What is a Handfasting?
A handfasting is an old Pagan custom, dating back to the time of the ancient Celts. A handfasting was originally more like an engagement period, where two people would declare a binding union between themselves for a year and a day. The original handfasting was a trial marriage. It gave the couple the chance to see if they could survive marriage to each other. After a year goes by (a handfasting was once believed to last a year and a day), the couple could either split as if they had never been married or could decide to enter permanently into marriage.
Today, Wiccans and Pagans have embraced handfasting as a part of their wedding ceremony. A handfasting can either be a legal marriage (depending on state law), or a commitment for “as long as love shall last.” A handfasting ceremony can be tailor made to suit the couple.
The Handfasting Ceremony
There are many variations of the traditional handfasting. After the bride and groom both declare their intent to enter into this union, the hands of the couple are clasped and fastened together with a cord or cords just before, just after, or during their vows are made to one another. The wrapping of the cord forms an infinity symbol. The handfasting knot that is tied is a symbolic representation of oneness between the couple. In a show of unity, they become bound to each other.
Each Wiccan and Pagan path has different decrees concerning the color, length, type and of number of cords used to handfast the couple. One custom may have the couple facing each other, binding both pairs of hands of the bride and groom. Another custom is to have only the right hands, and another one of each right and left. There are many variations of the handfasting rite. It all depends on the bride, groom, and the High Priest/ess whom they chose to preside over their wedding ceremony.
The handfasting ritual is a beautiful, magickal rite of passage. Many non-Pagan and non-Wiccan couples are adopting this old custom, much like when couples borrow from other traditions to craft their own ceremony to match their distinctive personalities.
The short answer to this question is: a handfasting is a component of a wedding ceremony which entails gently wrapping cords around the bride and groom’s clasped hands and tying a knot, symbolically binding the couple together in their declaration of unity.
However, the long answer entails a bit of back-story. Today’s modern day handfasting ceremony is a revival – of sorts – of the handfastings of yester yore. The act of handfasting was originally an element to a formal betrothal ceremony (the precursor to today’s engagement) perhaps going as far back as ancient Celtic Scotland, up to the 16th century reformation-era. During the formal betrothal ceremony, in which a couple promises to one another their agreement in future marriage, there was a formal handshake to seal the deal. This was called the handfæstung, meaning, a pledge by the giving of the hand, according to A.E. Anton. The betrothals eventually became so formal that it was an event in and of itself, which eventually lead up to the wedding ceremony. Oh, the drama!
And now for the magical part: take into consideration the strength of intent. Fast forward to modern neo-Paganism and their adaptations of sacred ancient (and not-so-ancient) rituals. Modern day Wiccans and Pagans recognize the power of magic which is essentially focused intent. One of the main reasons for this handfasting renaissance, if you will, is because today’s magical community can identify with the symbolism of an elaborate handshake agreement. To illustrate the imagery and importance of the handshake, the knotting of cords around the hands was eventually incorporated, possibly by today’s neo-Pagans. Magical cord knotting presents an outstanding visual in illustrating intent. The handfasting ritual has been, almost effortlessly, adapted and incorporated into our modern Pagan wedding rituals as the main ceremonial element in addition to – or instead of – the ring exchange. Modern Pagans revived the literal tying of the knot.
The handfasting ritual can be incorporated into any wedding ceremony, just as can the ring exchange.Whether or not a couple chooses to have a handfasting does not make or break the legality of the marriage. Rather, the couple must take the proper steps to ensure that their marriage is recognized by the government if they do so choose. Making sure one’s wedding is legal and binding and recognized by the state (or other municipal entity) varies from location to location, so check your local laws. Generally, there may have to be an ordained (or legalized) officiant in addition to the couple having filled out the proper paperwork (i.e., a marriage license) prior to the actual ceremony. Anyone can become handfasted if that is their intent; rest assured it will be recognized by the Gods. But it may not be recognized by the government – so do your research! This is but one example of the many Wedding Ceremonies we do here at Interfaith Clergy Services.
xoxox Rev. Donna