People often ask me what a handfasting is and I often talk about the practice at the beginning of my ceremonies because many of the guests won’t know what it is either. So here is a brief outline of where handfasting originates and how we use it now in a modern wedding ceremony context.
In medieval times, getting married was much simpler than it is today. Two people could choose to privately make ‘consents’, that is to say make promises to one another and would be considered married by the state. Then in time it was more common to be married and make those consents in ‘the face of the church’, which was in fact on the porch of the church rather than inside it, getting married inside the church being only for the wealthy until much later in history.
However during this time period there was also another practice common in the Celtic areas of what we now know as England, Ireland and Scotland, that being the practice of ‘Handfasting’. This was the binding of the hands of a couple by way of betrothal to one another, as a promise to be married in the future. The word handfasting comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means ‘the shaking or joining of the hands over a contract’. This older practice of betrothal is where the phrases of ‘tying the knot’ and ‘getting hitched’ come from.
Often regarded as a typically pagan tradition, increasingly couples not on a pagan path (though often alternative in their spirituality) are choosing to use handfasting in their wedding ceremonies. They are using it as a way of showing commitment or of spiritually confirming a marriage in sight of friends and family.
As a modern day ceremony practice, the couple’s hands are bound whilst they make vows and promise to each other, just as in a traditional wedding. Depending on their spiritual beliefs, their hands may then be blessed as well. A modern addition to the tradition is to invite other members of family, often parents or children, to come forward and tie additional ribbons around the couple’s hands to add their love and wishes for the couple or to symbolise the coming together of a family.
Whilst a handfasting is not a legal wedding in England (it can be done legally in Scotland), a celebrant led handfasting ceremony is a beautiful addition or extension to any legal wedding ceremony you might choose to have. Often couples will have a quiet, private legal ceremony ahead of the handfasting, with the handfasting ceremony day being the bigger celebration with friends and family and the big party!
If you think you might be interested in having a handfasting ceremony with me, do be in touch.
Awen Clement is an experienced, independent civil celebrant and pagan priest based in Birmingham in the West Midlands. Through this blog she hopes to offer you ideas, inspiration and comfort around planning weddings, handfastings, baby namings and funeral services.