Handfasting, Past and Present

Central Park HandfastingCeremony photos by Ashley Middleton. All rights reserved.

A modern wedding ceremony can include many different types of rituals. From the Christian tradition, there’s the Unity Candle, from the Jewish tradition there’s Breaking the Glass, and from the African-American tradition there’s Jumping the Broom but long before our popular wedding traditions of today, there was Handfasting. Perhaps the most iconic imagery we have of handfasting is from Mel Gibson’s directorial debut Braveheart, the story of William Wallace and the Scottish revolt he lead against English occupation.

In the movie, William secretly meets his first love, Marron. Together, in the presence of a priest, they pronounced their undying love to each other. The priest wraps the couple’s hands in a strip of tartan from the clan Wallace, thus making “fast their hands” as the couple declares themselves united and seals their promise with a kiss. This is the essence of Handfasting. Think of it, back then, as a blended equivalent of our modern-day common-law marriage marked by a Civil or Humanist Ceremony absent of organized religion.

The exact origins of the handfasting ceremony has been lost to antiquity, however we can be certain that this custom originated with the ancient Celts. Evidence suggests it may date as far back as 7000 B.C. (1) The etymology of the word suggests that it stems from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘handfaestung’ which was the tradition of shaking hands to signify a contract. (2)

Handfasting was most common among the peasant community for many of the same reasons elopements are popular today. It was simple and easy to perform without pomp or fuss; required little or no money; was relatively quick, especially since, unlike the wealthy, peasant couples had little or no possessions and therefore were not caught up in long, drawn-out negotiations for estate or dowry. The ceremony could be performed anywhere, be it a private home, village center, or as we saw in Braveheart, a secret glen.

However, the most noticeable difference is the absence of Clergy. Long before the influence of Christianity, if the ritual was presided over, which was not always a requirement, it would have been done so by a chieftain, shaman, priestess or elder of the community. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, writing around 110 A.D. to Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, reflected the writing of St. Paul when he exhorted, “It becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.” (3). By the Fourth Century, Christian couples were obligated to have their marriage blessed by the Church, as was by then the established practice instead of the Celtic tradition.(4) The Council of Trent in 1527 declared since marriage was considered to be a sacred sacrament then only The Church could conduct the ceremony. (5) In 1753, Lord Hardwicke’s Act made handfasting illegal in England when marriage was proclaimed valid only when performed by Church clergy. (6) Soon after, the Scottish border town of Gretna Green became a mecca for eloping couples from England who wanted religious freedom to continue the tradition of handfasting (7) (and I would guess, possibly for monetary reasons). Back in England, the term handfasting fell out of usage until the 1950s with the repeal of the witchcraft laws of England. Repealing these laws meant citizens would no longer be tried and prosecuted for practicing “witchcraft”. For nearly two centuries until 1939, Scotland continued to recognize the handfasting custom as a legitimate wedding ceremony. (8) But perhaps it wasn’t until Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, early 20th century English Wiccans who played a big part in bringing the contemporary Pagan religion of Wicca to wider public attention through the publication of a string of books on the subject, that the old term handfasting was dug up again. (9)

Today, with the upsurge of Earth-based religions such as Neo-Paganism, and as more and more Christian couples choosing to break from the staunch tradition of a “Church Wedding”, handfasting is regaining popularity. A universal reason couples like the simple ritual is because it gives a romantic nod to the original meaning of “tying the knot”.

A handfasting knot, like any other knot, can be tied with just about any kind of flexible material. When performing this ritual, you’re going to want to use something with some aesthetic appeal. I recommend a colored cord, colored ribbon or a beautiful silk scarf. Sometimes I use my Minister’s Stole. If you want something more personal, you can weave or braid your own cord with multicolored cord or ribbon. For example, you might use red for love, white for purity, pink for unity, blue for longevity and gold for prosperity. You might also want to weave in beads or charms with special meaning. Same sex couples may want to use a rainbow of ribbons representing diversity. Whatever material you choose, it should be about a yard to a yard and a half depending on how complicated you want to make the knot. You’ll want the width be about 1 to 10 inches wide.

Although handfasting originated from ancient Indo-Europeans, many other traditions and cultures around the world have developed their own versions. Buddhists might use malas (prayer beads), or a white prayer scarf symbolizing peace. Hindus will use a red, cotton thread specially used for sacred rituals. In the Hindu tradition, handfasting is called Hastaganthi. ‘Hasta’ meaning hand and ‘ganthi’ meaning stringing together. A Hindu priest will bind the couple right-hand to right-hand with thumbs interlaced and then tie their hands in a fashion similar to wrapping a gift (below center). Don’t think this is a simple knot. The Hindu tradition is very technical and every gesture, even the smallest is executed with exactness. In the Catholic tradition, the priest will wrap the couple’s hand in his Priest’s stole. If the couple chooses to acknowledge their African heritage, they might use a Kente cloth representing their family tribe (below left). Some of my couples with Celtic heritage use a strip of tartan representing their clan. For example, from my ancestry, the Cunningham formal tartan (below right).

hastaganthiKente Cloth Akans      Cunningham Formal Tartan

To start the ritual, I ask the couple to join hands. This can be right-hand to right-hand, or as in Braveheart, the Bride can place her left hand over the Groom’s right hand, or any variation thereof. I most often like to ask the couple to join both hands, right to right and underneath, left to left as if they are shaking with both hands. I like this because it forms a figure eight or an infinity symbol which gives me lots of great imagery from which t work. I can talk about infinite love, partners intertwined as one, interconnection of the earth and sky, sun and moon. I will then wrap the couple’s clasped hands with the binding of their choice, also making a figure eight.

Handfasting Detail 1

Once the couple’s hands are fasted, there are several options. I might say a prayer or a blessing if the couple asks for a spiritual or religious ceremony. Sometimes the couple asks me to say something personal about their union. I will keep the binding on through the vows up to the ring exchange unless the couple plans to read their personally written vows. Before the full ceremony is over, I will pronounce the couple as married.

Handfasting Detail 2

Not all handfastings result in a marriage. In the Neo-Pagan tradition, a handfasting can also mark the beginning of a pre-marriage trial period lasting a year and a day. During this time, the couple will go about their daily lives in the same manner as any married couple. After 366 days, if the couple wishes to stay together, they would then make their marriage union official. Otherwise, they would go their separate ways.

Just as there are handfasting ceremonies to mark the beginning of a union, there are handparting ceremonies to mark the end of a union. All things have a beginning and an end. Sometimes that ending comes sooner than expected. Just as the sun rises, so does it set and thus the infinite cycle of life.

While the origins of handfasting are steeped in tradition and ancient history, dating back many thousands of years, this rich tradition continues today in full force in many forms and adaptations. All include some version of fasting the couple’s hand together with some sort of meaningful textile.


(1) (2) http://www.handfastings.co.uk/history.php
(3) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0110.htm
(4) Ladislas Örsy, Marriage in Canon Law (Gracewing 1986 ISBN 978-0-89453651-9), p. 157
(5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Council_of_Trent
(6) Leneman, Leah (Spring 1999). “The Scottish Case That Led to Hardwicke’s Marriage Act”. Law and History Review (University of Illinois Press) 17 (1): 161–169.
(7) http://handfasting.org/traditions/history/
(8) (9) Kaldera, Raven & Schwartzstein, Tannin (2010) “Handfasting and Wedding Rituals – Inviting Hera’s Blessing” p. 8

Helen & Johnny

“We spoke with 3 other officiants before we found Reverend Mary Rose. From the very moment I heard her voice on the phone, I knew she was the one for us. She spoke clearly, had a very soothing and pleasant tone in her voice and helped answer all our questions with ease. On our wedding day she arrived on time, which was all I could ask for considering it was Memorial Day weekend! She did a quick rehearsal with our parents and bridal party prior to the ceremony and made sure everything would go off without a hitch. The ceremony was absolutely beautiful. It was emotional, touching, funny, everything we could’ve asked for. There was a moment I had to read my personal vows and started getting choked up. Rev. Mary-Rose told me to take my time and helped me through the moment. I cannot thank her enough for her professionalism and support. I highly recommend her. In fact one of my bridesmaids will be working with her for her October wedding as well :)

Brilliantly Wed May 23rd, 2014

Helen & Johnny

Videography: Myther Ganibe
Photography: Cly by Matthew
DJ: Vincent Formanes
Venue: VIP Country Club

Need Some Inspiring Words?

Try some of these:

AFFECTIONATE: adoring, caring, considerate, devoted, loving

AFFECTIONATELY: dearly, devotedly, fondly, lovingly

BEAUTIFUL: attractive, lovely, stunning

BEAUTY: attractiveness, charm, elegance, grace, loveliness

CHARM: attraction, fascination, glamour

CHERISH: esteem, cultivate, nurture, value

COMPANION: mate, partner, soul mate

DELIGHT: enjoyment, gladness, happiness, joy, pleasure

DEVOTION: affection, fidelity, loyalty, dedication

DIVINE: godly, heavenly, glorious, wonderful, wondrous, sublime

DIVINELY: blissfully, gloriously, splendidly, sublimely

ENDLESS: continual, eternal, perpetual, unceasing, unending, timeless, never-ending

ENDLESSLY: ceaselessly, constantly, forever, eternally

FAITHFUL: constant, steady, steadfast, true, loyal, devoted

FAITHFULLY: devotedly, loyally

FOND: affectionate, dear, devoted, loving

FOREVER: eternity, always

GRACE: elegance, dignity

HAPPILY: blissfully, joyfully, joyously, cheerfully

HAPPINESS: bliss, cheerfulness, contentment, delight, joyfulness

HAPPY: cheerful, glad, joyful, joyous, merry, pleased

HOPE (noun): faith, optimism, belief, desire, wish

HOPE (verb): anticipate, await, count on, expect

HOPEFUL: hoping, optimistic, promising

INFINITE: endless, limitless, unbounded, immeasurable, eternal, never-ending

INSPIRE: excite, stimulate, awaken, uplift, energize, enliven, arouse, invigorate, animate, exhilarate, motivate, impress

JOY: bliss, delight, elation, gladness, happiness

LOYALTY: constancy, devotion, faithfulness, fidelity

MARRIAGE: matrimony, nuptials, wedding, union

MARRIED: wedded

MARRY: wed, combine, couple, link, unite, join

NOBLE: royal, ethical, moral, virtuous, honorable, gracious

OPTIMISTIC: bright, sunny, upbeat, promising, positive

PEACEFUL: quiet, serene, still, calm

PRICELESS: precious, inestimable, invaluable, valuable

PROMISE: pledge, vow

RENEW: regenerate, restart, refresh, rekindle

RENEWAL: invigoration, rebirth

RESPECT (noun): admiration, appreciation, esteem, favor, honor, regard

RESPECT (verb): honor, regard, value, admire

SINCERE: genuine, honest, real, heartfelt

SINCERELY: genuinely, honestly, really

SINCERITY: candidness, genuineness, honesty

SPIRIT: being, heart, mind, psyche, soul, energy, life

TOTAL: complete, entire, whole, absolute, pure, sheer

TOTALLY: absolutely, completely, entirely, fully, purely, wholly

UNDENIABLE: certain, sure, unquestionable

UNDYING: immortal, eternal, everlasting, enduring, lasting

UNIQUE: extraordinary, rare

UNITE: connect, join, meet, merge, unify

UNSELFISH: selfless, generous, charitable, giving

VIBRANT: intense, strong, vivid, dynamic, energetic

VIRTUOUS: ethical, moral, noble, principled, pure

WARM: compassionate, tender

WISDOM: insight, knowledge

WORTHY: deserving, desirable, suited, honorable, noble

Loving Day June 12th

From Time U.S. article posted June 11th, 2012 titled Loving Day

In 2007, Mildred Loving released this statement:

Loving for All By Mildred Loving

Prepared for Delivery on June 12, 2007,The 40th Anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court Ruling Interracial Marriage Announcement

“When my late husband, Richard, and I got married in Washington, DC in 1958, it wasn’t to make a political statement or start a fight. We were in love, and we wanted to be married.  We didn’t get married in Washington because we wanted to marry there. We did it there because the government wouldn’t allow us to marry back home in Virginia where we grew up, where we met, where we fell in love, and where we wanted to be together and build our family. You see, I am a woman of color and Richard was white, and at that time people believed it was okay to keep us from marrying because of their ideas of who should marry whom.

When Richard and I came back to our home in Virginia, happily married, we had no intention of battling over the law. We made a commitment to each other in our love and lives, and now had the legal commitment, called marriage, to match. Isn’t that what marriage is?

Arrested in the Middle of the Night

Not long after our wedding, we were awakened in the middle of the night in our own bedroom by deputy sheriffs and actually arrested for the “crime” of marrying the wrong kind of person. Our marriage certificate was hanging on the wall above the bed.  The state prosecuted Richard and me, and after we were found guilty, the judge declared:””Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” He sentenced us to a year in prison, but offered to suspend the sentence if we left our home in Virginia for 25 years exile.  We left, and got a lawyer. Richard and I had to fight, but still were not fighting for a cause. We were fighting for our love.

Though it turned out we had to fight, happily Richard and I didn’t have to fight alone.Thanks to groups like the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and so many good people around the country willing to speak up, we took our case for the freedom to marry all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by freemen,” a “basic civil right.”

My generation was bitterly divided over something that should have been so clear and right. The majority believed that what the judge said, that it was God’s plan to keep people apart, and that government should discriminate against people in love. But I have lived long enough now to see big changes. The older generation’s fears and prejudice shave given way, and today’s young people realize that if someone loves someone they have a right to marry.

Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the “wrong kind of person” for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people civil rights.

Freedom to Marry for All

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.

For more info go to www.LovingDay.org

Mexican Weddings ~ Honoring Madrinas and Padrinos

Mexican WeddingMexican culture is recognized for hosting vibrantly colorful celebrations in the company of dear family and friends.  Weddings are no exception.  Prominently a devout Roman Catholic culture, the wedding ceremony is centered around the Mass.

Mexican weddings tend to be large with many wedding party attendants. The attendants are called Madrinas and Padrinos and they have special roles in the wedding.

A traditional couple getting married are sponsored, financially, by their Godparents, to act as Padrinos, sponsors of the wedding. They are mentors to the bride and groom throughout their engagement, and even after they are married.  The bride and groom honor them with a place in the wedding program. The Padrinos may present the couple with a rosary and a Bible during their wedding ceremony.

The flower girl and ring bearer may be dressed as miniature versions of the bride and groom. The Madrina de Ramo carries flowers for the Virgin Mary. The Madrina de Laso carries a jeweled or beaded rope that is placed around the couple as they say their vows, to symbolize their union.  The Madrina de Copas carries the wine glasses for the toast. Madrinas or Padrinos may carry a prayer book, a rosary, a guest book for signatures and an embroidered pillow to commemorate the day.

There also is a Madrina de Velacion, who the bride has chosen to turn to for guidance throughout her married life. God parents of the bride and bridegroom give the couple a prayer book, rosary, and kneeling pillow for the ceremony.

The last persons in the procession carry the recuerdos, which are remembrances, similar to wedding favors, given to the guests. In addition there can be several sets of wedding sponsors, similar to god parents, who look after the couple promising them financial and spiritual aid.

Brides in Mexico may wear a mantilla veil, or a slim dress with a bolero jacket, or even a Flamenco-style dress with ruffles at the hem. In many Latin American countries, the bride wears a light blue slip beneath her dress.  In lieu of carrying flowers she may carry a fan or a prayer book. The groom may choose a Mexican wedding shirt.

During the marriage vows, to symbolize unity, a large loop of rosary beads or a lasso is placed in a figure eight shape around the shoulders of the couple. Some couples choose to be entwined in orange blossoms as this symbolizes fertility and happiness. In some families, a double rosary lasso is also given by one set of the parents and may be blessed with holy water three times in honor of the trinity.

A special person or couple places the lasso around the shoulders of the bride and groom, groom’s shoulder’s first. The lasso may also be tied around their wrists. The couple wears the lasso throughout the remainder of the service symbolizing their love which should bind the couple together every day as they equally share the responsibility of marriage for the rest of their lives.

At the end of the ceremony, the lasso is removed by either the couple which placed the lasso on the couple, or the priest. Traditionally, the lasso is given to the Bride as a memento.

It is customary for a Mexican groom to give his wife a wedding present of thirteen gold coins, which are then blessed by the priest during the marriage ceremony. This gesture represents the groom’s commitment to support his new wife.  Couples who choose to be more modern will each exchange gold coins.

A truly touching tradition during the ceremony happens when the Bride places a special bouquet at the feet of the Virgin of Guadalupe image to thank and pray for their marriage.

Most weddings will end with mariachis as a part of the recessional.  As the newlyweds leave the church, red beads may be tossed at them, to bring good luck. The reception is always family oriented and festive. Everyone is presumed to be invited.

This Day I Married My Best Friend

This day I married my best friend~Author Unknown

This day I married my best friend

…the one I laugh with as we share life’s wondrous zest,

as we find new enjoyments and experience all that’s best.

… the one I live for because the world seems brighter

as our happy times are better and our burdens feel much lighter.

… the one I love with every fiber of my soul.

We used to feel vaguely incomplete, now together we are whole.

John Ridley for Americans for Marriage Equality

Author John Ridley and a majority of Americans support marriage equality.

John Ridley is an Emmy Award winning commentator and writer for Esquire and Time magazines as well as a contributor to CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR.

He is the author of seven published novels. The most recent of which is What Fire Cannot Burn. Collectively, his works have been chosen as editor’s picks or “best of the year” by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly and the Baltimore Sun.

Ridley is the Founding Editor of That Minority Thing (www.thatminoritything.com), a nonpartisan website that provides news and opinions in support of a wide range of voices, including ethnic, racial, religious, disabled, gender, and sexual minorities.