Holding hands and having them tied together as a symbol of togetherness is a popular ritual to honour a couple’s love and commitment to each other. The proper name for it is ‘handfasting’ and it can be used in engagement celebrations, wedding ceremonies, anniversaries and renewal of vows. But where does the practice come from and how can you incorporate it into your relationship blessing ceremony?
A bit of history
Handfasting ceremonies are not a new thing. In fact, they date back over 2,000 years as an ancient Celtic tradition. The word ‘handfasting’ is rumoured to derive from handfesta (Old Norse) which means ‘to strike a bargain by joining hands’. It is also where today’s common phrase ‘tying the knot’ comes from.
Originally, a Druid priest would perform the ceremony as a symbol of betrothal and the couple had a choice about how long their commitment to each other should last: ‘a year and a day’, ‘as long as love shall last’, ‘this lifetime’ or ‘all lives to come’. Handfasting rituals may be chiefly associated with Pagan wedding ceremonies but today they can also be seen in secular, spiritual and even Christian settings to add an extra touch of personalisation to celebrate your unique love and marriage.
How does handfasting work?
Handfasting is a symbolic ritual of unity. It signifies the binding together of two separate lives and the commitment you are making together. The couple stands face to face as their hands are tied together. During the binding ceremony, you can recite carefully chosen words or vows to express your commitment to one another.
The sacred bond is achieved with the help of a handfasting cord, ribbon, lace, or long piece of fabric. This needs to be long enough (1-2 metres) so it can loosely loop around both your wrists and hands. The material (or indeed the actual cord) might be of special significance to the couple, perhaps being a gift from a family member or an heirloom. Some beautifully intricate designs can be found here.
The handfasting cord could be made up of one or several strands. Traditionally, a combination of different coloured strands might be used – e.g. red for strength, courage and fertility, orange for attraction, encouragement and kindness, and blue for patience, health and loyalty – but the choice is entirely up to you.
How to personalise your handfasting ceremony
The good news is that there are no set rules for how you incorporate handfasting into your celebrations. Do whatever feels right for your special occasion.
- One hands or two?
You can choose to bind with one hand or two hands. For the former, stand next to each other facing forward and hold your adjoining arms out together. For the latter, stand facing your partner and clasp each other by both wrists. You could also cross your arms to enhance the symbolic level of entwinement.
- Who does the binding?
It is not necessary to have an official celebrant to do the honours, but of course you could if you felt so inclined. You could also ask a respected member of your community, spiritual or otherwise. Many couples choose family members or close friends to do the handfasting, or you could get all your guests involved in placing the ribbon over your hands.
- How to tie the ribbon?
There are various ways to actually tie the ribbon, from a simple knot to wrapping the wrists in a more elaborate fashion. Here’s a video to demonstrate a few techniques for you to contemplate. Make sure that you don’t wrap the cord too tightly, so that you can pull yourselves loose at the end of the process.
- What to do with the cord afterwards?
At the end of the ceremony, your handfasting cord can be kept as a keepsake of your vows. If your first handfasting symbolised your engagement, why not use the same cord during your wedding ceremony, and also your anniversary celebrations and any vow renewal you may be planning.
What to say during the ceremony?
The words to accompany your handfasting ritual are arguably as important as the symbolic binding of hands. Choose when you say them. Would you prefer to say a few lines to each before the handfasting, or exchange vows for each cord that is being wound? Alternatively, you could save up all your vows until after the handfasting ritual has been completed.
Take some quiet time to write your handfasting vows. They are meant to be your expression of the loving bond between you and your partner, and the promise you are making to each other. Write something that feels authentic and heartfelt, and that you feel happy reciting in front of your friends and family on the day.
Finally, if you are incorporating handfasting into your celebration, it makes sense to introduce the concept to your guests who may not have come across it before. Explain the meaning behind the ritual and why you have chosen to use it, and what is going to happen next. If you are using a celebrant or other master of ceremonies, they will do this for you. Indeed, they may have a tried and tested ritual structure to follow. If you are conducting your own ceremony, you are free of course to create your own procedure.