Handfasting: A Wiccan Wedding Ceremony
The Wiccan Wedding Ceremony of Handfasting
Handfasting is a term that Wiccans have adopted to describe a Wiccan wedding ceremony. Originally, the term handfasting was used in medieval Scotland and referred to a betrothal. A marriage arrangement was usually worked out by the families in advance, and when all the details were ironed out and two people consented to marry, they shook on it.
This joining of hands (a simple handshake) was how we got the term ‘handfasting’. The actually wedding might take place immediately or sometime in the future, but the couple who were now betrothed were considered handfasted.
History of handfastings got muddled in the late 18th/early 19th century, but by the 1960s the word was adopted by NeoPagans and the concept took root in the Neo-Pagan community.
Let’s learn about the myths and facts of handfasting, and what it entails.
The Romanticized Myths of Handfastings
A lot of dubious sources trace the handfasting back to the ancient Celts. This is just another romanticized Celtic myth that popped up in the late 18th century, when interest in the Celts became fashionable.
As the myth goes, the ancient Celts performed handfastings as a ‘trial marriage’ in which their hands would be tied together with a cord for the ceremony. The trial marriage was usually given a time frame of a year and a day, though I’ve heard some references say 3 years and 7 years.
At the end of the trial, if there were no children, the couple could decide to part ways—no harm, no foul. The term that became popular for that is handparting, and the concept is similar to a modern-day annulment. Basically, if the couple decided not to stay together, the marriage never happened. On the other hand, if the couple started a family and were happy they could have a wedding and make the marriage permanent.
Lovely story—but total fiction (sorry to break it to those who believed it).
The fact is, the handfasting comes out of Christianized Scotland. It was not a trial marriage (in fact, if the couple did have sex, the marriage was legally binding and permanent), and there was no binding involved. All these ideas came later—speculation interjected into history.
Is modern-day handfasting invalid since it isn't really an ancient Pagan ceremony?
No, of course not. It’s a modern tradition that’s been embraced. Age of a tradition isn't relevant as long as you find it meaningful.
Wiccan Handfasting Options
For some Wiccans, a handfasting is a legal wedding ceremony intended for a legal, permanent marriage.
Some Wiccans have two ceremonies. They may fear many loved ones would be uncomfortable in a Wiccan ceremony, or the couple might be ‘in the broom closet’. They may be an interfaith couple. They may have difficulty obtaining Pagan clergy who can legally officiate. In this case the couple might go to city hall or have a traditional wedding for family, making the marriage legal, but hold a private or small handfasting to make the spiritual commitment as Wiccans.
For some Wiccans, a handfasting is meant to be more of a commitment ceremony, and is not legally binding. The couple considers themselves ‘spiritually married’. This is especially popular for same-sex couples before legalization was an option, but sometimes heterosexual couples who did not desire or require legally binding ties would do this.
Some Wiccans do use a handfasting as an unofficial trial marriage for a year and a day, or for an agreed-upon amount of time. They decide later whether they want to renew the commitment temporarily again, make it permanent, legalize it, or end it.
Handfasting Blessing Song
I’m not going to get into Wiccan wedding planning details here, because that is a whole ‘nother article. But there are some common FAQs about handfasting:.
Are Handfastings Legal?
Legality depends on location.
In the US it is legal in all 50 states. As long as the officiate legally has the power to perform marriages in the state, a license is obtained and all state laws are followed, the marriage is legally binding.
This goes for any religious wedding ceremony, including Wiccan handfastings. The government can’t deny you a marriage license based on the type of ceremony or the religion you practice.
Who presides over handfastings?
Usually it would be a Wiccan High Priest and/or Priestess who has already gone through whatever channels necessary so that he/she can legally sign a wedding license in your state.
If you can’t find Wiccans, you can check with the local Pagan community or interfaith churches. Anyone legally able to sign a license who is willing to perform such a ceremony can preside.
Some people like to have friends perform ceremonies, and in Wicca that's fine. Remember, however, that those online instant-ordination certificates are not automatically accepted in every state. However, you may be surprised at who can marry you-- it doesn't always have to be an ordained minister. For example, a notary public could marry you legally in many states, regardless of religion. So do your homework.
If you are not concerned about a legal ceremony, then anyone can perform it. Work with someone you have confidence in.
Do Wiccans have to have a handfasting?
No. The Wiccan religion is not so dogmatic as to dictate the type of ceremony in which Wiccans get married. If you prefer to get married in your family’s church, or at City Hall, or in Vegas, don’t feel guilty. The only reason to have a handfasting is that you want one. The Gods don't care what ceremony you choose.
Can non-Wiccans have handfastings?
Considering there’s no laws against it, certainly. Wiccans don’t own the concept. I do find it a little odd that two non-Wiccans would want an entire Wiccan wedding ceremony, but hey—whatever floats your boat. Wiccans do not require any kind of statement of faith, and most likely any Wiccan or Pagan officiate would be happy to help you design a ceremony that works for you.
More often, non-Wiccan couples just adopt the actual binding of the hands into their own wedding ceremony, whatever their religion—and again, Wiccans or Pagans don’t own this concept. Anyone can do it.
Do Wiccans exchange rings?
Most do. Though it’s not required for a handfasting it is a tradition that most people upkeep. Most also keep their handfasting cord someplace special.
What Goes On at a Wiccan Handfasting?
Wedding rituals can vary between different trads of Wicca. The following is an example of how a Wiccan handfasting might go:
- The participants gather around a big circle. The altar will be in the center most likely.
- A High Priest/ess may cast a circle (create sacred space) and perform some blessings at the altar.
- There may be drumming, chanting, or guided meditations.
- There will most likely be invocations of the deities. Elemental energies may be invited into the circle.
- The bride and groom will most likely enter the circle ceremonially at some point (rather than being there from the start, or doing the traditional walk down the isle).
- Like most weddings, the High Priest/ess will talk about the responsibilities and joys of marriage, and what such a union symbolizes.
- There may be readings, poems, songs, etc. chosen for the occasion.
- The couple will probably exchange rings and take vows as in any other wedding.
- The High Priest/ess will at some point join the couple’s hands together using a blessed cord or ribbon. The couple will be declared "bound together" and will probably keep that cord on through the remainder of the wedding.
- There will be a small communion of cakes and ale (wine, juice, etc.); the food and drink will be blessed and passed around for everyone to partake of a bite and a sip.
- In some handfastings, the couple may be led out of the room to consummate the marriage in private in another room. Everyone will remain and celebrate until they return. This is not very common, particularly in weddings with non-Wiccan guests, but it can happen.
- Celebrations will commence, such as feasting and dancing, or everyone will head to a reception.
Remember, there’s no absolute “standards” for a handfasting. Wiccan couples will make it their own, adding or subtracting whatever they see fit. They may include a unity candle, jumping a broom for luck, a spell for happiness or fertility, or it may be very stripped down and simple event containing barely half of what I've listed.
My husband and I look back on our own handfasting very fondly. It’s a treasured memory, and for us a spiritually meaningful ceremony made it all the more sacred.
It's really a beautiful ceremony, and I hope one day you get to witness one, or have the handfasting of your own dreams.
Where to Find Clergy to Perform Handfastings
Witchvox - use the drop-down menu on the left to locate your area and look under clergy; please remember that this is a website like CraigsList; anyone can put up a listing. It's up to you to check credentials.
Unitarian Universalist Church - many UU churches have Pagan chapters (Covenant of the Unitarian Universalist Pagans-- CUUPS). Even if not, most UU ministers are trained for multi-faith services and are open to various faiths.
© 2014 Mackenzie Sage Wright