Explaining a Handfasting

May 26, 2015
A pagan ceremony

Judging by the questions I get asked, a lot of people really don’t know what a handfasting is. I therefore hope it will be helpful if I say a few words about it. It forms a central part in pagan ceremonies, but is often chosen as a colourful “extra” in a traditional wedding.

It may be something you would like to consider.


Handfastings originated in Celtic times, but began as a marriage rite in the Middle Ages. When peasants married, they might have been unable to afford a clergyman’s fee to hear their vows or a ring to signify their love. The ritual of handfasting became a popular alternative.

A cord was wrapped round the wrists of the couple and left on them until their union was consummated. It would usually be kept afterwards as a tangible reminder and proof of their commitment and love.

This ceremony has, of course, given us the expression “tying the knot”.

Present-day Ceremony

Nowadays, the cord symbolises the pair’s mutual love. The way a handfasting can be slipped in to a traditional-type wedding is as follows, although this is only a suggestion, and it will be different for a full pagan ceremony.

  • Walking down the aisle to be given away by the father
  • Officiant welcome
  • Address about the meaning of love (possibly from a religious slant, if that’s wanted)
  • Optionally, the couple’s ‘story’
  • Here, or after the Handfasting, or at both times, a song or a reading/poem
  • Handfasting
  • Possibly, a Unity Candle, Sand Ceremony or Chalice ritual
  • Exchange of Rings/Vows
  • Jumping the Broom (not actually pagan, but deriving from wedding ceremonies conducted by slaves in the American South), now used to symbolise sweeping in the new as the new home is created
  • Concluding words


As a celebrant, my favourite handfasting was part-pagan, part-Jewish containing rituals from both sides. Of course, I explained the symbolism for those unfamiliar with the other’s practices, so everyone could understand, and this worked really well to create a warm atmosphere. For example, the bride walked round the groom seven times while the groom recited his wife’s virtues (Jewish tradition), before we did the pagan handfasting.

It was a totally unique occasion – absolutely perfect for the couple and – clearly – for the guests too.

It’s something your civil celebrant will be able to advise you about.

If you want to add extra sparkle and personality to your big day, you could do a lot worse than try a handfasting.