Q. What is handfasting?
A. The short answer to this question is: a handfasting is a component of a wedding ceremony which entails gently wrapping cords around the couple’s clasped hands and tying a knot, symbolically binding the couple (or family) together in their declaration of unity.
However, the long answer entails a bit of back-story. Today’s modern day handfasting ceremony is a revival – of sorts – of the handfastings of yester-yore. The act of handfasting was originally an element to a formal betrothal ceremony (the precursor to today’s engagement) perhaps going as far back as ancient Celtic Scotland, up to the 16th century reformation-era. During the formal betrothal ceremony, in which a couple promises to one another their agreement in future marriage, there was a formal handshake to seal the deal.
This was called the handfæstung, meaning, a pledge by the giving of the hand, according to A.E. Anton. The betrothals eventually became so formal that it was an event in and of itself, which eventually lead up to the wedding ceremony. Oh, the drama!
And now for the magical part: take into consideration the strength of intent. Fast forward to modern neo-Paganism and their adaptations of sacred ancient (and not-so-ancient) rituals. Modern day Wiccans and Pagans recognize the power of magic which is essentially focused intent. One of the main reasons for this handfasting renaissance, if you will, is because today’s magical community can identify with the symbolism of an elaborate handshake agreement.
To illustrate the imagery and importance of the handshake, the knotting of cords around the hands was eventually incorporated, possibly by today’s neo-Pagans. Magical cord knotting presents an outstanding visual in illustrating intent. The handfasting ritual has been, almost effortlessly, adapted and incorporated into our modern Pagan wedding rituals as the main ceremonial element in addition to – or instead of – the ring exchange. Modern Pagans revived the literal tying of the knot.
Q. Is it a legal marriage?
A. The handfasting ritual can be incorporated into any wedding ceremony, just as can the ring exchange. Whether or not a couple chooses to have a handfasting does not make or break the legality of the marriage. Rather, the couple must take the proper steps to ensure that their marriage is recognized by the government if they do so choose.
Making sure one’s wedding is legal and binding and recognized by the state (or other municipal entity) varies from location to location, so check your local laws. Generally, there may have to be an ordained (or legalized) officiant in addition to the couple having filled out the proper paperwork (i.e., a marriage license) prior to the actual ceremony. Anyone can become handfasted if that is their intent; rest assured it will be recognized by the Gods & Goddesses. But it may not be recognized by the government – so do your research!
Q. Do you have to be Wiccan to have a handfasting?
A. No. In fact, the term handfasting arose during the early Christian era, when Paganism had already lost much ground. It’s the symbolism that Wiccans and other neo-Pagans have reclaimed and today embrace. But people from all religious denominations can experience the beautiful handfasting ritual during their wedding ceremony. In practice, Wiccans are taught to place well-thought intention into ritual, and therefore they do so into the knotting of the cords. Because of this, the ritual of the handfasting invites a unique, magical experience between the couple. But you don’t have to be Wiccan to feel the magic if your intentions are true.
Q. How do I find someone to perform a handfasting?
A. Go to Handfastings.org and search for an officiant in your local area. Handfastings.org is the first, and so far only, website dedicated to linking people in the Pagan and Wiccan communities with ordained officiants who perform handfastings, weddings and commitment ceremonies, and other rites of passage and celebrations. While the website itself is a work in progress (as I suspect in perpetuity), it will always be a direct source for those who seek someone to perform their handfasting ceremony.
One can also find a wealth of information on a comprehensive website called Witcvox.com [website now defunct in the post-Facebook era], where High Priestesses and High Priests can be found in one’s local area. There is also a Handfastings & Pagan Weddings Facebook Group (operated independently of Handfastings.org) where brides and grooms-to-be ask questions and share information. Otherwise, you are going to have to do what the founder of Handfastings.org did: I searched forever for a Wiccan High Priestess to perform my own handfasting [back in the early 2000's].
Q. How can I find out if an officiant is legally registered to perform marriage ceremonies?
A. “The Marriage License Laws for [people] to marry vary from state to state. Although there are differences between the requirements in the various states, a marriage between [people] performed in one state must be recognized by every other state under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution [U.S. Marriage Laws].” Please check the laws often, as legislation changes from time to time.
In addition to finding an officiant, the couple getting married may also have to apply for a marriage license. Because laws vary greatly from location to location, a good place to begin your research is at U.S. Marriage Laws: http://usmarriagelaws.com where you can find legal marriage information your local area. For other countries please check your local government.
Remember, the Gods do not discriminate – if you take a vow with a loved one to be joined in unity during a handfasting, you most certainly will be married in the eyes of the Gods. Government laws have been slow to catch up. Handfastings.org lists many officiants who will be delighted to perform same-sex marriages and handfasting ceremonies.
Oh and by the way, none of the above is intended to be used as legal advice.
Q. Is there one set ceremony for a handfasting, or are there options to help tailor the ceremony for a particular couple?
A. Well now that you have a better understanding of what a handfasting is, you can see that any ceremony created by a bride and groom can be customized to fit the couple’s wishes. The most symbolic aspect of the handfasting ritual, after the intent of course, is the cords.
Traditionally in much of cord magic (including handfastings), cords may be nine feet in length, with each end knotted or bound with thread to prevent fraying. A natural substance (such as cotton or silk) is ideal.
In many initiation ceremonies, cords are measured as per the length (height) of the persons involved in the rite; however, the numbers 3 and 9 are very magical and can be incorporated simply by using a cord that is 9 feet or 3 meters long, which is totally acceptable.
In handfasting cords, traditionally, 3 cords are used, each a different color: white for purity (or a "clean slate"), blue for fidelity, and red for passion.
However, you may choose other colors that you or the bride & groom feel match their intent. For instance, the bride may love the color pink and be using it as one of her wedding colors. Pink would be a lovely color to use in the cords as well.
Magically, pink symbolizes love. Or you can incorporate a green cord, which symbolizes fertility and growth. Do a search for color correspondences online. My husband and I used a purple cord - I love purple, which symbolizes spiritual strength. Not to mention that it was one of our wedding colors!
Some people braid the three cords together, seven, or nine; others only use one cord. It's up to you! The best way to pick out cords is to use your intuition along with your intent. You can never go wrong with that.
Q. What would you say is the biggest misconception about handfasting?
A. Considering handfastings are just now experiencing a revival, not many people have had the chance to create false impressions about the ritual. For those who may have heard of handfastings however, there may be a misconception about the original handfasting, or the betrothal, to have lasted a year and a day.
The “year and a day” timeline stems from Wiccan ritual, whereby one cycle of the Wheel of the Year is completed (e.g., from Samhain – pronounced “sow-in” – the Wiccan new year) to the day after Samhain of next year. This somehow may have been incorporated into the subconscious minds of some Wiccans and Pagan folk, and they may have come to the conclusion that the old betrothals, or the promise to marry, were also exactly a year and a day. But to the best of my knowledge there is no definitive proof of the handfastings of old to be exactly a year and a day.
The obscurity of handfastings might invite general misconceptions about Wicca or Paganism itself. After my husband and I were handfasted, one of our wedding guests came up to us during the reception and told us that it was a very interesting ceremony: “But I have one question,” he posed, “am I still Catholic?” We had a good chuckle. I asked him, “Well, were you Catholic before the ceremony?” asked our attendant. “Yes,” he answered. I confirmed, “Then you are still Catholic.”
Q. Any advice for potential engaged people out there considering a handfasting ceremony?
A. I think that most people are concerned about family acceptance of the ceremony. Most people have a very narrow idea of what a wedding ceremony should be, and what exactly constitutes someone to become "husband and wife", which is inherently heteronormative, for one thing. Because of this I have received several questions from people about how to talk to their parents and close relatives about having a handfasting, or even more pressing, a Wiccan ceremony. Each family is different so approaches should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I believe one should always have respect for and sensitivity towards all loved ones involved. But in the end, it is the people getting handfasted who make the final decision about how they want their day, and their lives together, to play out.
As I said earlier, one can easily incorporate a handfasting ritual into almost any ceremony. The further an engaged couple want to stray from the norm, the more complicated it can get (depending on the families and their religions), so a sensitive and understanding approach may be best. But the person you should care about the most in terms of compromising with is the one whom you are planning to marry.
The journey of marriage begins with the planning of one’s wedding.
Anton, A. E. "'Handfasting in Scotland." The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958)
Handfasting and Wedding Ritual: Inviting Hera's Blessing by Raven Kaldera
Handfasted and Heartjoined: Rituals for Uniting a Couple’s Hearts and Lives by Maeve, Lady Rhea
Magickal Weddings: Pagan Handfasting Traditions for Your Sacred Union by Joy Ferguson
Handfasting: A Practical Guide by Mary Neasham
Alternative Weddings Recommended! An Essential Guide for Creating Your Own Ceremony by Jane Ross-MacDonald
Green Weddings That Don't Cost the Earth by Carol Reed-Jones
Organic Weddings: Balancing Ecology, Style and Tradition by Michelle Kozin
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