• Steve Mummery

What is a Handfasting ritual?

Handfasting is an ancient Celtic ritual dating back thousands of years in which the hands are tied together to symbolise the binding of two lives. In fact, the term “tying the knot” and shaking someone’s hand to agree to something are probably both derived from this Celtic ritual. Now in the old days in Scotland, the binding would be for a year and a day and if after that they still wanted to stay together, the hand fasting was formerly recognised as their wedding ceremony.

Beautiful words are spoken by the celebrant during the ceremony which adds real romance and significance, making it very special! Hands can be joined by crossing them or side by side and the ceremony is used by all types of couples as a lovely addition to their modern wedding ceremony, irrespective of religious belief or cultural traditions.

What is the history behind it?

The true origin of handfasting is not known, but the typical modern handfasting ceremony is derived from the Celtic tradition, pre-dating Christianity. It is a historical term for the word wedding and as couples in Celtic England could not wander down the high street to buy a gold ring, they used handfasting as their marriage ceremony. Gold bands were also the preserve of the aristocracy, so the relatively simple, but highly symbolic ritual of handfasting, was much more affordable. 

Couples would pledge their intent and love by binding their wrists with strips of fabric torn from old garments, or cord from rope to symbolise their union and would then be tied till midnight. They would often then be escorted to the bedchamber to consummate their union. This part of the ceremony is clearly not necessary in the 21st century, and I have never been asked to stay and carry out this duty!

It was considered that if the couple survived the obstacles of life for the rest of the day then surely they would survive in marriage together. In the Scottish Celtic tradition, the binding would be for a year and a day (bloody heck - that's committment eh!) and if after that they still wanted to stay together the handfasting was formally recognised as their wedding ceremony.

Is Handfasting popular?

A modern day Medieval Celtic Handfasting is a beautiful romantic gesture, shared between couples, to celebrate their love, in engagement, commitment to be together or to celebrate the number of years they have spent together. Handfasting has become increasingly popular in recent years. Handfasting in modern times can be celebrated and more importantly performed in several different styles in any location.

The popularity of Handfasting has been brought to the forefront of public knowledge due to its depiction on TV and in films. The 1995 film, ‘Braveheart’ shows William Wallace played by Mel Gibson and Murron the love of his life being joined in a union of love in a Handfasting ceremony. Games of Thrones has also shown wedding scenes that include Handfasting.

Choosing to have a ‘mash’ of both traditional and ancient ceremonies is a great option for many couples torn between the two. After all, so much of the tradition of Handfasting is steeped in folklore and legend and open to modern interpretations. A modern Handfasting permits licence to create the perfect ceremony for you.

Who can conduct a Handfasting?

The spiritual beliefs and cultural and social background of each couple will generally determine the style of Handfasting conducted and the component parts that are included. Finding a celebrant who can perform a Handfasting in the style a couple seek is paramount. I suggest you speak with the celebrant in person, ask lots of questions and then make your choice.

Handfasting is a beautiful loving gesture and offers a very visual addition to the ceremony with a physical reminder in the form of the bindings. It is a very symbolic way to remember it and ‘ties the knot’, binding you in love to one another, in front of all of your loved ones.

Are there any other traditions that go alongside a Handfasting?

Following the binding and tying of the hands, the couple may choose to partake in ‘Cake and Ale’ with a ceremony to toast their health and happiness and to symbolise the beginning of their life together. Traditionally, ale was drunk but this can be any beverage of choice. Some couples drink cider, beer, wine, mead, well water and cold tea! A special two handled Scottish quaich or loving cup is traditionally used but also goblets and animal horns (yuk, cough, splutter) have been used. The cake can vary too from individual cup cakes to larger cakes being cut and shared with guests.

A Handfasting ceremony may also have a traditional ‘Jumping the broom’  ceremony to signify the creation of a hearth and home together. The tradition of jumping the broom has long associations with marriage and cohabitation in not only Europe but Africa and America. In its contemporary usage,couples jump over brooms as a sort of signifier of sweeping away the old to make way for a new beginning.

How can we personalise a Handfasting?

As with all ceremonies, couples can choose beautiful traditional Celtic readings and have music played on lute, harp or drum.  The couple set the tone and mood of their ceremony by the choices they make. Handfasting can be created to be both sincere and reverent, nature related and spiritual as well as fun and inclusive. Guests can end the ceremony by counting the couple down to jumping the broom. Culminating in the throwing of rose petals or breadcrumbs.

Handfasting has changed since its original inception, and today couples are being creative and imaginative in where and how they prepare and decorate the space for the ceremony. Much imagination can also be used in representing earth’s four elements. Some couples ‘go large’ and have a real fire pit and wind chime in the trees.

I usually support my couples throughout the creating of their Handfasting, by sending them suitable readings, vows, pledges and words of endearment to create the love, warmth and energy of their Handfasting, but here is an example of how it might go:

How Do You Do a Handfasting?

  • You can chose to bind with one hand each or two. For one hand, stand side-by-side and hold out your arms together. If you choose two, stand face-to-face and clasp each other by the hands (or wrists for a more secure grasp!) - many couples will cross their arms, with one's left hand linking the other's right, which looks like an infinity knot from above. There's no hard or fast rules, but we'll need to rehearse it before the day to see what's comfortable and works best for the two of you.

  • You can ask either me (your celebrant) or chosen members of your family or friends to do the fasting - some couples ask lots of different guests to come and place a ribbon over their hands.

  • There are several ways to tie the ribbon, from a simple knot to a more elaborate wrapping of the wrists that results in an impressive infinity knot. The video below will show you how it's done!

  • However you choose to tie it, it shouldn't be so tight that you can't pull yourselves loose afterwards.

  • As the knots are tied, some couples will plan to recite vows of commitment to one another (more on that below!).

  • After the ceremony, you'll have your cord as a keepsake of your vows.

What Should You Say During a Hand-fasting?

It's a good idea to introduce the hand-fasting ritual, explain the meaning behind it, and why you've chosen it for your wedding. This can be done either by your celebrant, or in your ceremony booklet.

Depending on your celebrant, they may have a tried and tested hand-fasting ritual structure that they'll be able to share. If you're creating your own ceremony, have a play around, and see what works for you. You can say a few lines to each other before the ritual begins, or if you have several cords, exchange a different vow for each one. You could also leave your vows altogether until later in the ceremony and combine them with the legal vows (have them all written out on cards that I give you at the right time).

As an example of what could be said as the cords or material are tied this might fit...

Josh, will you share in Chris’s pain and seek to alleviate it?

[Josh]: I will.

Chris, will you share in Josh’s pain and seek to alleviate it?

[Chris]: I will.

And so the binding is made.

Josh, will you share in Chris's laughter and look for the brightness and the positivity in her? (I will.) Chris, will you share in Josh’s laughter and look for the brightness and positivity in him? (I will.) And so the binding is made.

Josh, will you share in Chris’s burdens so that your spirits may grow in this union? (I will.) Chris, will you share in Josh’s burdens so that your spirits may grow in this union? (I will.) And so the binding is made.

Josh, will you share in Chris’s dreams? (I will.) Chris, will you share in Josh’s dreams? (I will.) And so the binding is made.

Josh, will you take the heat of anger and use it to temper the strength of this union? (I will.)

Chris, will you take the heat of anger and use it to temper the strength of this union? (I will.)

And so the binding is made.

Josh, will you honour Chris as an equal in this union? (I will.)

Chris, will you honour Josh as an equal in this union? (I will.)

And so the binding is made.

Basically you can have as many of these as you wish and they can say whatever it is that you wish to be bound to within the union. What I'm saying here is that you can make them your own.

So, I guess the first step is to have a think about what you would want to commit to in a hand fasting and then if you feel a Handfasting is for you then set about planning yours. Be creative. Be imaginative. Be inspiring. Make it yours!  

Steve Mummery is a celebrant based in Perth. You can find him online at smcelebrant.com.au or facebook at smcelebrant, Instagram @smcelebrant or you can find lots of wedding inspiration on his Pinterest page @smcelebrant including wedding & engagement rings, dresses, shoes, groom's attire, flowers, arbours, the lot.

Call Steve to chat about your wedding ceremony today on 0418 897 215 or email steve@smcelebrant.com.au

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