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.

References

(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

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

Love and Culture

Intercultural Couple Central Park“Modern love can be summed up in one quick status update: It’s complicated.  There are boundless romantic possibilities, unfettered by skin color, religion, ethnicity, class, or orientation.” begins an article titled “Love and Race” in this month’s Marie Claire.  The magazine kicks-off a three-part series on how people are meeting, dating and mating today.  It was one of those articles that at first glance, I need not delay, the issue was mine and I was going to pour over it.

Marie Claire highlights five women of culture and their stories.

Anna Holmes, a half-black, half-white women discovers her own racial blind spots, especially when it came to love.  She avoided dating darker-skinned men, assuming they were only interested in her “trophy” light skin.  She didn’t trust Caucasian men either, assuming they saw her as a novelty, as a way to sample another culture, or as a stand in for all black women.  Soon she realized that her racialization of romance was keeping her at arm’s length from deeper intimacy.

Michele Serros a Mexican-American recall’s her parent’s advice to never marry a Mexican.  Her childhood through young adult view that a Mexican husband could not provide a prosperous life for her was instilled by both of her Mexican parents.   Soon Michele had achieved, on her own, the kind of life her father said only white men could give her.  A revelation that freed her to be with the man she loved.  She eventually met a Mexican-American man and fell in love.  Antonio was a successful chef-owner of a vegan restaurant in Berkeley, California.  When she brought Antonio home to meet her dad, it was not without anticipation.  Michele’s last hurdle was overcome when it became clear to her father that Antonio broke the stereotype he and Michele’s mother perpetuated.  Michele touches upon the influence of movies such as Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law and The Wedding Planner where the young Latina marries a wealthy white man on her cousins.

Ji Hyun Lee writes about battling the “docile, hardworking lotus flower by day and sexual tiger by night” stereotype of Asian women.  Those myths might feel antiquated but from her experience, are alive and well today in some form or another in the minds of many non-Asian men.  Her experience dating outside her race has made her become more open-minded about dating Asian men.  She writes, “I’m noticing that the Korean boys who were invisible to me in high school had grown up into a handsome lot.”

Helena Andrews a young black woman investigates the statistic she finds not only offending but not entirely true that 70% of black women are single.  A hot topic in the media, this fact has been the highlight of several news stories including an entire show on Oprah.  Helen’s curiosity is peaked when she notices that she, a single black woman, was in the minority of her mostly married social network.  Many of her friends had observed the same thing.  So where was this disparaging statistic coming from she wondered?  She decided to go straight to the mother lode of demographics, the U.S. Census.  She found that while it was true that 70.5 percent of black women were never married compared with 45 percent of white women, the statistic is based on women ages 25 to 29.  A statistic she found not surprising.  She found another statistic that only 30 percent of black women were married but the data included every female from 15 years old up to 90-something.  Something else she found revealing.  Upon getting in touch with a psychology professor who analyzed census data between 2000 and 2009, she learned that his research showed that most black women eventually do marry.  Helena continues about how her own black American culture buys in to the hype and how it’s perpetuated.

Lastly, Azita Ghanizada an Afghan-American woman learns about love and tradition through both her own experience and her parent’s.  After her family flees Russian invaded Afghanistan to Vienna, Virginia she finds she isn’t the only one in her family rebelling against strict Afghan conformity.  She witnesses her parent’s loveless marriage prolonged an additional six years because of great social pressure from their Afghani community.  A divorce would “bring shame” to their family.  When she finds attention diverted to her mother’s unheard-of divorce from her father followed by her parents new found romantic lives, she finds a new kind of freedom.  “The lesson they are learning is clear: Loving someone from the same race or religion doesn’t guarantee happiness… Marriage will come when it is right.”

To read the article in full, go to the April Issue of Marie Claire

Interracial marriage hits a new high — 1 in 12

Interracial Couple
Interracial marriage in the USA reached an all-time high, about 15 percent of new marriages — or one in 12 — across the country between spouses of different races or ethnicity.

That’s amounts to 4.8 million couples, more than double the number in 1980, according to the Pew Research Center study of census data.

In addition, Pew surveyed 2,003 adults in September and found more tolerance: 43% agree that “more people of different races marrying each other has been a change for the better in our society.” Another 44% say it made no difference; 11% say it’s been a change for the worse.

But questions about race make people cautious, says sociologist Daniel Lichter of Cornell University interviewed by USA Today. “People don’t want to reveal negative attitudes that might reflect badly on them, and they tend to tell interviewers what they want to hear,” says Lichter, whose data analysis last year found similar trends in interracial marriage.

The New York Times wrote that when viewed in aggregate, interracially married newlyweds seem similar to all newlyweds. But when the pairings are broken down by sex and race, distinct patterns emerge.

White-Asian couples have the highest earning power, surpassing white-white couples and Asian-Asian couples in median income. And among Hispanics and blacks, those who marry outside their race are more likely to have college degrees. There are gender disparities as well: black men marry outside the race at a far higher rate than black women. But the opposite is true of Asians: women marry outside the race at a higher rate than men.

States including Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico and California, were among the most likely to have couples who “marry out” — more than 1 in 5 — according to the Associated Press. The figure reflected the higher concentrations of Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

Daniel Lichter, a sociology professor at Cornell University told the AP that the results indicated improved race relations in America, while mixed-race marriages and the children they produced were blurring “America’s color line.”

“Mixed-race children have blurred America’s color line. They often interact with others on either side of the racial divide and frequently serve as brokers between friends and family members of different racial backgrounds.”

May Day Dream on Cherry Hill

Nestled into the gentle slope of Cherry Hill, the bride’s mother sang “Over The Rainbow” a capella to about sixty guests as the best man carefully passed to each person in attendance the couple’s wedding rings.  One by one, the guests held the rings tied together by a Caribbean blue silk ribbon and infused them with blessings and well wishes.   Once all the guests had a chance to hold their rings, I blessed them one more time and noted to the couple, “Carolyn and Roger, your rings have been infused with love by those you hold so dearly to your hearts.  From this day forward, when you look at your rings, not only remember the love you share with each other but the love your share with those here today. ”

Todd and I first met Carolyn and Roger when they came to our home to see about officiating their wedding.  I was impressed with how wise this couple seemed and how open and friendly they were.  Later I found out that they were looking for more than an officiant, but someone with whom they could make a real connection with.  They talked about how dear their friends were and how they love to entertain guests in their home.  Friends are truly important to Carolyn and Roger and they wanted their ceremony to reflect that.

They chose to be married on a bright, sunny day in Central Park; one of those days that can only describe as just gorgeous.  The park for them represented so much of their relationship.  Quite regularly they would take walks through the park.  It is where there they connect with each other and to nature; kind of a spiritual encounter.  The previous Easter Sunday, Roger had proposed to Carolyn at Shakespeare Garden.  They intentionally chose not to get married inside a church because as Roger put it, it was the “most boringest thing ever” he said with such matter-of-factness that we all had a good laugh.  Instead they like to find the spirit of things anywhere they go.  They commented that when they are together, they are like childhood playmates.  They wake up every day already laughing, they told me.

Not just the location but their wedding date had personal significance.  Carolyn loves celebrating May Day with all the flowers, ribbons and lights.  To commemorate May 1st, after the ceremony guests waived ribbon wands in colors lemon yellow and Caribbean blue.  Their wedding day was marked by the New Moon of Ashwini Nakshatra, an auspicious day for marriage in the Hindu Vedic tradition.

Among the many touching moments of this couple’s wedding day was the moment after Carolyn arrived at Cherry Hill with her mother via Pedi Cab.  Roger went out to greet the two.  As Carolyn’s mother made her procession to the ceremony, Roger and Carolyn took a moment to simply be with each other and enjoy the moment.  Together, they then walked hand-in-hand down the center of the assembly as Roger’s mother played her violin.  She was so happy to be performing at her son’s wedding.

Once the ceremony began, tears started to roll.  Many of the couple’s friends and family were so unspeakably happy for them.  The bridesmaids wore Robin’s egg blue and gold summer dresses with gold pumps and pale blue pashminas.  One of the bridesmaids was a long time friend of Carolyn’s who she hadn’t seen in ten years. Vibrant neckties in Caribbean paired with bright yellow flower boutonnieres wrapped in matching blue silk ribbon made a striking image wherever the groomsmen gathered.  The bride looked stunning in a retro style dress she had specially made for the occasion.  Peeking out from underneath her wide swing skirt were layers of soft peach-pink tulle.  If you looked closely, you could see scatters of tiny fabric flowers gently cast along her portrait neckline that so flattered Carolyn’s shoulders.  I love great design and this dress was a work of art.

To honor Roger’s Filipino heritage and Carolyn’s Celtic roots, they chose to represent their backgrounds with a fasting ritual that melded the Filipino cord ceremony with the Celtic hand fasting ceremony.  Both traditions draw upon the symbolism of binding two unique individuals to each other.  In the Filipino tradition, the cords are draped over the couple’s shoulders.  In the Philippines, it is a great honor to be chosen to place the cords over the couple.  In the Celtic tradition, hands are fasted together by a cloth that holds significant meaning; many times it’s the groom’s tartan.  While the cord lay over Roger and Carolyn’s shoulders, the couple recited traditional Celtic vows.  In both traditions and as was the case that day, the cord was wrapped in a figure eight symbolizing eternity and loosely draped to symbolize that neither is restricted by the other and that the binding is only enforced by both their wills.

After signing their marriage license, something they choose to make part of their ceremony, their ceremony ending with a nuptial kiss.  There was no formal recessional instead guests mingled, pictures were taken and everyone eventually jumped into a yellow cab and headed to the reception including Todd and myself.

It was a beautiful ceremony on a beautiful day filled with creativity, love, family and good friends.