Handfastings 101

I've done well over a hundred ceremonies in the time I've been working as an officiant, and I feel like I'm coming up on a thousand handfastings. They are truly having a moment right now! In the endless search for the perfect ceremony wording, I'm digging deep into some research about what appears to be everyone's favorite unity ritual.

CLARIFY, PLEASE

Handfastings? Why knot?

I'm so sorry I said that, but that is the question I'm answering. Maybe you've seen it at someone else's wedding. Maybe you've seen it floating around Pinterest as a suggestion to you. Maybe your even officiant suggested it, but,

Why would you want to handfast? What is a handfasting in the first place?

Glad you asked. A handfasting is the symbolic act of being tied. To one another. You clasp hands, and your officiant uses a cord to gently knot your hands together, and they then read a blessing over you. And that's it! (Really!)

"The ritual of handfasting is one that goes back many generations and spans many different cultures. It is the symbolic binding of a couple to one another, and is the origin of the phrase 'tying the knot'."

In a ceremony, I introduce the ritual in this way, giving a brief explanation of the ritual to eliminate confusion from the get-go. Another great way to do this is to write out an explanation in your programs so that when that portion of the ceremony happens, your guests can follow right along. 'Today, Sam & Jamie have chosen to celebrate their union through the ritual of the handfasting, which is...' etc.

THE HISTORY

The claim is that handfastings date back to the time of the "Ancient Celts", but it doesn't date back nearly so far. The earliest we see mention of handfasting is in 16th century Scotland- that's only 400 years ago! During this time, the handfasting was the betrothal (or engagement) itself- a promise that you are entering into a contract to marry that individual. That engagement could then be broken at the end of that period without repercussion. Or, the couple could gladly go forward with their marriage after all. Consider it a test run, a probationary period.

Neopagans and reconstructionists have brought handfasting back into the fold as a modern marriage ritual, and with this has come the idea that the traditional length of the engagement period was that of a year and a day. There is, however, no current evidence to support this.

When you break down the meaning behind the handfasting, it winds up looking no different than the modern ring exchange itself. There's nothing inherently magical or mystical about it! It's simply an act which symbolizes a binding; your binding to one another.
 

THE CORD

During this part of the ceremony, I like to introduce the cord itself, because it's an integral part of what's going on. My favorite cord I've ever worked with was from Allie & Matthew's medieval-inspired wedding at Santarella in Tyringham, Mass. The introduction went like this:

"This cord came all the way to us from a good friend in France, and was crafted especially for the bride and groom. It is made of Irish wool, studded with gemstones and charms to protect and bind them, and was imbued with good intentions and happy wishes for their future together."

When I talk about the cord, there's truly an element of mysticism to it- the idea that whomever made the cord was able to imbue that cord with something, and in turn, the cord is able to imbue the couple with something. If you believe in anything, (really, anything, God, energy, spirits, angels, doesn't matter,) you could probably manage to believe that the good vibes (or "blessings") anyone imparts on anything could be transferred back out of it. This is an imperative aspect of the handfasting cord, in my opinion.

Who makes the cord is a personal matter entirely. Many brides like to make it themselves, or have a close friend or family member, especially a mother or aunt, make it for them. Many clients ask me to craft it, which I'm always excited for, and do so with love! Many will buy one outright. (Check out all of the gorgeous artisans on Etsy for a beautiful selection!)

When I make a handfasting cord, I choose ribbons, strings of tiny pearls, lengths of lace, or wool or silk yarns, and I braid them together, typically in the couple's wedding colors. Ones my clients have had made have been handspun wool, lengths of cloth with the ends embroidered, ribbons that have been braided, tablet woven yarns, even kumihimo. I did a handfasting once where they had chosen six separate ribbons, each with its own significant spiritual meaning, and we added them one at a time to the mix. My handfasting cord that I made for my wedding never got used, but it was sumptuous, heavy with glass beads. I wanted it to be heavy- in my opinion, it felt more serious that way.

Many of my couples have added charms to the ends of their handfasting cords. Gemstones symbolizing the birthstones of yourselves or your children, or stones chosen for their magical or medicinal meanings, charms of your initials, hearts for love, birds for happiness, any relevant religious symbols, that elusive "something blue" every bride is supposed to have with her? The options are endless!

THE BLESSING

What I love about how traditionally ambiguous the modern handfasting is, is that you can apply any blessing, wording, or readings to it and it still holds its shape. Once I have introduced the handfasting and I have gently tied the couple's hands in place, I tend to default to reading the Blessing of the Hands by Rev. Daniel L. Harris, which goes like this:

These are the hands of your best friend, young and strong and full of love for you, that are holding yours on your wedding day, as you promise to love each other today, tomorrow, and forever.

These are the hands that will work alongside yours, as together you build your future.

These are the hands that will passionately love you and cherish you through the years, and with the slightest touch, will comfort you like no other.

These are the hands that will hold you when fear or grief fills your mind.

These are the hands that will countless times wipe the tears from your eyes; tears of sorrow, and tears of joy.

These are the hands that will tenderly hold your children.

These are the hands that will help you to hold your family as one.

These are the hands that will give you strength when you need it.

And lastly, these are the hands that even when wrinkled and aged, will still be reaching for yours, still giving you the same unspoken tenderness with just a touch.


I choose this because of its relevance, but equally perfect would be something advisory, such as Wilferd Arlan Peterson's Art of a Good Marriage, or something deeply beautiful and striking, such as Pablo Neruda's Your Hands. More than once I've also used song lyrics from the couple's favorite song, and that makes it all the more meaningful to them.
 

NOW WHAT?

I get this question a lot. There are a few options of what to do with yourself once you're all tied up! Because I always script my handfasting for after the ring exchange, there's no immediate need to unravel. You won't really need your hands again for the rest of the ceremony!

Many of my couples love to keep their "inside" hands (the ones they'll be holding as they walk back down the aisle) tied, and they slip their "outside" hands out of the knot so that they can stand side-by-side easily, and any bouquets that have been handed off can be reacquired with that free hand.

This is, of course, only one choice. The bride may choose to wear the handfasting cord on one wrist much like a bangle for the duration of the ceremony and the recessional. The couple may choose to ditch the cord entirely, in which case I hang onto it for them, or place it back on the altar table, if there is one. I did a wedding once with a Hawaiian theme, where the groom wore the handfasting cord around his neck, beside his lei, with the ends draped down, and it looked lovely!

Ultimately, each stage of the handfasting can be done entirely "up to you", and I encourage you to make whatever decisions regarding it that feel best. As always, your officiant is always there to help you work out the kinks and give you advice, so don't be afraid to ask!

Wishing you all the love in the world,
Ali H.