I have attended several weddings in recent years where a handfasting was incorporated into the ceremony. It’s a tradition which has travelled through so many incarnations and meanings that I’ve come to consider it something that can be either part of a ceremony or a ceremony in itself.
Depending on who you speak to, handfasting can trace several historical strands back to its origin. It was a way for couples to pledge to marry (ie an early form of engagement), a medieval way of making a legal commitment in the absence of a church official, a secret bond between young lovers whose family didn’t approve of the match, or a pagan form of marriage or sacred commitment. It originated in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany – essentially it has as many stories as couples these days have ways of honouring the tradition!
One of my favourite handfasting traditions involves couples in pre-Medieval Ireland, who would come together at harvest time to clasp hands through a hole in a hedge or door. Often they would not know whose hand they had taken, but they were pledged to stay together for a year and a day. Once the time was up they could either part without penalty or hold another ceremony to make their marriage permanent.
Regardless of the way it is presented, the basic outline of a handfasting is the same – the couple hold hands, their hands are bound in some way and words are said which express the symbol of the bound hands as a bond not to be broken. The focus of a wedding or commitment ceremony as a whole is this bond, but the handfasting brings into the mix a physical connection between the couple, which can be a very powerful moment.
Some ways in which a handfasting can be made unique include:
– The couple’s hands are bound by an item which is special to them or their family. Traditionally it is a cord plaited from ribbons in colours which represent different aspects of a good marriage, but you could also use pieces of family heirlooms such as yarn or fabric provided by older relatives.
– The cord can also be replaced by another item of significance. For example, a couple who have met through an interest in horses could use a set of reins, symbolising their willingness to share the guiding of the marriage.
– Handfasting is a lovely way to include children, or elderly family members, in the ceremony. Instead of the celebrant binding their hands, they can approach or call up that special person to place the binding and give their blessing.
– Couples who have set a wedding date a year or more in the future could celebrate their engagement with a handfasting a year and a day before the wedding.
If you’re planning a handfasting, consider doing some research on what colours and symbols have meaning to your cultural heritage, and incorporate these into your handfasting cord and ceremony.
This teeny weeny video shows one way handfasting cords can be created – the traditional Irish crios: