Handfasting Is an Old Tradition Made New

Affectionate bride and groom holding hands and walking in woods.

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Many Pagan couples choose to have a handfasting ritual instead of a traditional wedding ceremony. In some cases, it may be simply ceremonial, such as a couple declaring their love for one another without the benefit of a state license. For other couples, it can be tied in with a state marriage certification issued by a legally authorized party, such as a clergyperson or justice of the peace. Either way, handfasting has become more and more popular. Pagan and Wiccan couples are seeing that there is indeed an alternative for non-Christians who want more than a courthouse wedding.

Origin of the Handfasting Ceremony

In centuries gone by, handfasting was a popular custom in the British Isles. In rural areas, it could be weeks or even months before a clergyman happened to stop by the village, so couples learned to make allowances. A handfasting was the equivalent of today's common-law marriage — a man and woman simply clasped hands and declared themselves married. Generally, this was done in the presence of a witness or witnesses. In Scotland, marriages were considered the office of the church until 1560, when marriage became a civil matter rather than a church sacrament. After that time, marriages were divided into "regular" and "irregular" marriages.

A regular marriage took place when banns were read, followed by a clergyman performing the duties of the ceremony. An irregular marriage could take place in one of three ways: a public declaration by the couple that they were husband and wife, followed by the consummation of the relationship; by mutual agreement; or simply by living together and being recognized as husband and wife. As long as everyone was above the age of consent (12 for brides, 14 for grooms) and not too closely related, irregular marriages were generally considered as valid as a regular marriage.

Typically, the gentry and landowners were married in the "regular" way, so there could be no question later on if the marriage was legally recognized or not. In cases involving inheritance, this could be a big issue. Handfastings or irregular marriages were considered the domain of the lower class and peasants. Around the middle of the 1700s, irregular marriages were made illegal in England. Since Scotland kept up the tradition, it wasn't uncommon for an amorous British couple to elope over the border. Gretna Green became famous because it was the first town in Scotland that eloping lovers would encounter once they left England. The Old Blacksmith's shop there became the site of many "anvil weddings" performed by the village smith.

An Old Concept, New Ideas

The word "handfasting" fell by the wayside for many years. In the 1950s, when the witchcraft laws were repealed in England, various occultists and witches, including Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, searched for a non-Christian term for their wedding ceremonies. They settled on "handfasting" and the concept was resurrected within the Neopagan movement. Typically, a pagan handfasting was meant to be a secret ceremony, held only in front of your coven or study group. As Wicca and paganism become more mainstream, however, more and more couples are finding ways to work their pagan and Wiccan spirituality into their marriage ceremony.

The actual term "handfasting" comes from the tradition of the bride and groom crossing arms and joining hands. Basically, they are creating the infinity symbol (a figure-eight) with their hands. In Neopagan ceremonies, the clergyperson performing the ceremony will join the couple's hands with a cord or ribbon during the ritual. In some traditions, the cord remains in place until the couple consummates the marriage. While some people may choose to have their handfasting be a permanent bond, others might declare it to be valid for "a year and a day." At this point, they will re-evaluate the relationship and determine whether to continue it or not.

Who Can Be Handfasted?

One benefit of having a handfasting ceremony is that it's not the same as a legal wedding. This means there are more options available to people in non-traditional relationships. Anyone can have a handfasting, including same-sex couples, polyamorous families, transgender couples, and so on. 

Dormant for so long, the idea of the handfasting ceremony has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity in the modern era. If you're fortunate enough to find someone you love enough to spend your life with, you may wish to consider having a handfasting rather than a traditional wedding ceremony.

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Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Handfasting Is an Old Tradition Made New." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/handfasting-tradition-history-2562002. Wigington, Patti. (2021, February 8). Handfasting Is an Old Tradition Made New. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/handfasting-tradition-history-2562002 Wigington, Patti. "Handfasting Is an Old Tradition Made New." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/handfasting-tradition-history-2562002 (accessed May 30, 2023).