What is handfasting?

What is handfasting? ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by candyflossandbowties.com

Handfasting, or handtying as it’s sometimes called, is a gorgeous, very visual ritual that can be added to almost any wedding, commitment, or vow renewal ceremony to show the union of two (or more) people.

Handfasting has been used for many hundreds of years as a symbol of being joined together. Ever wanted to know the origin of the expression ‘tying the knot’? You guessed it, it’s to do with handfasting.

But what does handfasting actually involve?

Good question! Handfasting, at its most basic level, is tying the hands of a couple together as a symbol of their love and commitment. That’s it.

It can be as simple as wrapping a simple ribbon around your wrists as you say your ‘I dos’ or it can be much more complex than that. 

The beauty of handfasting is its flexibility. Like any ritual, it should never be just chucked into a ceremony because it’s pretty – it has to be personalised and meaningful to you in some way. A good celebrant (ooh I know one!!) will be able to weave a handfasting into your wedding in a way that feels tailor made rather than tokenistic. 

Is handfasting a Pagan tradition?

Many people associate handfasting with Paganism and indeed, it is pagan in origin, as it was being practiced in this country before Christianity arrived on our shores. 

Some couples want to embrace the pagan aspects of handfasting by making it the focal point of their ceremony, including pagan spirituality and some of the other rituals which are traditionally included in a full handfasting ceremony. These often include: 

  • arranging guests into a circle, rather than the standard rows
  • cleansing and smudging the ceremony space with a sage stick for example
  • ‘calling in the quarters’ – invoking the elements from the four compass directions 
  • jumping over a besom broom 
  • sharing a chalice or horn of mead

Like other spiritual or religious inclusions, I can do this to a point but if you like the idea of going the whole spiritual hog, you might want to call a pagan priest(ess) to conduct your ceremony.

Can I have a handfasting in my ceremony without the Pagan stuff?

If the full Pagan ceremony doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, the good news is that you can still incorporate a handfasting in your ceremony. Some pagans prefer that the non-pagan version is called a ‘handtying’, but the two terms are pretty much synonymous.

In fact, even if you’re getting married in church, you might find there’s a handfasting ritual included in your ceremony. It’s traditional for the priest to wrap the couple’s hands together with their stole, saying ‘Those whom God has joined together, let no one divide’. So it’s not just for Pagans! And it can be totally non-spiritual too.

What are some ways to incorporate a handfasting into our ceremony?

If you’d like to include handfasting in your wedding ceremony or vow renewal, it can be done in lots of ways:

  • You can choose to have your celebrant wrap a single ribbon or cord around your hands as you say your vows and then tie them when you have finished – this is simple but very visual.
  • You can ask a friend or family member to tie the knot for you.
  • You might want to use several different coloured ribbons or cords to represent different qualities or aspects of your relationship.
  • You could ask key friends and family members from both sides to come up and place or tie ribbons – this is a great way to show that it’s not just you two who have come together, but your ‘tribes’ too.
  • You could incorporate a ritual where your celebrant ties the ribbons in a way that makes a knot when you pull apart, for great visual effect.
  • You can use a knot that appeals to you or is meaningful to you in some way – an infinity knot, a reef knot (probably not a slip knot!)
  • You could include other people – your children perhaps – and have a group handfasting. Remember it’s a visual symbol of unity, so it can be used for teams, groups, polyamorous relationships… it doesn’t just have to be two people.

What sort of ribbon or cord do I need for a handfasting?

Your cord or ribbon can be just one that matches your outfit or colour scheme, or it could be more involved than that. Remember that, as above, you don’t have to just have one cord or ribbon but you could have several.

You can go to town and get your friends or family to create a personalised handfasting cord that they have woven together with meaning and love. For example, some hen parties centre around the cord making. Check out some ideas for how to make handfasting cords here.

You could use a material that is relevant to you and your relationship. One couple I worked with were very into sailing, so they used mooring line for their handfasting. Another couple knitted their own cord in their Hogwarts house colours. You might want to use a school scarf, a length of homemade lace, some of your clan’s tartan… There are no rules. Once, a couple forgot to bring the cord they’d carefully made and we used the bride’s father’s tie instead – that was a memorable and hilarious ceremony!

If you think you’d like a handfasting ritual as part of your day, we can chat about the best way to incorporate it into your ceremony to match the tone of your celebrations. However you choose to do it, handfasting is a beautiful and symbolic ritual – and you get a rather lovely keepsake out of it too!

Fancy going for it? Let’s chat.