in Ecuador, inspiring her love for nature. He flew in for the event, attended by about 100 people, and officiated the ceremony at the gazebo, which overlooks a meadow.

"I didn't grow up within a religious institution, and my husband doesn't participate," Katie said, so "choosing to go a religious route would have seemed strange."

Beth Lacey Gill, who handles events and marketing for the Irvine Nature Center, said couples who get married there are rethinking traditions such as a formal bridal party. One couple chose to have guests gather around while they recited their vows, instead of opting for the familiar lineup of bridesmaids on one side and groomsmen on the other, she said.

Family members or friends sometimes officiate, and many couples write their own vows, she said.

Her favorite change is that a father is no longer the only one to "give away" a bride. Sometimes the couples give themselves to each other, she said, or sometimes a father and mother together walk with the bride. Among same-sex couples married at Irvine, she said, some walk down the aisle together.

Children often take part in weddings at Irvine, she said. And couples sometimes ask to include their pets in the ceremony. Gill estimates she has turned away at least four potential weddings because pets are not allowed at Irvine.

Katie said she's noticed that her friends are taking a looser approach to wedding traditions. At one couple's wedding, the friend who was officiating reeled off jokes, emphasizing the joyous feel of the day.

Brad Wurzbacher, 27, and his bride Samantha Hutson, 24, didn't even tell their guests about the wedding. Last Sunday, they welcomed about 80 family members and friends to the Anchor Inn in Pasadena for what they said was an engagement party. About a half-hour into it, the DJ asked guests to step outside, where the wedding ceremony began.

"We were looking for something out of the ordinary," Wurzbacher said before the ceremony. "We're kind of in it for the shock factor."

Brad said both sets of parents are OK with the nontraditional turn of events, though Samantha's mother would have enjoyed having a bit more of a say in the wedding planning. The Abingdon couple, who work together at their custom automotive upholstery shop, paid for the wedding themselves.

Yet after the surprise of the ceremony itself, the evening turned traditional, Brad said. Three bridesmaids and three groomsmen were alerted to the surprise and were wearing traditional attire, he said. The ceremony was officiated by a minister.

Because they opted for a surprise wedding, they didn't have bachelor or bachelorette parties, Brad said. And they expect to receive fewer gifts. "If we don't get anything, that's fine," he said.