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
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
'írregular' 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
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
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.