Framing Your Vows:
A Look at Alternative Altars

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Photo by Diana Edlinger Studios

Words by Christina Shepherd McGuire

Your altar—the stage on which you set your intentions and make your vows sacred—is the focal point of your wedding ceremony. And when your stage includes the Tetons as a backdrop, the design challenge becomes finding a way to attract eyes towards you without competing with the dramatic scenery. Many couples opt for a traditional tree- or stick-built arch as the frame under which they seal the deal, but other intentional designs include ground displays, “fairy circles,” and flower towers made of seasonal plants and environmental elements.

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Photo by Hannah Hardaway

Ground Displays

“Ground arches were big this past summer,” says event planner Alison Kyle, the owner of Destination Jackson Hole. “They offer a very pretty way to incorporate flowers into your altar without taking away from the view.”

Ground arches consist of arrangements of flowers or greenery that form a ground-level semi-circle around the couple and their officiant. Traditional installments incorporate the use of foam blocks to hold the flowers or grasses in place, forming a decorative crescent-shaped backdrop. 

Red House Flowers of Victor, Idaho (Emily Sustick and Katie Knipe, farmer florists), specializes in designs created with 100 percent reusable mechanics “that diverge from the typical single-use floral foam,” Knipe explains

For instance, their “meadow arrangement“ consists of low wooden boxes filled with water that hold inserts of seasonal flowers or grasses. The women use their signature “moss burritos” as an alternative to the floral foam used to affix greenery in a typical arch. Knipe likes to incorporate potted live plants that the couple can later plant in their own garden as a keepsake. Using native plants and grasses for this type of experience celebrates the natural surroundings, melding the altar with the landscape. 

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Photo by Liz Osban

Fairy Circles 

Ancient Egyptians considered the circle a symbol of eternity. Having neither a beginning nor an end, a circle—like the wedding ring on your finger—represents eternal love and the never-ending bond of marriage.

A “fairy circle” or “fairy ring” consists of a circle made of flowers, flower petals, trees, or even people. Unlike a ground arch, the fairy circle completely encompasses the couple, adding a visual element of “union” with symbolism at its core. Ashley Wold, wedding planner and owner of Wild Rose JH, thinks it’s fun to incorporate the ceremony’s surroundings, such as viewpoints, interesting geography, and rock formations.

“My all-time favorite altar involved each wedding guest scooping a cupful of dried flowers, walking down the aisle, and forming a circle [with the flowers] for the couple to stand in during their ceremony,” says Wold. “The couple ushered their own wedding, so once a guest scooped up the flowers, the two grooms walked them down the aisle and had a special moment with each guest. They then hugged, kissed, and showed the guest to his or her seat. I thought it was so inclusive, thoughtful, and meaningful.”

You can also get your guests involved in the ceremony by using them as the altar. Wold was involved in another wedding where the bride and groom stood in the middle and looked out at “365 degrees of loved ones.” 

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Photo by Madison Webb

Flower Towers, Totems, and DIY Designs 

“Flower towers” display decorative elements on either side of the altar for the couple to stand between. Red House Flowers uses a hidden structure of rebar, chicken wire, and Mason jars cemented into a sturdy, yet moveable, base as the hidden groundwork for creating ornamental displays of flowers and grasses grown locally. With a little extra planning, Knipe mentions they can even provide gorgeous dried flower displays for an indoor winter design.

Alternatively, you can use dried pampas grass arrangements placed on either side of the altar or create a vertically held circle backdrop. This inexpensive addition can be customized to fit a boho vibe or a black-tie affair. Lining the aisle with matching bouquets in reusable vessels can tie everything together. Or, use dried local grains (like barley or wheat) instead of pampas to create a similar feel.

“I love wispy grasses in place of florals,” says Kyle. “I believe your bouquets stand out more when they are not competing with a [traditional] floral arch.” 

Other totem-style displays can include recycled treasures (think vintage skis, DIYers), or bison skulls, crystals, and other earthly elements offered by local artist Lyndsay Rowan of Animystical, Elemental Art and Ceremonies.  

Above all, Kyle reminds couples to consider the weather when planning their altar. “It can get windy in Jackson, and there is nothing worse than your aesthetic being ruined by fallen arches or floral designs,” she says. “This should always be discussed with your floral designer, but I also make sure and check on this element when going through the planning process, as well.” 

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