There isn’t a single way to get married. Weddings can be incredibly varied and can be done in different ways to follow the traditions and rules of different religions and cultures.
Nowadays, more and more people are personalizing their wedding to suit their specific preferences, so many will mix different traditions from different wedding methods, to make something unique and memorable.
Handfasting is one of those increasingly popular rituals, now incorporated into more and more weddings. But handfasting is a wedding ceremony that has been practiced for a very long time, as it is an ancient Celtic ritual, to join two people together.
One of the things that makes it so appealing is that it involved tying the hands of the two people getting married together, to symbolize the union, and make it real.
Whether you’ve seen a handfasting ritual in a film or TV series about older time periods, you’re wanting to reconnect with your Celtic roots, or you’re curious about this pagan tradition and want to learn more about it...here is a full guide to tell you everything you need to know!
1. What is a handfasting wedding ceremony?
What is a handfasting ceremony?
A handfasting wedding ceremony is essentially a wedding ceremony that incorporates the tradition of handfasting. And handfasting is an ancient Celtic ritual, in which the hands of two people are tied together, symbolizing the binding together of their lives.
This is usually done with a ceremonial ribbon, although there are many variations, with some using cords instead. When the ribbon is tied around the hands, joining them together, the “knot is tied”, and this is actually where the popular expression of tying the knot comes from!
The handfasting ritual is also defined as the act of betrothing two people, uniting them in a pledge to one another. Traditionally, handfasting could be used as an engagement promise, as an unofficial wedding ceremony (kind of like an old way to elope), and as an official marriage, which could be set to be temporary, or forever.
The handfasting is, therefore, traditionally a Wiccan or Pagan ceremony. However, it has become more and more popular in recent times, with people beginning to incorporate it into both religious and secular wedding ceremonies, as an extra part of the ceremony.
Handfasting was mostly done in the British Isles, in ancient times. And it was how people would get married, before the introduction of the church. However, during Medieval times, and up to the 17th century, people continued to partake in the handfasting tradition, and they would use it as a sign of betrothal, before getting officially married in a ceremony officiated by the church.
What happens during a handfasting ceremony?
Now you know what a handfasting ceremony is, and its significance and symbolism.
It’s easy to see how people are attracted to this ritual, as it is a very visual way of bonding two people together, and it can make the whole event all the more special.
Not to mention that many people fall in love with this ritual when they see it in films such as Braveheart!
But what actually happens during a handfasting ceremony?
Well, one of the best things about handfasting is that it can be adapted and modified to suit your preferences and become what you want it to be.
Apart from the general tying of the hands, you can change or modify all other aspects, and turn it into something unique. And you can also make it last as long or as little as needed too.
But traditionally, the handfasting ceremony will follow 5 different steps, and each can have several variations:
- Explaining the purpose:
In this first part, the officiate will address the betrothed couple, along with the present guests and witnesses.
He, or she, will explain the purpose of the handfasting ritual and will explain what it entails, and what it signifies. This way the couple has full knowledge of what they are about to do and can choose to proceed to do so willingly if desired.
It also helps the guests further understand what they are about to witness, and it serves as an overall introduction to the ritual.
- The joining of the hands:
During the second part, the two people will join hands. This is a visual way of them willingly accepting the ritual, and it is a sign of them wanting to be joined together.
They will face each other and clasp their hands together. Traditionally, this is done right hand to the right hand, and left hand to the left hand, forming a sort of figure-eight shape.
- Wrapping the ribbon or cord:
The third part, or the middle part of the entire ceremony, is the actual wrapping of the ribbon or cord around the hands of the couple. This will be done by the officiating person, and as they wrap the ribbon around, they will recite the vows that the union stands for.
The ribbon is wrapped around slowly and carefully and is finished off with a knot. And throughout the entire process, there are many different scripts that the officiate can follow, but all will include very beautiful and poetic words, to reflect the love between the two people, and the significance of the moment.
- Explaining the union:
Once the binding is done, the officiate will once again explain the significance of the union, reminding them of the vows that it entails, and of the full meaning of the ritual.
It’s sort of the equivalent of saying “you are now husband and wife”, but it is done in more depth, and is adapted to the exact terms of the union that was previously agreed by the two people, as a handfasting doesn’t always have to be forever.
- Personal exchange of vows:
Last of all, to finish the ritual, the two people that have just joined the union can add their own personal vows and exchange their own words.
These promises are added to the basic vows of the union, and they can be as personal and as unique as desired!
As we’ve mentioned, these are just the basic steps and parts of a handfasting ritual. As the tradition has evolved through time, people have adapted it to more modern ceremonies, and have added their own personal touch.
2. The History of Handfasting
Now that we’ve gone through what the handfasting ceremony is, it’s worth exploring its origin. That way we can further understand its significance, and its purpose.
Handfasting dates as far back as 7000 BC, and it is mostly associated with the ancient Celts, which had their own pagan Celtic religion and traditions.
It’s important to understand that in those days, the Celts believed that vows spine out loud was a sacred form of binding, almost magical. And breaking a binding of such nature would have dire consequences. So this ritual was incredibly sacred to them.
The handfasting would always take place outside, under a tree, or in a forest. This was to honor the earth in which we live, and it was their way to commune with Nature, during such a sacred moment. All of the Celtic deities were strongly associated with Nature, and the joining of two lives had to also honor the very source of life around them.
In the origins of the tradition, the couple would be handfasted for a year and a day. If you’ve ever read old Celtic fairytale stories, you’ll find that faerie creatures and similar always make their promises and deals so that they last this exact amount of time, instead of just one year.
After this amount of time was up, the couple would return to the officiate, and they would choose to either renew their vows through another handfasting ritual, or they would choose to go their separate ways.
That is why in more modern handfasting ceremonies you can set an amount of time during which the union is bound by the handfasting, making a marriage temporary, or permanent, as desired.
The powerful visual binding of the couple, paired with the beauty of the sacred vows and the magical atmosphere of the event, is probably what has allowed this ritual to survive throughout history, bringing it all the way up to modern-day times, in which people choose to incorporate elements of handfasting to all sorts of wedding traditions, be they religious or secular.
In fact, despite handfasting being a Celtic pagan ritual, it can be incorporated into all other wedding ceremonies, including Christian church weddings! This is thanks to how easy it is to adapt the ritual, taking the symbols, and modifying the significance to match your own wedding.
3. Is a handfasting ceremony a legal marriage?
Regardless of culture and religion, most people will agree that the handfasting ritual is an incredibly beautiful and meaningful tradition, which is why so many people are attracted to the idea of incorporating it into their own wedding.
But is the handfasting ceremony a legal marriage?
Although handfasting used to be a legally binding form of marriage, this is not the case nowadays. In fact, no form of religious wedding, ritual, or ceremony is a legal marriage.
The only way to make your marriage legal and official nowadays is to apply for a marriage license through state laws. This will usually entail going to a courthouse, and signing some official papers, so that the state has a record that those two people are married, for all legal applications.
So even if you have a Christian church wedding or any other sort of ceremony, the marriage will not be legal until you have those state papers signed! Luckily, it is sometimes possible to arrange to have the papers signed during the ceremony, or just before or after on location.
Otherwise, you can go to the courthouse a few days before or after your pretty ceremony. So you have one small private event to make the marriage legal through civil methods, and then you have the big event with the ceremony of your choosing to be married in front of your friends and families, for social purposes.
4. Who can perform a handfasting ceremony?
The handfasting ritual, like most wedding ceremonies, requires someone to act as the officiate. This person will guide the couple through the ceremony, will be in charge of reciting the meaning and main vows, and will be the one to wrap the ribbon or cord around the hands.
So basically, it’s a pretty important role. This is the person that will be binding the couple together in a sacred union!
So, who can perform the ceremony? Is it like Christian ones, in which only a priest can perform them? Do you have to have some sort of certificate or course?
Traditionally, in ancient times, handfasting would be performed by a druid, which was the religious figure amongst Celts. Alternatively, it would also be performed by a figure of power or authority that held respect amongst the people, such as a chieftain or similar.
However, as handfasting isn’t legally binding nowadays, it can be performed by absolutely anybody! If you’re incorporating it into a specific wedding ceremony, it can be performed by the officiant of that ceremony, such as a priest. You could also ask to incorporate it into a civil ceremony, and have the law representative perform the ritual.
Basically, anyone willing to be the officiant can perform it. The important thing is for the couple to respect and trust the officiant so that the ritual carries significance.
5. Should you have a handfasting wedding ceremony?
As you’re learning more and more about the handfasting wedding ceremony, you might begin to wonder if it’s something that you want for yourself.
Should you have a handfasting ritual? Let us give you some pros and some insight!
Reasons to have a handfasting wedding ceremony:
- It’s a beautiful ritual that can become an incredibly meaningful and powerful experience, perfect to get married!
- It’s a lot more intimate than most wedding traditions, and can therefore be a very personal moment within the wedding
- A lot of people choose to perform it as a way of reconnecting with their Celtic roots, as it brings back to life that ancient culture
- The aesthetic! This is a bit of a more superficial reason, but handfasting is beautiful to watch and it can fit in with a forest or medieval wedding theme perfectly
- It’s something different, and can therefore add a more unique touch to your wedding ceremony
- It can be incorporated into any sort of wedding, as a little extra. Handfasting rituals can be as short as 10 minutes, so they’re very easy to perform as an extra!
Ways to incorporate handfasting into a wedding:
If you like the idea of handfasting, but you don’t want to fully perform the ritual, there are many ways to incorporate the tradition in a more subtle way. You could simply do the ribbon hand wrapping bit, and incorporate it into any part of your wedding ceremony.
For example, you could simply incorporate the ribbon element of the handfasting, and have the couple join hands with a ribbon while the officiate is reciting the vows and making the union official.
Or you could join hands and wrap them in a cloth, or a cord, during any other pivotal moment of the wedding ceremony, as a subtle addition!
6. How to Prepare a Handfasting Ceremony
If you do end up deciding that you want to have a handfasting ceremony for your wedding, then you’re going to have to prepare it properly so that it is as special and as beautiful as possible.
But how do you prepare for a handfasting ceremony? What things do you need?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Here is a list of the things that you need to prepare beforehand:
- The where and when of the handfasting:
Just like any other ceremony, you need to establish a date and a time, along with a suitable place in which to host the event.
If you’re aiming to have a more traditional handfasting ceremony, then you should have it outdoors, in a forest, or near trees. And as for when to do it, you could perform the ritual before getting legally married, or after, depending on when the timing is best!
- The officiate:
You’re going to need to find someone to officiate your handfasting ceremony. Preferably, someone knowledgeable about this tradition, or at the very least, someone who will do the research and be prepared to make it as special and as powerful as possible!
It should ideally be someone that you trust and respect, as this is an intimate ceremony with a lot of significance.
- The duration:
Handfasting ceremonies can be as long or as short as you want. If you do the bare basics, it can be as short as 10 minutes! Adapt and modify it to suit your preferences and needs!
- The guests and witnesses:
Handfasting is usually a more intimate and secluded ceremony, so if you’re going traditional, just a handful of witnesses will suffice. But you can also make it a very public event, so it depends completely on your own preferences.
- The vows exchanged:
One of the most important parts of the handfasting ceremony is the exchanging of vows. First of all, you need to establish with the officiate beforehand the type of vows that the union will uphold, and whether it’s a temporary date-limited union, or if it’s a permanent one.
Second, you need to prepare your own personal vows, which the couple will exchange at the very end, in addition to the vows spoken by the officiating person. You could improvise, but it’s best to prepare them beforehand so that you’re now awkwardly fumbling for words!
- The ribbon or cord:
There can’t be a handfasting without something to fast together with the hands of the couple, as that is the main core of the ritual. Traditionally, a ribbon or cord is used, but you can also use a cloth, or string, or any other alternative so long as it joins and binds the hands together.
But how many ribbons or cords do you need? Is one enough? Does it have to be a specific color?
As this is important, let’s just make it into a whole section, down below.
Preparing the ribbon or cord for a handfasting ceremony:
Traditionally speaking, you should use three ribbons or cords. This is because one will represent one family or person, the other will represent the other family or person, and the third will represent the new life of the two people bound together.
If you do this, you can use one color for each, making sure the color represents each part accurately!
Alternatively, you could use a single ribbon or cord, to bind the hands together, or you could use multiple until it’s hard to even separate the hands. (But having more than 3 will begin to lose the meaning and significance, plus it will probably become a bit of a hassle!) Ultimately, the number of ribbons you use is up to you!
As for the length of the material you are using, it should be long enough to wrap around the hands a few times, binding them together properly, and knitting at the end. But they shouldn’t be too long so that they become complicated to wrap around and manage! Between one and two meters seems to be the ideal and recommended length.
Now, what about the color of the ribbon or cord? Ideally, you will match the color to the couple, so that it signifies their new life together, or match it to the families if they have an emblem or color scheme.
Otherwise, you can simply choose colors you like, or colors that have specific meanings.
Here are some of the traditional meanings of some specific colors that you can use:
- Green: This color symbolizes the earth, and the life that it provides. It can represent new beginnings and fertility.
- Red: This color is most commonly a symbol of passion and love, so it can be very fitting for a wedding!
- Blue: This color represents deep understanding and trust, as well as long-lasting stability. Perfect for such a sacred binding of two lives into one!
- Purple: This color is most commonly used to represent royalty and importance, but it can also be a symbol of devotion and power.
- Yellow: This is usually regarded as a happy color, and it can represent the optimism of a new beginning and of a bright future ahead.
- Pink: This is a softer version of the meaning of love, so it’s more associated with romance, wonder, and innocence.
7. How to Tie the Handfasting Cords
As we’ve been saying, the most important part of the handfasting ceremony is binding the hands together, and tying them with the cords. So it’s pretty important to get this bit right. This is a very ceremonial act, that is performed with great care and significance.
So basically, you have to know how to tie the cords around the hands, and knot them together at the end, so that everything goes smoothly.
The good news is, there isn’t a single one way of tying the cords around the hands. There are no rules or specific ways of doing so. Meaning, you can do it in whichever way feels right to you. However, it still has to look good and it still needs to go smoothly, so it’s good to practice a few times beforehand.
If you want to get some ideas of the traditional ways of tying the cord around the hands, you can check out this video. It’s by the Humanist Society Scotland Ceremonies, and having the visual demonstration along with the explanation can be super helpful!
Handfasting knot demonstration video
8. Script and Vows in a Handfasting Ceremony
Preparing the script and the vows of the handfasting ceremony is very important, as it will accompany the binding of the hands in a very significant way.
Once again, one of the advantages of the handfasting ceremony is that there isn’t a single one way of doing things, and there isn’t a specific script to follow and specific words to mutter.
Instead, you can write up the entire ceremony yourself, so that it gets across your unique desired message, as long as it overall communicates that the ritual is about two people forming a union through the joining of hands.
If the person you get to officiate the handfasting is knowledgeable and has officiated other handfasting ceremonies before, they might have a few different set scripts available for you to choose from, or you can modify their usual script.
Otherwise, you could write it together, or simply provide your own script and ask if they’d be willing to follow that.
In case you’re struggling to come up with ideas for the script, here are two online pdf samples that you can take a look at.
The first is a very simple quick script, and the second is a more in depth ceremonial script for handfasting:
As for the personal exchanging of vows, it’s good to take a few days to write up what you want to say to your partner. Make it as intimate and as meaningful as possible, and make sure that they are vows that you fully intend to uphold. There are many vow samples to find online, if you’re struggling to write them yourself.
And if you’re looking for ideas, here are a few popular sentences that you can incorporate into your speech of vows:
- I wish to join my life with yours, as we grow old together
- I vow to love, honor, and respect you
- To hold you to my heart, but not bind you to my will
- To stay with you through struggle and pleasure
- Will you accept me and all that I am? / I accept you and all that you are
- Today I choose to entwine my heart and soul with yours
- Destiny had our paths cross, and we chose to remain side by side
- I choose to walk this life with you, from now until the day I leave this world
- May all present witness my oath to you, I shall love you and stay with you forever
Honestly, the possibilities are endless. You could even include a few more informal vows in there, that are more personal and relevant to the person you are marrying, and it might add a touch of fun too!
9. Combining a Handfasting Ceremony with a Ring Exchange
Nowadays, one of the most common traditions in the Western world, when it comes to weddings, is the exchanging of rings. In fact, it can be hard to even imagine a wedding without that step of exchanging rings, and being pronounced officially married.
So what happens if you want to keep the exchanging of rings, but you also want to incorporate handfasting into the wedding? Will both traditions clash? Can you do both? If so, when do you do each? Should you handfast before or after the rings?
As we keep saying, you can do whatever you want when it comes to handfasting (within reason, of course), as there are no set rules on how to handle the ceremony. You can, indeed, combine it with the modern tradition of exchanging the rings, so that you have a two-in one event in which you are visually binded together twice!
You can choose to perform the handfasting either before, or after the ring exchange. But if you’re really struggling to decide, then we recommend you perform the handfasting first, and the ring exchange second.
Why perform the handfasting before the ring exchange? We have a few reasons:
- Nowadays, the ring exchange is performed right at the end of the ceremony, followed by the declaration of the marriage being official. So it would be a bit odd to perform the ring exchange, and then further delay the declaration of marriage by having the handfasting!
- The handfasting is a lot more intimate, and a lot more visually binding. It makes more sense to have the true binding of the people first, and to then add the rings on top as a material symbol to wear from then on forth, so that others can see that they are married.
- If you put the rings on first, there’s a small chance they might get caught in the cord when performing the hand fasting! (This is not very likely, but you never know, right?)
But remember, you can choose to incorporate the handfasting in whichever part of the wedding you want, including after the rings! Do what feels right for you, as it is a ritual to signify your love, and the union of you and your partner.
10. Renewing Your Vows with a Handfasting Ceremony
Once you are married, and a period of time has gone by, some couples will choose to renew their vows.
This is an excellent way of reaffirming the marriage, and renewing the vows to reflect the time that has gone past, and the growth it has entailed. And it’s also a perfect excuse to host a celebration in the name of your love, with friends and family!
In a renewal of vows, there is no exchanging of rings, and not many traditional rituals, as it’s just a repetition of the vows, and then a celebration. So a lot of people are beginning to consider performing a handfasting ceremony, during their renewal of their marriage vows.
And the thing is, if you’re renewing your vows a handfasting ceremony is the ideal way to do it! It will hold all the significance and meaning of your original wedding, and it works as a renewal and a rebinding of the two people.
We mentioned earlier that traditionally, handfasting ceremonies were made to bind two people for a year and a day. And after that time was up, they would return to be bound again, or go their separate ways.
So a handfasting ceremony has a long history of being used for the purpose of renewing vows, making it the absolute best choice for the occasion!