Updated: Mar 4
Handfasting is pretty big news.
It's rapidly gaining in popularity as a 'symbolic action' used to enhance a wedding ceremony or indeed constituting the wedding ceremony itself.
And it's easy to see why. At its heart is a simple but powerful act - the joining of hands.
'Shaking on it' has become an almost universal metaphor for sealing a deal. To 'handfast' in Late Old and Early Modern English meant 'to make a contract' or a formal promise. 'Handfesta' in Old Norse meant 'to strike a bargain by joining hands' and today the Dutch term 'handvest' refers to a charter or contract.
And without wishing to trivialise the modern ceremony of handfasting, that's basically what it has always been and remains to this day.
A lot of folklore has grown up around the ritual of handfasting. The symbolism of clasped hands is obvious and, one could infer, timeless. But history of handfasting's earliest forms, and its possible use as a wedding ritual, can only be guessed at. Late Medieval versions are easier to authenticate, and it was used as a form of betrothal in Scotland, where it's recently been afforded the status of a legal union in certain circumstances.
A widespread belief has grown up that handfasting was a trial marriage lasting 'a year-and-a-day' - one full cycle of the pagan 'Wheel of the Year'. At the end of this probationary period the couple decided if they wished to make the arrangement permanent (if you can get along as a couple for a year you'll probably be okay for the long haul!). It's also claimed that the ceremony may have been repeated every year-and-a-day 'for as long as love shall last' (I really like this idea!). In truth this is the result of misreporting, folklore and a big dose of 18th Century romanticism.
But It doesn't matter!
Far from casting doubt on its pedigree it simply means that handfasting is wonderfully adaptable! Many Wiccans and other pagans adopted the term handfasting (or hand-fasting) and the 'year-and-a-day' principle in the mid 20th Century because it has such powerful seasonal/cyclical resonance. And there's no reason why an alternative span shouldn't serve just as well if it has personal significance.
The use of coloured cords or ribbons to 'bind' the hands is another feature we all associate with handfasting. The origins of this practice are another of the many unknowns. Wiccans and others prefer specific colours: white for purity, blue for fidelity and red for passion. But you might want to use others. Perhaps you'll chose a colour that reflects your own interests, or a colour theme you've used elsewhere in your ceremony.
Regardless of how handfasting was or wasn't performed in the past, at its heart is the idea of betrothal, similar to a modern engagement. In this capacity it works fantastically well as a ceremony in its own right. It's ideal, for example, in couple commitment ceremonies when the intention is that the union should last only as long as it works for both parties. It's equally effective as an addition to another ceremony, perhaps as an alternative to the exchange of rings?
This is no longer a 'pagan' ceremony, if indeed it ever was. Its symbolic power and richness transcends specific cultural traditions. If you want to make it part of your celebration (or the whole of your celebration!) go right ahead. A little bit of research will quickly reveal the vast scope of its possibilities.