Why I Loved My Courthouse Wedding Ceremony


I’ve been in a lot of weddings — big ones, small ones, relaxed outdoor venues, prim and proper church venues. I was never as wedding-obsessed as some of my friends were and was happy to go along with whatever the bride requested. I decided years ago that if and when the time came for my own wedding day, it would be, in a word, chill. So when my boyfriend became my fiancé, the two of us discussed our ideal wedding day scenarios and luckily we were on the same page.

We agreed to have a small ceremony abroad in Ireland with our immediate family. A few weeks later we would have a casual party at one of our favorite breweries to celebrate with friends and extended family. But first things first: we had to make it legal.

Marriage ceremonies in San Diego — well, anywhere really — are no joke. We made our appointment months in advance and requested that it would take place outdoors, as the courthouse downtown offered a relatively private, scenic spot overlooking the bay. They listed the outdoor option as a preference, but there were no promises. Well really, who cared? The civil ceremony was just the warm up to the big Irish do!

A few weeks before our courthouse date, we finalized a few details for the day. My parents would be our witnesses, as they were local. My brother- and sister-in-law were unable to make the Ireland trip but were free for Wedding Phase One, if you will. My fiancé didn’t have any family nearby, so we invited his close friend and girlfriend who we adore. Plus, my parents’ friend offered to come take photos. The grand total was seven guests. For a split second I wondered if it was lame to roll up to the courthouse with a posse. Nah, people probably tagged along to courthouse weddings all the time.

Next on the list, the dress. Wearing the “official” dress for the Real Wedding and the courthouse was out of the question. What if we did get to exchange vows outside and I got grass stains on it? What if I had a glass of red wine after and spilled it? The civil ceremony was meant to be low-key, and I wasn’t going to relax in The Dress. I ordered a modest, breezy, white lace dress online, which felt very ’70s rock n’ roll chic. (It also turned out to be completely see-through, and I spent more money on a slip than on the dress.)

It was great, but I still questioned if getting a new dress was too much. My fiancé was the voice of reason here. “Too much for who? It’s still a wedding day, we can dress like it’s a wedding. You can wear white or not wear white — do whatever you want to do.”  I stuck with the ’70s dress and my guy wore his wedding suit, grass stains be damned! (Plus the fabric was dark and much less of a liability.) My mom asked if I wanted a bouquet. I was on the fence about it, but I let her choose and told her to surprise me.

On a Friday in July, Wedding Phase One had arrived. We both woke up with the biggest, goofiest smiles on our faces. (I know it sounds creepy to actually wake up with a smile, but just go with it.) We splurged and got donuts and coffee from our favorite local shop. We got ready together at our apartment, and I checked my work email. Yep. I didn’t even take the day off of work. Seriously, what was I thinking?! The Ireland trip put me in the PTO hole, as they say, and it conveniently was my work-from-home Friday. Technically, I did work! I just took a really long lunch break. My family arrived at our place and we took an Uber downtown to the courthouse — not a vintage vehicle, not a limo. Honestly, how much more casual could this get?

The outside of the courthouse has an Art Deco feel. The lobby appeared a little dated, but it was still charming. A few floors up, the marriage services wing was, on first appearance, a regular old office building. Drab blue carpeting, paint with a weird yellowish tint, and everyone’s favorite oppressive indoor office lighting. But this wasn’t any old office, this was an important office wing — a place where people walk in single and walk out married! Although there wasn’t any music playing, when I think back to that day my mind inserts some sunny, lighthearted, Gilmore Girls-esque background music. There were girls rushing around in white dresses — some wore flowy frocks, others wore giant gowns. There were families. There were men in full uniform and guys dressed in suits. And everyone — and I mean everyone — was so happy that they glowed.


A civil ceremony doesn’t sound special. It literally means ordinary. But that day, for me, it was anything but.


Were we nervous? No way! We filled out paperwork and next met with a marriage agent, who filed all of our info for our marriage certificate. I asked her if this was the best job she’d ever had. She explained that most of the time it was great, and regaled us with stories of couples who — well let’s just say they walked in single and they walked out single. I ate it up and filed this under Dream Job Number 21.  In a bustling family waiting room, we sent pictures to family who couldn’t be there. We chatted with our group until our wedding officiant called our name.

Our officiant happened to be 17 years old. That’s not fair, he was a college student — a very youthful looking one. He was in khaki’s and a Hawaiian shirt under his black robe. This was a surprise, sure, but he added the perfect element of quirkiness to Wedding Phase One. When it was time for the ceremony, he did a really great job and took his role seriously. He forgot a pen for our witnesses to sign the marriage license but we won’t hold that against him — after all it was a Friday. We did get to exchange vows outside! It was a stereotypically gorgeous San Diego day. Our guests wore sunglasses. I wore sandals from Target and held the succulent bouquet that my mom made me with plants from her garden. My now-husband and I stood under a vine-covered pergola and repeated after college student, with the sounds of birds and airplanes flying overhead. We all took photos and posed for one with our ‘Just Married!’ commemorative bumper stick that we purchased for $2.

A civil ceremony doesn’t sound special. It literally means ordinary. But that day, for me, it was anything but. In planning it wasn’t labeled as The Big Day, but it turned out to be just as important, and equally memorable as our ‘official’ wedding. It was the best long lunch break I’ve ever taken.


How would you like to exchange vows with the one you love?