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What is Handfasting?

This article was written by Anna Franklin
posted under Pagan

Over the thirty years I have been a priestess I have performed many handfastings for fellow Pagans, but recently I have noticed a new trend—I am being approached by non-Pagans who want a handfasting ceremony, too.

Last year I conducted a large public handfasting ritual that was attended by hundreds of people—and broadcast live on Radio Leicester—even though the couple were not committed Pagans. They wanted to declare their commitment to each other in front of family and friends, but found that the usual civil or religious ceremonies did not fit their needs and so came to me.

Handfasting is an ancient rite, originating in the custom of tying a couple’s hands together to demonstrate that they are "bound together" in wedlock. Indeed, we still use the phrases “tying the knot,” “getting hitched,” or “joining hands” as common terms for getting married. It was revived in the modern world by Wiccans and has been used as the preferred marriage service of every variety of Pagans for the last fifty years or so.

With a handfasting, the whole ritual is normally constructed by the celebrant and the couple who are to be married to make the day uniquely special and significant to them. This very fluidity makes the rite very appealing to people who want to shape their own ceremony, write their own vows and incorporate elements and symbolism meaningful to them, whether they are Pagan or not, gay or straight.

A good priestess will be able to suggest options to the couple, and will listen carefully to their own ideas. Last year, for example, I suggested that the couple might like to incorporate the sharing of a loving-cup; drinking from the same cup is a token that the couple will share everything from then on. It was broken afterward as a sign that no one else will share what they have, even if they go their separate ways at some point in the future. I learned of another lovely tradition from a different couple I handfasted. This was the unity candle. It utilizes three candles. The outer two represent the bride and groom as individuals. They each lift their candle and use it to light the central, larger candle, as a token that what was once two has become one, and cannot be separated.

A handfasting can be as simple or complex as you choose. It might incorporate marriage customs from the couple’s own culture, like the Dutch practice of having the bride and groom standing beneath a canopy of evergreens as a token of the permanent nature of their love, or perhaps the Romany custom of the groom eating bread and salt from the knees of his wife.

Layers of symbolism can be used to reinforce the magic of the day. This might include the colors used in robes, decorations, and flowers, but again, this needs to be discussed as different cultures have different associations for color. In China, the lucky color for weddings is red, as it the color of life, fertility, and passion. In other places, white is used to indicate purity, harmony, and tranquility. Each color has its own resonance, and it is important for the couple to choose for themselves. The bride and groom may want to wear robes in the appropriate color, national or historical costume, or simply their best clothes.

Another level of symbolism might be included in the flowers the bride and bridesmaids carry or wear. Ivy, for example, is a symbol of that which is undying and eternal. The Greeks used ivy to crown newlyweds, and you might like to imitate this. Of course, the rose is a well-known emblem of love, dedicated to goddesses of love. Roses were even considered to be an aphrodisiac; it is said that Cleopatra seduced Antony whilst standing knee-deep in roses. In Britain rose petals were scattered at weddings to ensure a happy marriage, while Roman brides and grooms were crowned with roses.

We always have some fun elements, because laughter and joy are important. This often includes jumping the broom or besom. We tell the couple that they must jump it once for each child they would like to have, then jokingly make them leap it at least ten times, raising the bar each time! This isn’t a new custom invented by modern Pagans; the broom was associated with the marriage rite in Britain for hundreds of years, where common-law marriages [partnerships without benefit of state or clergy] are still sometimes called "living over the brush." European gypsies also jumped the broom as part of the marriage ceremony, while African slaves in America adopted the custom when they had the right to marry taken away from them. The custom is still featured in some African-American weddings as a recognition of that heritage.

Sometimes the couple’s hands will actually be tied together with cords or ribbons, and the presiding priestess will insist that they remain bound for twenty-four hours. This is to teach them what it means to do everything together, and how compromises must be made to achieve anything, but it also has its comical moments, as you can imagine.

I need to point out that handfasting is not the easy option for those who are not committed enough to each other for a conventional wedding, or who can’t be bothered to arrange a civil ceremony. Because the ritual is constructed around the desires of the couple doesn’t make it any less meaningful or any less binding—it makes it more so. The very fact that one has to construct one’s own ceremony, think about what is involved in marriage, and create the vows makes handfasting a very profound experience for all involved. Many couples follow the handfasting with a civil ceremony, since handfasting is not legally recognized in many parts of the world.

I wrote A Romantic Guide to Handfasting to answer the many questions I have received over the years about constructing and conducting a handfasting ceremony. I intended it to be a comprehensive resource for celebrants as well as couples planning to be handfasted. I have included historical background material and folklore, but this is essentially a very practical book, with advice on everything from organizing and budgeting the day to deciding on the ritual format. I have included marriage customs from around the world, from the symbolism of color, flowers, and so on, to choosing an auspicious time and date, as well as recipes, spells, and suggested themes. I have written a variety of rituals to suit most tastes, but couples should remember that this is their special day, and that they should tailor everything to their own needs.

Anna FranklinAnna Franklin
Anna Franklin is a third degree witch and high priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod who has been a practicing Pagan for more than forty years. She is the author of twenty-eight books and the creator of the Sacred Circle Tarot, Fairy Ring Oracle, and the...  Read more


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