Handfasting

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Trial marriage redirects here. For more information, see betrothal.

Handfasting is an ancient Celtic wedding ritual in which the bride's and groom's hands are tied together —hence the phrase "tying the knot". It was a part of the normal marriage ceremony in the time of the Roman Empire. In the 16th century, the English cleric Myles Coverdale wrote in The Christen State of Matrymonye, that in that day, handfasting was still in use in some places, but was then separate from the Christian wedding rite performed in a church several weeks after the consummation of the marriage, which had already begun with the handfasting ritual. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, handfasting was then sometimes treated as a probationary form of marriage. See Historical Handfasting for an introduction to the historical roots of handfasting.

One unique tale of a handfasting tradition was that of the Telltown marriages. These took place once per year, on the Sabbat Lughnasadh, and all unmarried people would get together and be married, usually with no knowledge of to whom they were being married until that day. The marriage would last until the next Lughnasadh. At that time, they were free to leave the union if they desired.

These however were not the common practices of handfasting. Couples would choose whom they wanted to marry as in modern-day practice, and have a handfasting with loose wraps and knots to signify that it was only for a year and a day. During this time, the couple would live together as a married couple. After the year and day were over, the couple would then choose to either part ways or make it permanent. If they choose to make it permanent, they would then once again have a ceremony similar to the first with the exception of the wraps and knots being done tight. These ceremonies generally were held on Beltane. Beltane was chosen out of the other Sabbats because it mirrored the God and Goddess's union.

 

Modern usage

In the present day, many Neopagans (especially Wiccans) practice this ritual. In some cases, it symbolizes the beginning of trial marriage, typically lasting a year and a day; if the proper measures are taken, it can be a legal marriage ceremony. Handfastings can be performed for heterosexual or homosexual couples (see also same-sex marriage), as well as for larger groups in the case of polyamorous relationships.

As with many Neopagan rituals, the relationship of the current ceremony to historical practices is tenuous.

There is no universal procedure for the ceremony, and the elements included are generally up to the couple being handfasted. A High Priest or High Priestess may officiate, or the couple may conduct the ceremony themselves. Handfasting usually takes place outside, and, like many Wiccan rituals, may be performed skyclad, or nude. In Wicca, the couple often jumps over a broom or, more commonly, a small bonfire to symbolize entering matrimony. Today, some couples opt for a handfasting ceremony in place of, or incorporated into, their wedding.

A corresponding divorce ceremony called a handparting is sometimes practiced. Handpartings are not always performed for the same reasons as mainstream divorce. One unique feature of handfasting as opposed to traditional marriage is that the couple may choose the length of time for which the marriage lasts: either for a year and a day, a lifetime, or for all eternity. In a Wiccan handparting, the couple often jumps backwards over the broom before parting hands.

An example of a handfasting knot tied by each wedding guest
An example of a handfasting knot tied by each wedding guest

Rings and handfastings

As with traditional marriages, couples often exchange rings during handfastings, symbolizing the couple's desire to be faithful to each other and to share the rest of their lives together. Many pagan couples choose rings with Celtic designs to resonate with the origins of handfastings, while others choose traditional wedding rings.

Tying the knot

The term "tying the knot", which is still used widely today, originates with the practice of handfasting. During the ceremony, the couple's hands are tied together with a red cord or ribbon, symbolizing the desire, passion and vitality of the love the couple have for each other. The cord is often kept by the couple as a reminder of their vows. In a handparting, the cord is tied at the beginning of the ceremony and cut at the end. Other traditions involve each wedding guest tying a ribbon around the couple's hands to symbolize the community's support and recognition of their bond.

Under the ancient Celtic tradition, Handfasting is eternal, meaning that when one passes on to Summerland, the surviving mate does not handfast with another, rather waits until they pass on and locate their soulmate through reincarnation.

Thank you to Susan MeeLing of Texas for this information.