Many Pagan and Wiccan couples choose to have a Handfasting Ritual
instead of a traditional wedding ceremony. In some cases, it may be
simply ceremonial -- 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, it's becoming more and more popular, as Pagan and Wiccan couples
are seeing that there is indeed an alternative for non-Christians who
want more than just a courthouse wedding.
Marriages, Irregular and Regular
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 your 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 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
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 of 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 -- but since Scotland kept the
tradition, it wasnâ€™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 elopers would encounter once they left England --
and 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 Gardener 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, creating the
infinity symbol (a figure-eight) with the 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 which point they
will re-evaluate the relationship and determine whether to continue or
Who Can Be Handfast? Anyone!
One benefit of having a handfasting ceremony is that it because it's
not the same as a legal wedding, there are more options available to
people in non-traditional relationships. Anyone can have a handfastingsame sex couples, polyamorus families, transgender couples, etc. In Dianic Wicca, Z Budapest used the word "tryst" to refer to a ceremony for a lesbian couple.
Dormant for so long, the idea of the handfasting ceremony has enjoyed
a huge rise in popularity. 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.