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Handfasting: Not Just for Pagan or Wiccan Wedding Vows

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This article will break down the history and practice of handfasting.

This article will break down the history and practice of handfasting.

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 declines 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 break down 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 Hardwicke, 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 couples running over the border into the country to get married, however illegal it might have been!

Far from a Pagan ritual, handfasting was actually a Celtic tradition borne out of necessity.

Far from a Pagan ritual, handfasting was actually a Celtic tradition borne out of necessity.

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 means 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.

Here are some examples of handfasting cords.

Here are some examples of handfasting cords.

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.

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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 nine 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.

Some couples may also choose to participate in drinking from a handfasting chalice together.

Some couples may also choose to participate in drinking from a handfasting chalice together.

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 is being married, they are two separate individuals who are still willing to share with one another throughout their lives as a married couple.

Making Sure a Handfasting Ceremony Is Legally Binding

Many officiants 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. In the past, some gay couples who resided in states where marriage between same-sex couples was not recognized, had 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

Question: Is a handfasting legal in Ohio?

Answer: 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,


DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on February 09, 2015:

Glad I could be of help, Rebel Rose. My best friend is Wiccan and married a Catholic. I thought their hand fasting ceremony was beautiful and unique.

rebel rose on February 07, 2015:

Thank you so much. This is such a big help. I am planning a wedding for my self and my husband to be. I am wiccan and he is Baptist and we both love the meaning and history of a handfasting. I am making our cord myself and looking for onsite on how to go about doing so.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on January 23, 2012:

So glad I could be of help, Kim!

Please let me know if you decide to do this, I would love to see the pictures!

Kim Cammaro from NY on January 22, 2012:

I am so happy to have found such a well written and truly beautiful article. I am married for almost nine years (justice of the peace) and have been looking into this for our ten year renewal. Thank you!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on December 19, 2011:

Thanks, Nia. To me, the vows in the video are beautiful and definitely more meaningful than traditional vows. Having witnessed a handfasting myself, it seemed more purposeful than a typical wedding. And yes, five years later, they are still "bound" together and have no desire to untie the knot!

NiaLee from BIG APPLE on December 19, 2011:

Thank you Patti for sharing something so interesting and beautiful. This video was great to learn how it is done and the vows were interesting and deeper than the regular religious wedding. The main thing is to make sure the both party know exactly why and how they do it...thanks a lot.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on November 04, 2011:

Whoohoo, you mean you found me via search engine?! I feel honored! My good friend had a handfasting ceremony at her wedding and it was truly moving and very touching. I like the symbolism behind it and the honesty of the vows. Thanks for reading, Sunforged, and good luck!

sunforged from on November 04, 2011:

Hey, well done Its nice finding a recognizable author in the search engine these days, Well written and informative also, I will likely be taking part in this style ceremony myself ... the scene from Braveheart has always spoke to me, lol ... the video makes it much easier to look over ith my fiancé too , thanks!

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on March 29, 2011:

Sueroy, why am I not surprised you would think that? You should do a funny hub on that, you could do a great one!

Susan Mills from Indiana on March 29, 2011:

I was trying to figure out what it meant to not give your hand food...???

This is a beautiful, binding of two souls, ceremony! I have actually seen it done before, but didn't know what it was called, or the tradition behind the act.

Thanks.. this was much better than what I thought!!! :)

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on March 28, 2011:

Thanks, Mojefballa, glad you enjoyed it.

Ikeji Chinweuba from Nigeria on March 28, 2011:

Quite beautiful and very attractive hub which is well shared.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on March 28, 2011:

Thanks, Lyn, glad you liked it!

Lyn.Stewart from Auckland, New Zealand on March 28, 2011:

very nice

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on March 27, 2011:

Thanks, Tess. It helped that I had been to one of these before!

Tess45 from South Carolina on March 27, 2011:

Excellent research! Thank you! Tess

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on March 27, 2011:

WealthMadeHealthy, the year and a day is just for those who wish for it to be so without making it legally binding. My friend Tess had a handfasting, but her minister was indeed able to perform legal ceremonies and she has been legally married for about five years now.

Wealthmadehealthy from Somewhere in the Lone Star State on March 27, 2011:

Interesting Read, but to me, it seems that if it is "just a trial" marriage for one year and one day, then you are not truly married in the sight of the Lord. Again, an interesting read.

DIYweddingplanner (author) from South Carolina, USA on March 26, 2011:

Thanks, Eric. Glad you liked it.

Eric Prado from Denton, Texas on March 26, 2011:

This is so beautiful and insightful. Voted up. =)

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