After my recent posts on Facebook about celebrating a Handfasting ceremony at Stonehenge (in case you missed it you can find it here) lots of you have been sending messages and asking “What is a handfasting?” so here’s the answer…
Of course you can look it up on Wikipedia (here and here) but they’re pretty dry answers. Handfasting is essentially a promise or commitment. The word Handfast simply means to formally promise and from the 12th to 17th centuries it was commonly used as the equivalent of a modern engagement except that it included a ceremony and the exchanging of promises and vows. In many senses it was a wedding before the wedding with much of the ceremonial act, such as the tying of the couple’s hands together with a woven cord, being borrowed from much older pre-Christian Celtic traditions.
In many more rural areas, where the influence of the established church was less, the Handfasting became accepted as the wedding ceremony itself although in England this began to be less fashionable during the 1700s. In Scotland it was still seen as a legally valid and binding marriage ceremony until 1930! More recently it has returned to Scottish law and can be a fully recognised marriage ceremony in Scotland.
But that’s enough of the history. What does it look like?
The beauty of the Handfasting ceremony is in the flexibility and customisability of the ceremony. There are many components that can be incorporated and modified to suit the couple or left out completely. For example the ceremony usually includes a welcome for all guests, seen and unseen, in reference to the spirit world. It is very easy to modify the wording here to make it acceptable to Christians or even atheists. The focus is on the couple and their beliefs rather than any external belief system.
At the heart of the ceremony are the four cardinal directions: East, South, West and North and the four ancient elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
What follows is an example of the order of a ceremony but many variations exist and I’ve not described any of the details of words used. Different traditions may have more or different meanings for the cardinal directions and the four elements. This is just a rough outline:
A circle is formed. Often this is done physically by laying down a rope or placing the ceremony inside a stone circle such as the Rollright stones in the UK. Stonehenge can also be used although booking it is not cheap and it is often booked up months if not years in advance. If there isn’t a physical boundary then the guests can form a circle or the celebrant can create an imagined or spiritual boundary.
The elements are used to bless the couple:
East and Air for beginnings, communication, unity and wisdom
South and Fire for passion, strength and courage
West and Water for serenity, recuperation and love
North and Earth for stability, sustenance, and abundance
Blessings of the mother Earth upon the couple.
Blessing of the rings.
Exchange of the rings sometimes using a sword and chalice.
Exchange of cake and ale (sometimes called the Loving Cup, often a moment for a great deal of laughter).
The handfasting itself, either with a woven cord (sometimes made by the couple) or with a number of separate ribbons. The woven cord or the ribbons are usually of colours chosen specifically by the couple or for them.
Jumping of the sword and/or broomstick symbolising the couple moving in to the future together.
Closing of the circle.
Many other mini-ceremonies may be included such as the Rose, Sand or Water Ceremonies.