Handfasting

 
Handfasting, binding the hands of the couple together with a cloth, ribbon or rope, is a non-religion-specific symbol used to express the reality of marriage.

I love creating and incorporating a handfasting in a marriage or commitment ceremony. (So much so that for couples wanting a very simple legals only ceremony I offer a Married in a Minute - with Handfasting option - ask me about it).

While it is often assumed to have its origins in ancient, pre-Christian times, there is little concrete evidence of this. Nonetheless the term handfasting is commonly used to describe a ceremony of union that may fall anywhere on the continuum of full-blown pagan ceremony that also satisfies the requirements for a legal marriage, to a symbolic ritual that is performed as part of a more traditional legal marriage ceremony. However, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it: Handfast: To make a contract of marriage between (parties) by joining of hands.

A handfasting has equal balance of emphasis on male and female, so that it is a ceremony of complete equality between the couple. Incorporating a handfasting in your marriage or commitment ceremony can be a beautiful addition to the ceremony and a way to acknowledge family ties and your personal commitment to one another.  However, one of the things that make some people reluctant to consider handfasting is the widespread, but incorrect, belief that historically a handfasting was a trial marriage. That was never the case, but we can thank  a combination of  misreporting and romantic fiction (Sir Walter Scott's novel, The Monastery) in the 18th century, for spreading this rumour!

Handfasting could, and did, create legal marriages through what was called 'marriage by consent'.
 
'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) ceased being legally recognised in most of Europe in 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 weddings resulting in marriage. Even after 1939 marriage 'by cohabitation with habit and repute' was legally recognised until 2006.

However, from 1753, the Church of Scotland no longer considered such a couple married. In England and Wales, from 1754, all marriages had to be solemnised in the Church of England. This was one of the reasons why running away to Gretna Green (where couples married in the blacksmith's shop, joining hands over the anvil) features in English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. Not only could couples be married by declaration, they could be married at 16 with no parental permission required.

Handfasting can also be used as a symbol of intention in an Engagement  (also called a Betrothal) ceremony, or feature in a Commitment Ceremony or Reaffirmation of Marriage or Commitment Vows.  In each case the ceremony is designed to reflect the couple's personal spiritual beliefs, but there are many elements in common in both modern Pagan and traditional or Christian  weddings and a careful melding of these would mean that those who attend will recognise the traditions from their belief system without being overly confronted by the other.

Many different religious traditions include wrapping or binding of the hands as part of the marriage ceremony. Including the binding of the hands using ribbons or cords references this tradition and, as there is no "set way" of doing the binding, it can be adapted as necessary.

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 in and is generally officiated by a pagan priest and priestess. These include casting of a circle (or 3 circles - it differs between various pagan traditions), calling of the directions etc.

The pagan inclusions of the elements of earth, air, fire and water are actually included in most weddings already - gifts = earth, vows/incense = air, candles = fire, wine cup blessing = water

When incorporated in a more traditional marriage ceremony the ritual consists of binding the hands of the marrying couple together, with appropriate words, either before the vows, or after the exchange of rings.

Whether the handfasting is the ceremony or a ritual within a traditional ceremony I work with you to custom-create the ceremony to reflect your wishes, your needs, your situation, and your beliefs.