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Handfastings and Commitment Ceremonies

Updated on July 7, 2014

A Brief History of Handfasting

The ancient custom of handfasting has had many forms over the years and can serve either as an engagement ceremony or as a marriage ceremony proper in contemporary Neo-Pagan wedding rituals. The custom of handfasting has also gained popularity with non-Pagans in the places like the gay and lesbian community, with many of the rites and rituals serving well for commitment ceremonies and civil unions.

In one of the original forms, handfastings were betrothal periods for a couple, often lasting a year and a day. This practice is derived in part from ceremonies of the ancient Celts. This time period allowed a couple to better get to know one another and see if the match was a good one, and, in instances were it was part of the marriage exchange, it allowed the man time to earn or gather the dowry price or gifts given to the bride’s family.

If the trial period did not work out, the couple could rejoin and dissolve the union, simply and peacefully. Some traditions made note of the couple returning to the place where they were first betrothed. From this location, they would turn and stand so they were back-to-back and then part, walking away in different directions. If the trial period was considered a success, the couple would then hold a formal wedding ceremony with further rituals and feasting.

Handfasting Ceremonies

There are conflicting claims that handfastings either are or aren’t traditionally done in the month of May, or around Beltane. In modern Paganism, they tend to happen at a time that is significant to the couple. People who are involved in SCA recreations or Renaissance fairs often chose handfastings as part of their betrothals and marriages, and will hold the handfasting ceremonies during group events or fairs to take advantage of having their shared community and the period atmosphere all in one.

A modern handfasting can also be a full legal marriage. The ritual itself is not the issue, just the satisfactory completion of the requirements of the state or location of the wedding. If the person conducting the handfasting has the appropriate credentials and the proper marriage licensing is handled, the handfasting will be a legally recognized wedding ceremony.

What elements form the handfasting ritual might vary widely from couple to couple. As with most weddings, the ceremony and altar could be short and to the point, or a long, elaborate ritual. If the couple practice different facets of Paganism, it’s a good idea to spend some time working out what pieces of both practices you want to combine in the ceremony.

Rings, Cords and other Rituals

The ritual of handfasting can include whatever sort of symbolic actions you and your partner would like to add to the ceremony. Rings are often exchanged. Many cultures had an actual binding take place during handfasting whereby a special decorative cord was wrapped and tied around the hands of the couple, knotting their lives together.

Incorporating customs like Victorian flower symbolism for bouquets and corsages can add a further magickal touch to the ceremony. Many couples add personal touches to the events, reading each other meaningful quotes or statements, exchanging customized vows and enacting both solemn and silly personal rituals as a way of expressing commitment, solidarity, transition and new beginnings.

See A Handfasting Ceremony

Handfasting Feedback

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    • Sawfishlagoon profile image

      Sawfishlagoon 5 years ago from Shallow, brackish water

      It is nice to live where we have freedom of religion and speech. I had no idea. It is interesting tha there are many subcultures with various points of reference. Now I may be able to relate better to people who are different from me. My good friend is a Wiccan. She never talks about it. I suppose she has had some uncomfortable conversations with some people. Now I may mention this to break the ice and indicate that I like her just the way she is.

      Now I know where the saying "a year and a day" came from.

    • eliserenee profile image

      eliserenee 6 years ago from Chicago

      Interesting Hub relache! Now I know where the term "tying the knot" comes from! Thanks for sharing

    • profile image

      Laura  9 years ago

      very helpful information was given and it was interesting

    • Digital Bard profile image

      Digital Bard 10 years ago from The Beautiful Pacific Northwest

      I am new to the community and looking to you "old timers" to teach the right way to do things. This hub is great - not only do I get to learn about the practice of handfasting, but I get to see an experienced Hub Author at work.

      Very interesting stuff!

      Digital Bard

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 10 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Relache! A very great HUB. You always seem to come up with something I didn't know about. I thought Handfasting would have been a thing of the past. I think it would be a nice ceremony for the right couple.

      I loved the HUB regards Zsuzsy