Handfasting: Big H and Little H

A recent discussion with Celebrant friends revealed some confusion around the use of the word ‘Handfasting’. It not only describes a symbolic act but a faith-specific ceremony for modern Pagans. Some used different words for each, others had only heard of one definition.

Let’s explore both meanings and how they might relate to your own wedding choices…

1. The Little ‘h’

Also known as ‘handtying’, handfasting is the symbolic act of binding hands together, with ribbon or cord, to signify love and commitment.

With roots in ancient Celtic culture, this simple act is visually and viscerally powerful. To those watching, it makes a clear statement that the folks involved are making a loving commitment. For those being handfasted, it is a physical sensation and memory that heightens the promises they make to signify their marriage.

There is no single religious or spiritual tradition that has claim to handfasting as a symbolic act. Echoes of handfasting can be found in a number of different wedding traditions: from neo-Pagan wedding rituals to the wrapping of hands at the end of an Anglican church wedding.

In recent years it has been adopted by Celebrants (Humanist and Indepdendent) and become a popular addition to many Celebrant-led wedding and commitment ceremonies. I have also used handfasting in naming ceremonies and as part of a vow renewal to honour the commitments and relationships being formed and upheld by those taking part.

The simplicity of this symbolic act allows it to cross different faiths, traditions and purposes. It is easy to personalise through the number of cords, materials used and the type of knots tied. In essence, handfasting is now a modern ritual of commitment that is all the more meaningful for having its roots in our ancient history.

2. The Big ‘H’

For modern Pagans a Handfasting is a Pagan wedding.

When paganism resurfaced in the 1950’s (leading to the formation of popular pagan traditions such as Wicca), a conscious effort was made to find suitable alternatives to traditional wedding ceremonies. These spiritual folks wanted a ceremony that spoke to their beliefs, their ideals and their dieties and expressed the sacred nature of their intention to wed.

It is unsurprising that handfasting was adopted as the centrepiece. Rooted in the Celtic past (a huge inspiration for the formation of modern paganism) this symbolic act is physical and intentional; much like the rituals that form the foundation for many neo-pagan traditions.

In want of a name for these new pagan weddings, the term ‘handfasting’ was elevated in status to become the name of the ceremony itself.

Today, a Handfasting is the marriage of folks who identify as Pagan in some way, shape or form. It’s not always both individuals who wear the label, but both will have agreed to the spiritual tone and content of the ceremony beforehand.

The format of the ceremony will reflect the beliefs and traditions of the couple involved, which can be as varied as any other Celebrant ceremony; a Druid for example will have a very different Handfasting to a Heathen or a Wiccan.

All are likely to be formalised rituals, including the creation/opening of sacred space, an invocation or calling in of energy/spirits/dieties, and a closing of the sacred space after the symbolic acts are complete.

When taking part in a Handfasting, the presence and input of a higher power (whether that be a named deity or the Mother Earth) is acknowledged and recognised throughout. The vows and promises made might involve or be consciously witnessed by the participants’ Gods/Goddesses or their sense of the sacred.

Within a Handfasting the act of handfasting takes on a higher purpose, as symbolic acts have power in a sacred space. Pagans recognise the binding of hands as an intentional act that not only visually but energetically binds one person to the other. The handfasting moves beyond symbolism and into ritual; where will and intent create actual change and transformation.

The Right Handfasting For You

As a Celebrant I always ensure I can authentically uphold the beliefs of those I work for.

When booked for a Handfasting (big H!) I draw on years of experience working within the Pagan community to create an effective and evocative ritual space. I make sure that the couple’s spiritual truths align with my own so that the rituals we use are not just symbolic but transformative. When performing the ceremony I consciously act as a conduit for the energy and intentions that matter most to the happy couple.

This quality comes with me when I perform ceremonies for non-pagan couples too. My intention as a Celebrant is to clearly express the couple’s feelings and truths through action and words. This is as true for a more ‘traditional’ or ‘non-religious’ wedding ceremony as it is for any other.

I always suggest using symbolic actions as part of any wedding ceremony because they are so resonant and memorable for everyone involved. If a couple wishes to express their union through a handfasting (little ‘h’!) then I am happy to create one that resonates with the tone of their wild wedding and the truth of their unique lives.

Whoever you are and whatever your faith or beliefs, being handfasted is a moment of deep love, power and commitment; which is why I personally use the same word to cover all its possible incarnations.

After all, the intention behind the act never differs; just the container within which it is held.

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