Handfasting is the name for a Wiccan and pagan wedding ceremony. Some people say it dates back to the time of the ancient Celts, but this is debatable at best. It certainly dates from 17th-Century Scotland, when it was a sort of temporary marriage intended to last a year and a day.
If the couple found they weren’t compatible, then they were free to walk away, no questions asked – as long as they hadn’t had sex. In those days, if they had sex during their betrothal period, that was it! They were married for life.
The time frame “a year and a day” is one that’s frequently seen in myths and legends. It also has a big presence in common law, especially in the Medieval laws of Britain. If a serf could run away from his lord for a year and a day, he became a free man. A death couldn’t be classified as murder if it happened more than a year and day from the discovery of the body or the beginning of the inquest into the death.
The souls of the dead in Voudoun are said to go into the water for a year and a day before they move on in the afterlife. Similarly, a year and a day was often the period of time that a knight in legend was given to complete a quest. Wiccans study for a year and a day before they can be initiated into the Craft.
In the Mabinogion, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, offends Arawn, the god of the underworld, and is forced to trade places with him for a year and a day. It’s a very symbolic and important span of time.
Today, handfasting has been conflated with marriage and is no longer seen as a temporary union. Usually handfasting takes place within the context of a larger, more traditional wedding rite. Even Christians have taken to using handfasting as part of their wedding ceremonies.
The central theme of handfasting is that the couple joins hands, and then the officiant or an attendant binds their hands together with special cords. This symbolizes that the two are now one, and that they are joined together for the term of their agreement. Handfasting vows now usually say that they will last “for as long as love shall last” instead of a year and a day.
There is magic in the cords that are used. These cords are usually three, six or nine feet in length. These are sacred numbers, being the number of the Triple Goddess and powers thereof. The cords themselves should be made of a natural material, like silk, hemp or wool.
Different variations on Paganism have rules about how long the cords can be, what color they can be, and which hands are clasped and how. Mostly, those are details that can be decided upon by the couple themselves.
To work cord magic for a handfasting, you need to start with the basic materials, which in case is several strands of cord or yarn or ribbon, whatever it is that you’ve decided upon using. The colors can be significant and should be chosen carefully. In the “old” days, the colors white (purity), blue (loyalty) and red (passion) were used.
Today you can use any color you’d like, as long as you understand that colors carry energies and can interact with a spell. The color meanings are more or less the same as they are for candle magic, which was the subject of an earlier post.
White: The Goddess, spirituality, purity, peace
Red: Fire, passion, sexuality, power
Blue: Water, patience, communication, peace
Green: Earth, fertility, abundance, money
Gold: The God, wealth, royalty, masculine power
Yellow: Air, intelligence, the sun, imagination
Pink: Love, affection, romance, healing
Purple: Royalty, success, wisdom, success
Orange: Attraction, adaptability, good luck, encouragement
Black: Protection, magic, secrets, night
Decide on your colors and get nine-foot strands. Knot one end to keep it secure, then start braiding. As you braid, concentrate on the things you want to manifest and the gods or goddesses whose help you’re requesting.
The gods of love are always a good choice, as are the goddesses of hearth and home. Focus on your patron – the god you’re invoking – and on your intention. Start braiding.
The braids can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like, but generally speaking, there is one vow or one wish per strand. If you have seven strands, then wish seven blessings for the couple. If you have three strands, the same is true.
As you work your braid, concentrate your mind and your intention – for all magic is intention – on the things you want the most for the couple.
As you braid, chant or sing your request. It’s all right if the words aren’t the same every time. Your spirit will know when a slight deviation needs to be made for the sake of detail, but the intention will remain the same.
Because braiding is a rhythmic act, and because spells are often cast using rhyme, it’s not a bad idea to sing or chant your spell out loud.
Now the cord is ready for the ceremony.
A Pagan handfasting ceremony is made up of several steps, some of which are familiar to anyone who’s worked magic.
The first step is the invitation to the circle. The officiant invites the couple to come together, and they enter the sacred space from different directions. The officiant welcomes them and the people who have gathered to witness the ceremony.
The officiant casts the circle, magically inscribing the circular boundary of the sacred and magical space that will contain the ritual. The circle should be large enough to surround the couple, the officiant and the altar completely. It can also be large enough to encompass the onlookers, but with a large guest list, that’s pretty difficult.
Once the circle is cast, the officiant will ask the couple if they are there of their own free will, and if they are aware of the commitment they are about to make. Once they confirm that they truly intend to be together, and that they are there to make their promises with open hearts and of their own accord, the ceremony can proceed. (Remember, free will is very important in Paganism.)
The couple and the officiant will face in the cardinal directions and Call the Quarters. Once the elemental powers are present, the officiant should welcome the God and Goddess to come and imbue their spirit into the couple who are about to unite.
It’s not important if the couple isn’t heterosexual – two women or two men can be one with the God and Goddess just as much as a straight couple can. It’s symbolic, not literal. The God and Goddess interact as give and take, the balance of action and reaction, energy and peace, giving and receiving. It’s about balance.
The God and Goddess are evoked in the symbolic recreation of the Great Rite. One of the couple (usually the woman) holds a chalice. The other half of the couple (usually the man) holds a sword or dagger. The tip of the dagger is gently put into the chalice, symbolizing the God and Goddess uniting as one as the couple is seeking to do.
The symbology is exceedingly sexual, and that’s no accident. Paganism is a nature religion, and that includes fertility. Marriage is a union that by definition involves sexuality, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is no more primal energy and no greater power, especially in the formation of a love union.
Once the Divine has been evoked, the rings are consecrated and vows are exchanged. There are no set vows that are required, and this is a place where the couple’s own creativity can come to the fore. Traditional western vows are certainly appropriate, but any vow is right, as long as it’s heartfelt.
Now comes the binding. The couple clasp hands, and unless the religion they follow has specific rules, it doesn’t really matter how they do it. I’ve seen left hand to left hand, right hand to right hand, right hand to left hand, and both hands.
The cord that was braided with such intent and spell power is then consecrated and used to bind the couple’s hands together in a figure-eight motion. This is the infinity symbol, and it shows that the couple intends to be together forever.
Their hands are bound by the officiant, or a parent, or a friend. The words of the blessing can vary, and there are a lot of really lovely examples that you can find on line. In fact, there are a lot of handfasting resources out there, since it’s becoming so mainstream.
After the knot is tied, then the couple is blessed, and in thanksgiving they share cakes and ale in the Wiccan tradition, or a pinch of salt and a bite of bread and a sip of wine.
The Deities are thanked and released, as are the elements. The circle is broken, and then the couple can jump the broom and head to their reception.
Jumping the Broom
The tradition of jumping the broom originated among the Romani people in Wales. It was called a besom wedding, and it originated because the officials in the area didn’t recognize Romani ceremonies. It was a sexual symbol referencing the unity about to take place. The handle of the broom is phallic, and the broom straws are skirt-shaped, and the two come together, and… you get the picture.
Jumping the broom became associated with African Americans because of the dreadful institution of slavery. Slaves were not allowed to wed, and if a couple fell in love, they ran the risk of being punished if they attempted to start a life together.
To solve this, they would hold hands and jump over a broom. The ceremony was fast, could be concealed as part of household chores, and it was a symbol that was known to all of the people that were there to acknowledge the couple’s union.
There are people who feel that white people jumping the broom is an example of cultural appropriation. In America, most people associate broom -jumping with slavery, and their protective attitude toward the tradition is understandable.
In Britain and Europe, though, the tradition is maintained as a call back to the pre-Christian days, and to the pre-Christian ways of the Roma. It has become popular among witches and other Pagans, as the broom is also a symbol of witchcraft.
If you choose to jump the broom, by all means, include it in your handfasting. Just be prepared for some backlash if some of your guests take it the wrong way.
The last consideration is whether or not handfasting is considered legal marriage. This depends entirely upon the location where the ceremony is being held and the officiant who is conducting the rite.
In different jurisdictions, a handfasting performed by an ordained and licensed minister, preacher or priest is legal, as long as the couple have obtained the requisite marriage license and done their duty as far as civic law is concerned. In other places, handfasting is never considered a “true” marriage ceremony, and the person officiating needs to be a Justice of the Peace or a licensed clergy member who will also perform a legal ceremony.
Research is your friend in this case. Be certain what your local laws require. If you’re concerned about it, you can include a portion of the handfasting ritual – specifically the tying of the cord – in a traditional wedding ceremony. In that case, the binding is usually conducted right after the vows and before the couple is announced.
Some people have their handfasting on one occasion and then, a year and a day later, they “get legalled” and have a civil wedding ceremony to seal the deal. This is possibly the most faithful interpretation of the original intention of the handfasting as a betrothal ceremony.
I’ve attended a number of handfasting ceremonies, and it’s always a lovely experience. The happiness of the couple, the loving presence of the God and Goddess, and the good wishes of the onlookers combine with the sacred circle to build up a large quantity of positive energy. As a blessing and gratitude, some of the ceremonies end by the attendees and the couple directing that positive energy back to the earth as healing energy.
That’s a beautiful gift, and a loving way to celebrate the start of a new family.