Handfasting is a historical term for “betrothal” or “wedding.” The term handfasting arose during the early Christian era, when Paganism had already lost much ground. Over the years the term has come to be used as a replacement for “marriage” in the vocabulary of Neopaganism, especially in Wicca. The term “handfasting” or “hand-fasting” has been in use in Wicca for “wedding ceremonies” from at least the late 1960s and is said to date back to the time of the ancient Celts.
A handfasting was originally more like an engagement period, where two people would declare a binding union between themselves for a year and a day.
The original handfasting was a trial marriage. It gave the couple the chance to see if they could survive marriage to each other. The marriage vows taken may be for “a year and a day,” “a lifetime”, “for all of eternity” or “for as long as love shall last.”
As with many Neopagan rituals, some groups may use historically attested forms of the ceremony, striving to be as traditional as possible, while others may use only the basic idea of handfasting and largely create a new ceremony. A handfasting ceremony can be tailor made to suit the couple. For some, a handfasting is a component of a wedding ceremony which entails gently wrapping cords around the bride and groom’s clasped hands and tying a knot, symbolically binding the couple together in their declaration of unity. While in other ceremonies, the couple may jump over a broom at the end of the ceremony. Some may instead leap over a small fire together.
By the 2000s, the term “handfasting” has also come to be interpreted literally, as the symbolic act of tying a marrying couple’s hands together with a ribbon (as opposed to referring to a supposedly “ancient” form of temporary marriage). Such a ceremony is described (and attributed to “pre-Christian times” in Mary Neasham, Handfasting: A Practical Guide (Green Magic, 2000, ISBN 9780954296315). Evidence that the term “handfasting” had been re-interpreted as describing this ceremony specifically is found in the later 2000s, e.g “handfasting—the blessed marriage rite in which the hands of you and your beloved are wrapped in ribbon as you ‘tie the knot.’”
There are many variations of the traditional handfasting. After the bride and groom both declare their intent to enter into this union, the hands of the couple are clasped and fastened together with a cord or cords just before, just after, or during their vows are made to one another. The wrapping of the cord forms an infinity symbol. The handfasting knot that is tied is a symbolic representation of oneness between the couple. In a show of unity, they become bound to each other.
Each Wiccan and Pagan path has different decrees concerning the color, length, type and of number of cords used to handfast the couple. One custom may have the couple facing each other, binding both pairs of hands of the bride and groom. Another custom is to have only the right hands, and another one of each right and left. There are many variations of the handfasting rite. It all depends on the bride, groom, and the High Priest/ess whom they chose to preside over their wedding ceremony.
The handfasting ritual is a beautiful, magickal rite of passage. Many non-Pagan and non-Wiccan couples are adopting this old custom, much like when couples borrow from other traditions to craft their own ceremony to match their distinctive personalities.
But is it legal? 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. But it may not be recognized by the government – so do your research!
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.
George W. Micewicz, founder of Salem’s Moon, is an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church. He is available for Marriage, Handfasting and Wiccaning ceremonies in the Mid-Hudson, Catskill, Capital, and Adirondack regions of New York. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.