A Year and a Day — The Pagan Handfasting Ceremony
by Val Tobin
Originally published July 4, 2011 on Suite101
Republished on SNGS December 22, 2013
A unique and beautiful ceremony, handfasting solidifies the spiritual commitment couples make. In the past, handfasting was not legally binding, but today it can be, depending on who performs the ceremony. It can even be used to renew marriage vows that were made within a different tradition.
The History of Handfasting
According to the book Handfasting and Wedding Rituals, by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein, handfasting originated in the British Isles. Jeff and Daniela McQueen, a Wiccan priest and priestess who perform handfastings, say that handfasting possibly originated in the Scottish Highlands. Scotland has a long tradition of being accepting of handfastings, as, according to Caldera and Schwartzstein, when England made handfastings illegal in 1753, Scotland kept up the tradition until 1939.
Typically, handfastings were performed in villages where officials who could solemnize a marriage were unavailable, or if the couple belonged to the peasantry and had no estates to join together. It was akin to a common-law marriage. For upper classes, a handfasting was more of a betrothal. When handfastings were done for the purpose of uniting a couple until they could find a clergyman to make it official, the period of time allotted to this temporary marriage was typically a year and a day, during which time the marriage was solemnized or the couple parted ways.
Binding Magical Partners and Mates Through Multiple Lives
Handfasting again became legal in England in the 1950s, when the witchcraft laws were repealed. The term came back into common use when Gerald Gardner, and others who triggered a resurgence in the popularity and acceptance of pagan and witchcraft practices, started using it for the pagan rites they performed to bind couples together in marriage or magic. Gardner believed that handfastings should be done with magical partners and not as wedding rituals per se, because it would bind partners to one another throughout lifetimes.
Handfastings performed by the McQueens typically are marriage ceremonies, and Jeff McQueen is legally credentialed to solemnize weddings in Ontario with All Seasons Weddings. The ritual script the McQueens use is based on rituals passed down from members of the Wiccan Church of Canada where the McQueens studied Wicca. Gardner's suggestion that the union holds throughout multiple lifetimes is emphasized at the start of the script, where it warns that If the union fails, it must be ritually dissolved, or the couple will be bound by their joint karma through this life and into the next.
Material Symbols for Marriage, Fertility, and Prosperity
Much of the beauty of the handfasting ritual comes from the tools and materials used, all of which have symbolic meaning, mostly relating to love and spirituality, and all deeply profound. The priest ties the couple's hands together to symbolize their union, their commitment to one another, and to show that two have become one.
The bride and groom carefully select the colors of the ribbons for the cord to be used to bind their hands, as these symbolize qualities they wish to manifest in the marriage. Red, of course, symbolizes passion. Green represents fertility and new beginnings. Black can be used to demonstrate an understanding by the couple of the depth of their commitment.
Binding the Hands
Flowers and essential oils add scent, beauty, and symbolism to the rite. Ivy symbolizes bonds and inseparability, and in the McQueens ritual, when the priestess binds the couple's hands together, the priest says, "That they shall truly know what it means for two to work as one, with cords of Love and Ivy, we bind their hands."
The priestess ties three knots into the cord: one for love and faithfulness, one for a long and happy life, and one for health and fertility. Jeff explains: " ... handfasting is a literal term for what we're actually doing. We're tying the hands of the bride and groom together. Therefore, the two working as one, as they will have to in the years ahead. In some traditions, the couple remains tied together until their union has been consummated."
Exchanging Tokens and Jumping the Broom
As in traditional weddings, the bride and groom exchange tokens during the ceremony. Before binding their hands, the priestess presents the tokens the couple will exchange, and the priest reads a blessing over them. The tokens they exchange are not necessarily rings. They can also be necklaces, bracelets, or anything else the couple wish to exchange. They also state their vows, whether for a new marriage or as a renewal of previous vows.
After the binding, a common practice is to have the couple run the circle and jump the broom. Handfasting is sometimes referred to as "jumping the broom." But there is more to the process than simply jumping over a broom. The priest also lays out a cauldron of herbs that he lights on fire in the circle for the couple to jump over, as well as a bowl of water.
The herbs represent long life, happiness and fertility, the Crones blessing for the couple as they grow old together, harmony, passion, adventure, happy memories, health, love and devotion. They jump the fire so that they may leap obstacles as easily. They jump the water to bridge any gaps in understanding one another. Jumping the broom ensures fertility.
Summer Handfastings Popular
The McQueens say that they perform most of their handfastings during the summer, probably because they are typically held outside, and in northern climates, it makes more sense to have it when the weather is warmer and more conducive to outdoor activities. There are many pagan June brides. Some, however, do like to hold it close to Beltane, which is a ritual that celebrates joy and fertility, and others prefer to have it during the winter, though winter ceremonies are most often held indoors.
It is not necessary to be a practicing pagan to have a handfasting. The McQueens have performed handfasting ceremonies for people of other denominations – people who had attended a handfasting, loved the experience, and wanted their own weddings to be done in that tradition. Whether speaking their vows for the first time or renewing them after years of marriage, couples will find a handfasting to be a beautiful and profound spiritual expression of their love – as well as a lot of fun.
Image: Handfasting Celebration – Courtesy of Ian Cunningham
Kaldera, Raven & Schwartzstein, Tannin, Handfasting and Wedding Rituals, Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2010.
McQueen, Jeff, Priest, 1st degree, the Wiccan Church of Canada.
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