Handfasting vs Handtying vs Tying the Knot

by Jennifer Cram - Brisbane Marriage Celebrant © (17/01/2022)
Categories:  |  Wedding Ceremony |  Wedding Rituals  |
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Jennifer Cram carrying out a handfasting
                    with multiple ribbonsIs there a difference between a handfasting and a handtying as a wedding ritual? I believe there is. But it is not what you think it is!

Should celebrants who include a handfasting ritual within a marriage ceremony be calling it a handtying? Should we be reserving handfasting for the full-on pagan ceremony?

While that's a matter for quite lively discussion in UK celebrant circles,  historically, there are no grounds for such a dichotomy, or for suggesting that referring to the ritual within a civil marriage ceremony (or non-legal wedding) as a handfasting is somehow wrong! Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary defines Handfast as "To make a contract of marriage between (parties) by joining of hands."

I've been including handfasting rituals in civil ceremonies for over 15 years and have also carried out full handfasting ceremonies, so here is my take on the handfasting/handtying controversy.


While it is often assumed that Handfasting has origins in ancient, pre-Christian times, there is little concrete evidence that it is a Celtic tradition. More accurately, it came to us later, via Norse influence. The term Handfasting ) from the Norse, handfesta, to strike a bargain is commonly used to describe a ceremony of union that may fall anywhere on the continuum of full-blown pagan ceremony that may or may not also satisfy the requirements for a legal marriage, to a symbolic ritual that is performed as part of a civil legal marriage ceremony.

A non-spiritual Handfasting ritual as we know it today has its origins in what was legally Marriage by Consent, (where all that was required for a legal marriage was that the couple declared their intention to live together as husband and wife in front of witnesses) was  legally recognised in most of Europe until the early 16th century (the Reformation).  In Scotland, however, such '√≠rregular' marriages continued to be legally recognised right up until the Marriage (Scotland) Act of 1939. Before 1939 handfastings which took place instead of a church wedding were legally recognised as marriage by declaration, a wedding that resulted in marriage. Even after 1939 marriage 'by cohabitation with habit and repute' was legally recognised until 2006.

In Australia, technically, you, the marrying couple marries yourselves by making a verbal declaration in front of witnesses. Once you have done that, you are legally married. Of course, there are other legal prerequisites, including paperwork, and the presence of an authorised celebrant, but the actual moment of marrying is carried out by the couple themselves.

Handfasting is a term that immediately alerts us to three things
  • it is a couple thing in which two people's hands are joined together
  • it is a visual expression of a commitment to an ongoing relationship between the couple
  • it is an active action and a willing choice

Pagan handfasting vs handfasting ritual

While we have no written record of how handfastings were carried out in earlier time, the modern neo-pagan ceremony includes a number of other ritual elements, including casting of a circle (or 3 circles - it differs between various pagan traditions), calling of the directions etc.

Civil weddings "in the round", only work for guests and the photographer, when you have a small number of guests and when the wedding party, including the celebrant, are part of the circle rather than in the middle of it.

The pagan inclusions of the elements of earth, air, fire and water are, to this day, included in both church ceremonies and secular civil weddings.
  • Earth represented by gifts (and in church by the collection plate/offerings)
  • Air represented by the vows (and in church by incense)
  • Fire represented by candles, including the very popular Unity Candle
  • Water represented by various Wine Ceremonies and/or the sharing of wine or other beverage
They sit comfortably within a handfasting ritual in a civil marriage ceremony


Handtying, is an ambiguous term that needs explanation and context to be understood! There are many negative connotations - such as "my hands are tied", most of which imply that the person is a victim.

Tying the knot

Knots and weddings go together. Many cultures include symbolic tying of a knot or knots of some sort in a wedding ceremony. The couple's garments may be tied together, cloth or string may be draped across or around the couple. Threads may be tied on their individual wrists.

While handfasting is often explained as the origin of the term "tying the knot" meaning to get married, tying the knot as a ritual within a ceremony usually involves the couple tying a knot in one piece of rope, or tying two pieces of rope/cord together, without their hands being tied together. There are numbers of ways to incorporate knot-tying as a ritual in a marriage ceremony. All of them lovely, all of them actively involving the couple, all of them photogenic, but none of them a good fit with the term handfasting.

Does it really matter?

If there was one locked down, rusted on, authorised way to carry out a ritual involving a couple and a length of cord or ribbon or rope, it possibly would matter. But there isn't. There are some versions around that are repeated again and again because they are easily available on the internet. But for me, the beauty of including a handfasting ritual is that I can work with you to create it afresh, to craft words that reflect what it means to you. The colours you choose, what those colours mean, who will wrap the cord/ribbon round your joined hands, who will do the tying, all open up infinite possibilities. I always call it a handfasting if joined hands are involved. I will use Tying the knot if it is a team task. That's me. What you choose to call it, is up to you. I'm cool with that.
Thanks for reading!
Questions or comments?
                      Jenny Click to contact me
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