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  • Writer's pictureLisa Flahant

The symbolic act of handfasting

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Hi folks, I am busy at the moment writing a wonderfully personal ceremony for a wedding next month. And how I love this part of my job! Having the opportunity and time to get to know a couple, and carefully select the perfect words and sentiments to describe their journey into married life - it means every ceremony is completely unique and nothing like the script you will hear from a Registrar-led wedding.

Couple walking in a meadow after a celebrant wedding

But I digress! Back to my lovely couple. Having been in touch for some time now, we have had two meetings and numerous emails to discuss the content of their ceremony. From the outset, one of their priorities was to have a highly inclusive ceremony which would actively involve their extended family. They were also interested in the various symbolic acts which were available to them through a celebrant-led wedding, particularly the ritual of handfasting. What better, I thought, than to combine the two?

Handfasting, for the uninitiated, is a symbolic unity ritual in which a couple stand face to face as their hands are tied together. It’s one of the oldest and best-known wedding rituals there is, often popularised in books, films and tv shows, and even used by royals such as Will and Kate in their own wedding. It symbolises the binding together of two separate lives and the commitment the individuals are making to one another – and is of course, where we get the phrase ‘tying the knot’.

The couple join one of each other’s hands, or both hands by crossing them, and long lengths of colourful cord, ribbon or fabric are draped or tied around their hands. The colours selected by the couple are usually symbolic, as can be the fabric – for example, something special passed down through, or linked, to the family. They are literally bound together by the cord or ribbons, while words of commitment or vows are spoken. A knot is then tied underneath the hands, symbolising unity for life.

The act of handfasting can be as traditional or as modern as you want it to be. A very traditional handfasting ceremony will often be carried out by an ordained Pagan or Wiccan officiant, and the content of the ceremony is time-honoured, with set wording including circle casting and blessing of the elements, and is a highly spiritual event.

And it’s interesting to learn that in ancient Celtic times, a handfasting was originally more like an engagement period, where two people would declare a binding union between themselves for a year and a day. It gave the couple the chance to see if they could survive marriage to each other. After a year, the couple could part as if they had never been married or could decide to enter permanently into marriage through renewing their promises with a second handfasting.

But since my couple are modern millennials, we are putting our own twist on the act of handfasting. They have chosen to have nine different coloured ribbons to bind their hands, each colour representing a different quality of their life together, and each presented by a different family member. Once the knot is tied, the ribbons will be slipped from the hands and placed in a special box for safekeeping. But the tradition is never to untie the knot!

There are so many ways in which you can incorporate this symbolic activity into your ceremony. If you’d like to chat more about creating something similarly meaningful and personal, just drop me a line at Celebrant in Cornwall. I'd love to hear from you!

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