handfasting ceremony

What Is a Handfasting Ceremony? An Ancient Tradition in Modern Times

Oct 3, 2022
By Wedding Spot

“What is a handfasting ceremony? Where did handfasting ceremonies come from? Should I have a handfasting ceremony at my wedding?” If you’re asking yourself any of these questions, there’s no need to worry. We have the answers!

In this article, we’ll cover the origin of handfasting ceremonies and track how they evolved into the modern wedding addition we love. We’re going to break down what the ceremony means, what they entail, and why handfasting ceremonies still occur today. We’ll even provide you with clever ideas to help make your handfasting ceremony one that you, your partner, and your family and friends will always remember.

If you’re considering adding a handfasting ceremony to your wedding agenda, keep reading to discover all you need to know.

Unity ceremonies have become a common part of modern western wedding traditions. Whether in the form of a sand, water, flower, or a unity candle lighting, ceremonies that physically represent the bonds of marriage have become a staple of wedding culture. Unity ceremonies have transformed over time, but their roots can be traced back to the original unity ritual: the handfasting ceremony.

What is a handfasting ceremony?

Handfasting ceremonies are a wonderful way to personalize a wedding ceremony. An ancient tradition originating as far back as 7000 B.C., a handfasting ceremony is a wedding ritual that physically represents the spiritual union of a marrying couple. In a handfasting ceremony, couples face each other while a rope, ribbon, cord, or other binding material is used to tie their hands together.

The tethering of the hands to one another symbolizes unity and two individuals moving into the future together “as one.” One of the most iconic wedding idioms, “tying the knot” is actually derived from handfasting ceremonies.

A brief history of handfasting ceremonies

The first historical signs of handfasting ceremonies date back to ancient Ireland over 9,000 years ago. The ritual was a standard wedding tradition of ancient Celts.

Handfasting begins in ancient Ireland
A community event, typically including a large feast, handfastings were a public declaration of marriage intent. A traditional and non-religious ceremony, Celtic handfastings included binding two persons together with a braided rope, ribbon, or similar tie. Each time a vow was made, a knot would be tied in the braid to symbolize the commitment to the vow.

Signaling the beginning of the engagement period, typically lasting a year, Celtic couples were encouraged to consummate their relationship and begin living together after the ceremony. Handfasting ceremonies were also treated as a “hands-off” warning to potential male suitors as well. Once the ceremony took place, it was understood that the engaged woman was off the market, so to speak.

Handfasting takes root in England and Scotland
Originally a non-religious ceremony popular among the Celts and Pagans, handfastings later began to appear in Christian traditions as they made their way to England. It was during this time that the ceremony began to take a different shape.  

Historians believe that handfasting ceremonies became a formal and official legal agreement in England sometime between the 12th-17th century. Generally occurring a month or so before the wedding itself, the first handfasting ceremonies in England were essentially a formal and legal declaration of engagement.
Even before the official wedding had taken place, betrothed couples were considered bound to each other by law after the handfasting ceremony was completed. The first handfasting ceremonies were so binding (pun intended), in fact, that they could only be dissolved through death.

In neighboring Scotland, non-legally binding handfasting traditions began to take root around the same time. Scotland began developing their own handfasting traditions sometime between the 16th and 17th centuries. They remained separate cultural traditions until the early 1700s, when England annexed Scotland.

British law evolved, however, and in the mid 1700s handfasting ceremonies stopped being a legal act of marriage in Great Britain.

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When did handfasting become trendy in modern wedding culture?

In western culture, modern handfasting ceremonies began to see a rise in popularity in the early 2000’s. As handfasting became more mainstream, wedding planners began to include handfasting ceremony services in their offerings. It is also believed that the term “handfasting ribbon” was coined in neopagan ceremonies around this time. The trendy adaptation of handfasting in today’s wedding culture helps to keep ancient Celtic and Pagan traditions alive in modern wedding ceremonies.

Why are handfasting ceremonies so popular in modern weddings?

The first evidence of the traditional marriage ceremony, the legal union between two people, appeared in Mesopotamia as early as 2350 B.C. It’s fair to say that weddings have a very long history, and, over the millennia, a multitude of wedding rituals and traditions have evolved.

With so many options to research and choose from, many engaged couples find it difficult to pinpoint which wedding traditions to keep and which ones to drop. Handfasting ceremonies have remained popular, withstanding the test of time, because of how easy, versatile, and inexpensive they are.

● Handfasting ceremonies add perspective and symbolism to weddings.
● Easy to personalize, handfasting can be tailored to each individual couple.
● With little prep work required, adding a handfasting ceremony is an affordable way to spice up your wedding day.
● Depending on the materials chosen, adding a handfasting ceremony can be a low (or no) cost way to add a little magic to the big day.
● Handfasting ceremonies can be as quick as five to 10 minutes long.

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Is there a downside to including a handfasting ceremony?

Every wedding decision engaged couples make—choosing a venue, setting an event schedule, picking a theme, etc.—will come with some stressors. Handfasting ceremonies are one of the most timeless elegant wedding traditions in existence. As former engaged couples can confirm, however, every choice you make when defining your wedding day timeline has the potential to upset someone, somewhere.

We include the following negative consequences as potential considerations only. We sincerely hope that no couples encounter these issues, but we know one thing to be true: preparedness is the key to a smooth, stress-free wedding day.

Including a handfasting ceremony may be seen as insincere.
Unfortunately, due to the rise of social media, especially platforms like Instagram, many rituals, destinations, and cultural symbols have become viewed as “basic” or insincere. Things that were once deeply personal have become “Instagrammable” and, often as a result of cultural appropriation, have lost their merit.

Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Include whatever rituals, symbols, or decorations feel right to you and your partner as long as you show respect to the traditions of other cultures.

Your ceremony could become too long or bore guests.
While the focus of a wedding should be the meaningful union of the bride and groom, engaged couples should always consider the comfort of their guests when planning the day’s events. Don’t ask your guests to sit through hours of vows, readings, rituals and ceremonies.

Unfortunately, a wedding guest may find the ceremony offensive.
As awful as it is, you will likely have to have an honest conversation with yourself about any religious or cultural ceremonies you’d like to include in your wedding. Are there any attendees who may potentially start an issue or cause a scene? If so, it might be best to treat the handfasting as an event separate from the ceremony itself or discuss the handfasting with the guest beforehand.

If you decide to include a handfasting ceremony in your wedding, contemplate the potential benefits of making it an intimate affair. Invite friends and family who will happily join you to celebrate one of the world’s oldest wedding traditions.   

What do you need for a handfasting ceremony?

One of the primary reasons that handfasting ceremonies have remained popular to this day is because they don’t require much. While beautifully representing the intangible bonds of marriage, handfasting ceremonies don’t need a ton of prep work. You can design a handfasting ceremony to be as simple or complex as desire, but each ceremony needs two things:

1. The participants.
For a handfasting ceremony to take place, only the couple and the officiant are truly necessary. Traditionally, and in most cases however, handfasting ceremonies take place in the presence of a witness or group of witnesses.

2. The materials.
There is not a one-size-fits-all ingredient list for handfasting ceremonies. With so much room for personalization, a handfasting ceremony may only require a single rope or ribbon. During more intricate ceremonies, beads, charms, shells, or other decorations are sometimes added to the binding.   

If you are including a group chant or prayer in your ceremony, print copies of the music or text for guests. Not only will your friends and family appreciate your consideration, this will ensure any communal portions of the handfasting ceremony run smoothly. Keeping a copy of your vows tucked somewhere safe wouldn’t hurt either.
When you get right down to it, your handfasting will only be as detailed as you make it, and it will only require the elements that you choose to include. The materials, expenses, and preparation are all up to you!  

Craft a one-of-a-kind handfasting ceremony.

Without having any strict rules or regulations for their performance, handfasting ceremonies provide soon-to-be-wed couples endless opportunities to stretch their creative muscles. Amaze and entertain your wedding guests in a timeless outdoor setting at sunset, book a surprise folk singer, or have guests participate in the ceremony themselves.

Use the ideas below to find inspiration and start brainstorming handfasting ideas with your spouse.

Use lots of ribbons or cords. Sure, you technically only need one, but using multiple ties allow newlyweds to create traditional Celtic knots, intricate designs, or display an array of eye-catching colors.

Perform the ceremony in candlelight to create a soft, romantic ambiance for your wedding guests to bask in.

Have a cherished friend or family member tie the knot. Honor a beloved wedding guest by asking them to bind you to your partner instead of the officiant.

Arrange guests in spiral seating to foster a spirit of community and support. As a plus, spiral seating arrangements also make for striking wedding photographs. Experiment with creative ceremony seating and layout ideas.

Give guests prayers or chants to say together. A symphony of voices harmonized in prayer or chanting a blessing together can really take a handfasting ceremony to the next level.

Get creative with your ceremony circle decorations. Impress your guests with a twisted wooden arch, blossoming floral arrangements, or Celtic symbols.
Include seasonal elements in your decorations to connect your ceremony and wedding guests to the natural world around you. The ceremony could even take place in a garden or a forest clearing.

Use a rope or ribbon that symbolizes a shared passion. Are you a dynamite fishing duo? If so, using a braided fishing line could be a fun choice. Hikers and backpackers could use climbing rope. The customization options are never-ending.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

1. During a handfasting ceremony, who ties the knot?
Most commonly, the wedding officiant or minister ties the knot in a handfasting ceremony. This is certainly not required, however, and couples may choose to bestow the honor on a friend or member of their family.

2. How many cords are needed for a handfasting ceremony?
Technically, you can use as many cords as you would like in a handfasting ceremony, but only one is necessary. Customarily, handfasting ceremonies include between one and 13 cords. Most commonly, couples use one, three, or six cords.

3. What should I say at a handfasting ceremony?
Engaged couples have all the decision-making power when planning a handfasting ceremony. Some couples choose to have the officiant do most of the talking while the bride and groom simply say, “I do.” You may choose to write your own vows, read from literature or scripture, or invite attendees to join in a communal blessing or chant.

4. Should I include a handfasting ceremony in my wedding?
Think back to weddings you’ve attended. Did any run entirely too long? Were you anxious for the couple to “get on with it” already? Most wedding ceremonies run between thirty minutes to an hour long. If your ceremony is already an hour-long or more, tacking on a handfasting ceremony may be a bit too much to ask of your wedding guests. If you have time to spare, go for it!

5. Are handfastings legal ceremonies?
Once upon a time, handfasting ceremonies were considered legally binding wedding contracts in some areas of the world. In the modern world, however, handfastings are non-legal ceremonies.

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The Wedding Spot blog is designed to help couples navigate every step of the wedding planning journey. From before the engagement to after you say “I do,” our goal is to give you the tips, ideas, and inspiration to prepare for your big day — and all that comes with it.