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Handfasting is an ancient Celtic / Anglo-Saxon wedding ritual in which the bride's and groom's hands are tied together —hence the phrase "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.


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.


One unique tale of a handfasting tradition was that of the Telltown marriages. These took place once per year, on 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. You can be sure that the Church did NOT like this idea!


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 were generally held on Beltane. Beltane was chosen because it mirrored the sacred union of the God and Goddess.


There are two conflicting beliefs about the history of Handfasting:


"Handfasting" was the word used by the ancient Celts / Anglo-Saxons to describe their traditional trial-marriage ceremony, during which couples were literally bound together. The handfasting was a temporary agreement, that expired after a year and a day. However, it could be made permanent after at that time, if both spouses agreed.


"Handfasting" was the word used throughout the once Celtic / Anglo-Saxon lands of Scotland and Northern England to refer to a commitment of betrothal or engagement. It was a ceremony in which the couple publicly declared their intention to marry one year and a day in the future. In 1820, Sir Walter Scott used the term to refer to a fictional sacred ritual that bound the couple in a form of temporary marriage for a year and a day. He wrote of it in his book "The Monastery:"


"When we are handfasted, as we term it, we are man and wife for a year and a day; that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or, at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for life; and this we call handfasting."


The Present Day


In the present day, many Neopagans (especially Wiccans) practice this ritual. In some cases, it symbolizes the beginning of a 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.


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, many 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.


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.


© Traditional Witch 2006




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