Handfasting: An Alternative Wedding Ceremony
Romance is alive and well, and many couples have dreams of a fine wedding. But did you know there is an alternative to the traditional (and expensive) formal wedding? It’s called handfasting, and it can signify a commitment for a short time or for a lifetime. It’s completely up to you.
What Is Handfasting?
Originally the term ‘handfasting’ referred to the hand-shaking to seal a contract. Most formal weddings were, in fact, arranged marriages and the future husband was required to make a down payment or a ‘wed’ for his bride. The deal was then agreed and hands-shaken between the erstwhile groom and his future father-in-law.
In Ireland, the idea of handfasting had a more pagan feel when, at Lughnasa (1st August,) a bunch of men would make their way to one side of a wall, while the young women went to the other side. A man would put his hand through a hole in the wall and a woman, unseen, would take it. The couple then had to live together for a year and a day whence they could formally marry or separate.
Those ancient handfasting rites varied from place to place and make for interesting reading. The common aspect most shared was that the initial commitment for only for a year and a day, or thirteen (full) moons
These days handfasting is an informal alternative to a marriage ceremony. It can either be a loose commitment for the couple to live together to see if they are truly compatible, or it can be a lifetime commitment enshrined in law by a separate (or included) legal ceremony.
The handfasting part of the proceeds now refers to the act of gently wrapping a ribbon around the couple’s right hands to signify their bond. Often this forms the pinnacle of the ceremony after exchanging rings.
Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what was in nostalgia, not forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.— “Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Generally speaking, a handfasting is a less fussy version of a wedding. It’s relaxed, fun and the couple can structure it any way they wish. It can take place anywhere, and anyone or no one can officiate.
The idea of a year and a day is less overwhelming than a legal binding of potentially a lifetime. And the renewal of vows after that period can be just as romantic as the first time. The couple might choose to renew their vow publicly or privately.
Handfasting can also enhance a formal engagement. The year and a day could be the agreed term of betrothal before a wedding. My husband and I did something similar, having our engagement after dating for one year, one month and one day.
Sometimes the individuals concerned are of different religions, so a handfasting can be an ideal solution if a faith wedding between the two would be difficult.
Pagan or Non-Pagan?
You don’t have to be pagan or into witchcraft to have a handfasting. They are for anyone. There’s no overseeing body or law to adhere to, so you can make it just the way you want to. It’s up to you if you wish to formalize the wedding by a separate legal ceremony. In the UK that would be at a Register Office. You’d have to check with your state or country what the legal requirements for marriage are. But it’s optional.
A handfasting can take place anywhere as long as you have permission. Think mostly outdoors: on a beach, a pretty garden, a woodland glade, an open moor, at the top of a hill. However, given the vagaries of the weather it’s sensible to have a Plan B. Perhaps a community hall, a marquee, or your own living room, make sure you have somewhere that accommodate all your guests.
With any luck, you will be able to hold it outside. Picture the scene: the designated area decorated with greenery and flowers. Simple table decorations of abundant wild flowers (Note: Make sure you only use unprotected species and check your local laws regarding the picking of flower. Some florists will be able to procure ‘wild’ flowers for you. These will have been grown in a sustainable way). Your guests laughing and participating in the fun of the occasion. Children weaving in and out of the trees. No one who is there will ever forget the sheer joy of your handfasting.
Much inspiration can be gleaned from Pinterest. Search for ‘handfasting’, ‘pagan wedding’ and ‘celebration picnic’.
Many pagan couples will choose the time and day of the handfasting according to the moon or the time of the year. During the waxing or full moon are good times. You may wish to combine the handfasting with one of the significant pagan dates, such as May Day.
Cost of Handfasting
Of course all ceremonies are going to cost something, even if you only have two witnesses. You’ll usually want a special dress and a celebratory meal at the very least.
Start from those basics and add on from there. There are ways and means to keep the costs to a minimum. Ask guests to contribute by bringing food to an informal feast or picnic. Perhaps you know a keen gardener who might be able to donate some greenery and flowers for decoration. Or you may be able to persuade some children of friends and relatives to make some cute paper decorations.
You could go all-out and have a themed cosplay ceremony. Perhaps a simple ancient Greek theme or even your favorite movie series - think Harry Potter or LoTR.
Anything you can have at a formal wedding, you can have at a handfasting, but why go over the top? Simple is usually beautiful and memorable.
Sealing the Deal
Decide how you will mark the moment of commitment. It might be one of the following or something you invent yourself.
- Tying the Knot. Refers to the wrapping of the bride and groom’s right hands together with a ribbon to represent the bond of their love.
- Jumping the Broom. Jumping the broom was an old mainly Welsh, but sometimes English tradition, whereby a broom was placed at the threshold of a house and the couple would hold hands and jump over it in front of witnesses. If they decided to part after a year and a day, all they had to do was to jump over the broom again to dissolve the relationship. In Carnarvonshire, the broom was called the ‘druid’s besom’ showing just how old the custom was.
- Leaping the Fire. A particularly joyful and fun way. The couple holds hands and leaps over a small fire. Be very careful of that dress.
- Ceremony and a Kiss. Similar to a traditional wedding, the couple exchange rings and after a few words, the officiant says, “You may kiss the bride.”
Should you be a member of a group or coven, or even if you are a solitary, you can still ask a local High Priestess or Priest to officiate. You will be able to to work with them to decide on the form of the ritual and the words that will be used.
Alternatively, you can have anyone you like to officiate, or, indeed, no-one at all. Remember an informal handfasting is not recognized under law unless it fulfills all the legal criteria.
Handfasting Ritual and Vows
The service part of the celebration will be very personal to you. There is no one-size-fits-all in a handfasting. You may have very clear ideas about what you want to include or exclude in your ceremony.
You may wish to include an homage to the Goddess, or to a specific deity. You could go all-out and cast a large circle, engaging all guests in the ritual. Or you might restrict to a small circle for you, your partner and the officiant. There might be an altar, or not.
My advice is to research as much as you can. Talk to each other about what you feel is important to you.
One really helpful resource is Handfasting and Wedding Rituals: Welcoming Hera’s Blessing by Raven Caldera. It’s useful for all couples planning a handfasting and especially for those who don’t fall into the traditional idea of a couple. The book covers inter-religion, same-sex couples, trans couples and all permutations thereof.
Caldera describes the book:
“Hand fasting and Wedding Rituals is that reference book. Even with all the rituals-whole, and in pieces-that you'll find in here, nothing may suit you exactly. That's all right. Feel free to mix and match, pull out a vow here or a circle casting there. Maybe only a few lines may inspire you, but if they spark you to write the words that you really need, then this book has done its job.”
One thing that is important is that you make your guests aware of what to expect. It’s possible that they might not realize or understand that you are including pagan elements in your ceremony and, you know, some people can be funny about that sort of thing.
The Handfasting Feast
A handfasting feast can be as formal or informal as you like. Informal is usually the most fun and easy to organize. Picnics, barbecues, buffets, and potlucks are all great ways to celebrate the happy couple’s commitment.
Consider the location, how easy it is to get the feast components there, how everything will be laid out, and, very importantly, who will clear up afterward.
You might also decide to have the feast somewhere else after the ritual, so you could all repair to the local pub or diner for a raucous lunch. Don't forget to book it though.
Remember that all of the below list can be adjusted, some included, others omitted cording to your budget and preferences.
- Your budget
- Structure of ritual or ceremony
- Your commitment: long or short?
- Fripperies: decorations, bouquets, etcetera
- Attendants; bridesmaids, groomsman, etc.
- Gifts for attendants
- Food: catered, bbq, picnic, bring-and-eat, local eaterie?
- Photographs: engage a photographer or rely on guests.
- Cleaning up… because, of course, you will want to leave the place of your handfasting as pristine as you found it.
Would you consider a handfasting as an alternative to a traditional wedding?
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk Custom Methuen & Co. 1930
Raven Kaldera;Tannin Schwartzstein. Handfasting and Wedding Rituals: Welcoming Hera's Blessing (Kindle Locations 78-80). Kindle Edition.
All images used are Creative Commons licensed.
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© 2019 Bev G