Handfasting: Not Just for Pagan or Wiccan Wedding Vows
What Is a Handfasting?
Handfasting ceremonies are shrouded in myths and misconceptions. The average person when receiving an invitation to attend a handfasting ceremony usually asks, "What the heck is a handfasting?"
Another small percentage of the population believes it is only connected with Pagan religions and thinks all Pagans are devil worshippers and politely decline the invitation. Still others go as curiosity-seekers and attend just to make sure there isn't any dancing naked around a bonfire or sacrificing of animals they might miss! And a very, very small percentage attend because they understand the historic significance of the handfasting ceremony and want to be a part of such a special, spiritual, and beautiful occasion.
This article will breakdown the actual history and meaning behind this ancient tradition and provide information on how you can incorporate it into your own wedding ceremony if you so wish.
The History of Handfasting
Handfasting is an ancient Celtic custom that was practiced in several European countries, including Germany and Scotland, and was not at all a Pagan ritual. It was actually born out of necessity. Couples wanting to be married, but not having a clergyman coming through their area for months, possibly years at a time, developed the custom of handfasting.
It was a common practice in Europe for a number of years as a means for a couple to virtually perform their own wedding ceremony. It did not even have to be consummated by sexual intercourse (as others believe) nor witnessed by others. It could be just a simple agreement among a man and a woman that they would be husband and wife, whereupon the two would be considered married.
The custom continued to be observed in Scotland even after Lord Harwicke, a lawyer and Lord Chancellor, decreed that any marriage not performed by a member of the clergy was illegal. Although the Marriage Act of 1753, as it was called, did a lot to cut down on the number of clandestine marriages performed without the benefit of clergy, Scotland still persisted in recognizing these marriages and did so up until 1939. So Scotland became kind of the Vegas of the day, with many desperate couple running over the border into the country to get married, however illegal it might have been!
The Myth of Being Married for a Year and a Day
Somewhere in the late 18th century, a myth sprang up that handfasting could be used as a sort of "trial" or temporary marriage lasting a year and a day—and then after that time period, it could be extended further if the couple consented to continue with the marriage permanently.
During that year and a day, however, if a child was born of the union, the marriage was indeed considered permanent. From this myth, many pagan groups picked up handfasting as a mean for a marriage ceremony to be performed without the blessings of the church and without it necessarily being legally binding.
A Physical Symbol of Tying the Knot
Handfasting is an actual physical act of binding the couple's hands together with a length of cloth, a cord, string, or whatever might be available. The couple faces each other and clasps hands, right hand to right hand, left to left, making a figure eight: the infinity symbol.
For a Celtic style handfasting, during the repeating of the vows, the cord is wrapped three times around the couple's hands. Another more complex wrapping of the cord actually forms the infinity symbol with the cord wrapping across both of the couple's hands—one side looping under one of the couple's hands, the other side looping under the other one of the couple's hands, then both ends tying in a knot on top of the clasped hands.
The Handfasting Cords
Handfasting cords are more practical and attractive for the most part than ribbons, and lengths of cloth and are generally used in sets of three. The three cords may be kept separate or braided together.
Although white for purity, blue for fidelity, and red for passion are commonly used colors, couples may choose whatever colors of cord they want. Many couples choose their wedding colors or variations of one color braided together. Cords are generally 9 feet long.
In Poland, a handfasting is called a "zrekowiny," and a length of white embroidered cloth is used and wrapped around the couple's hands. At many weddings, the cords or cloths are passed around among the guests, as each guest imparts a blessing upon them before they are passed back to the officiant before the actual handfasting takes place.
The Drinking of Wine From the Handfasting Chalice
Another part of the handfasting ritual that some couples like to include is the drinking of wine from the handfasting chalice. The chalice is usually silver and of Celtic design, although couples may choose to use a family heirloom silver chalice instead.
The bride drinks from the chalice alone, then the groom drinks from it, then both drink together. This is a symbol that even though the couple are being married, they are two separate individuals who are still willing to share with one another throughout their lives as a married couple.
An Actual Couple Performing the Vows of a Handfasting Ritual
Making Sure a Handfasting Ceremony Is Legally Binding
There are many officiants who will perform handfasting ceremonies. But if you want your wedding to be legal, make sure that the individual is an ordained minister or recognized by law to perform such a ceremony.
You certainly don't have to be Pagan, Wiccan, or anti-religion to have handfasting as part of your wedding ceremony. Many Christian couples, particularly those of Irish or Scottish descent, include it in their weddings. Some gay couples who reside in states where marriage between same-sex couples is not recognized, have a handfasting ceremony performed instead. It's up to the couple what they would like to have as part of their ceremony, and handfasting is a meaningful and beautiful custom to include in any couple's wedding.
Questions & Answers
Is a handfasting legal in Ohio?
Depends on what you mean by legal. A marriage license must still be signed by both parties and the priest or priestess officiating must be registered for the marriage to be recognized as legal,