A handfasting is an old Pagan custom, dating 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. After a year goes by (a handfasting was once believed to last a year and a day), the couple could either split as if they had never been married or could decide to enter permanently into marriage.
Today, Wiccans, Pagans, and even people not of Nature spirituality traditions have embraced handfasting as a part of their wedding ceremony. A handfasting can either be a legal marriage or a commitment for "as long as love shall last." A handfasting ceremony can be tailor made to suit the couple. In recent years, the handfasting ceremony has become so popular that couples of varied faiths are choosing to be married in this way.
The handfasting ritual is a beautiful, magical rite of passage. Many non-Pagan and non-Wiccan couples are adopting this old custom to craft their own ceremony to match their distinctive personalities.
Above: Handfasting or Pagan wedding in High Park, Toronto, Canada, 1979, between Vivian Power and Ted Merritt; performed by Richard James (wearing ram's horns); priest of Wicca. Photo: John Mahler for the Toronto Star
There are many variations of the traditional handfasting. After the couple declares their intent to enter into this union, their hands 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 symbolically bound to each other. This is where the phrase "tying the knot" originates.
There are many betrothal ceremonies today, including the popular ring ceremony. Other ceremonies may also include the lighting of a unity candle, the sharing of two sands in one bottle, the exchanging of roses, and other wedding rites. The unique rite of handfasting, however, has gained increasing popularity over the past two decades, beyond Pagan and Wiccan traditions, now incorporated into the wedding ceremony by many couples.
Each Wiccan and Pagan path has different decrees concerning the color, length, type and 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 couple and the High Priest/ess whom they chose to preside over their wedding ceremony.