An Introduction to the Tradition of Handfasting

handfasting

Getting married is something that lovers from all walks of life do. The ceremonies surrounding the union are as unique as the couples hosting them. In Celtic and Pagan communities, for example, a ritual known as “handfasting” has been practiced for centuries. In fact, that’s where the modern world got the expression “tying the knot” when referring to a wedding.

Although seen as a relatively informal ceremony these days, handfasting can still be viewed as a binding agreement between a willing man and woman. Prior to weddings becoming a legally managed enterprise and a church-driven ritual, this type of simple ceremony was the most common way for couples to join themselves in sacred matrimony.

What Is Handfasting?

The concept of handfasting comes from the belief that married couples are eternally bound together in all matters. The ritual is merely a physical manifestation of that belief, involving a literal knot being tied between the betrothed. The “love knot” signified the joining of their lives, and is typically performed by an ordained minister after the vows and rings are exchanged.

And this is regarded as a rather “rational” form of commitment (as opposed to an emotional impulse) because it allows both parties to carefully assess the union for a period of time after the ceremony. The general timeline for a handfasting ritual is as follows:

  • The couple’s hands are bound together with various colored rope. The color of the rope (or cord) is going to vary, especially among practitioners of neo-paganism we’ve noticed.
  • The cord is then kept in an ornate box, protected from harm and containing within it the couple’s ceremonial vows.
  • In general, the box is then kept in a safe place for 1 year and 1 day.

At the end of the “cooling off” period, the couple then removes the vows from the box, considers the events of the past year and their feelings for each other, and then makes a final decision about the relationship. At that time, the binding can become legal with the help of a public official.  (The laws in most Western countries don’t permit a year-long marriage trial so that’s the reason for this final part of the process.)

While handfasting was previously accepted as a legal form of marriage, it is considered a complementary ritual today – more like a more formalized engagement. Others choose to work in the rite as part of their overall wedding service, especially those wanting to add more of a Celtic theme to their big day.

The Significance of the Handfasting Cord

The cords used in the average handfasting ceremony are not regular home center rope. Often hand-woven by the engaged couple or a family member just for the occasion, you can now even find services online that will create a custom one for your rite.  In most cases each cord needs to be at least 48 inches long, allowing the hands of both individuals to be bound. As previously mentioned, the various colors of cord are symbolic of different attributes. Some of the more common meanings:

  • Yellow – Charm, attraction, balance, and harmony
  • Green – Luck, fertility, beauty, and prosperity
  • Red – Love, courage, vigor, and passion
  • Blue – Longevity, strength, pride, and safe travels
  • Purple – Power, progress, vitality, and respect
  • Pink – Unity, honor, romance, and lightheartedness
  • White – Purity, serenity, peace, and loyalty
  • Black – Wisdom, success, vision, and empowerment
  • Brown – Skill development, nurturing, home protection, and talent acquisition
  • Orange – Encouragement, stimulation, attraction, and abundance
  • Gray – Neutrality, balance, cancelling, and return
  • Silver – Inspiration, protection, creativity, and adaptability
  • Gold – Longevity, prosperity, strength, and unity

Important to note is that witnesses must be present for this ceremony, if nothing more than to give accountability to the couple. Modern pagans and wiccans have really brought this old time practice back to the forefront, with unique, beautiful rituals that borrow from several ancient customs.

Experiencing a vibrant resurgence and still traditionally rooted, handfasting is sure to become more mainstream among innovative couples from different walks of life seeking “something old” as they plan their big day.