The Art of Handfasting

Handfasting Ceremony

What is Handfasting?

Handfasting is a beautiful, symbolic marriage ceremony, or ritual, and is believed to span several cultures dating back thousands of years. However, it is widely accepted as being of ancient Celtic origin and a nature-related ritual with a spiritual tradition. The phrase ‘tying the knot!’ and the action of shaking someone’s hand to agree on something, are probably derived from this action of binding the couples hands together, often with coloured ribbon or cord to symbolise their union of love.

Beautiful words are spoken by the Wedding Celebrant before, during and after the ceremony which adds real romance and significance, making it very special!

Hands can be joined by crossing them or side by side and the ceremony is used by all types of couples as a lovely addition to their modern Celebrant led wedding ceremony, irrespective of religious belief or cultural traditions.

The history of Handfasting.

The true origin of handfasting is not known, but the typical modern handfasting ceremony is derived from the Celtic tradition, predating Christianity. It is a historical term for the word wedding and as couples in Celtic England could not wander down the high street to buy a gold ring, they used handfasting as their marriage ceremony. Gold bands were also the preserve of the aristocracy, so the relatively simple, but highly symbolic ritual of handfasting, was much more affordable. 

Couples would pledge their intent and love by binding their wrists with strips of fabric torn from old garments, or cord from rope to symbolise their union and would then be tied till midnight. They would often then be escorted to the bedchamber to consummate their union. This part of the ceremony is clearly not necessary in the 21st century, and I have never been asked to stay and carry out this duty!

It was considered that if the couple survived the obstacles of life for the rest of the day then surely they would survive in marriage together. In the Scottish Celtic tradition, the binding would be for a year and a day and if after that they still wanted to stay together the handfasting was formally recognised as their wedding ceremony.

We offer couples this symbolic ceremony option and often ask them a very important question at the end of the ceremony, ‘do you wish me to remove your bindings of love?’

Handfasting Glenda 5

Is Handfasting popular?

A modern day Medieval Celtic Handfasting is a beautiful romantic gesture, shared between couples, to celebrate their love, in engagement, commitment to be together or to celebrate the number of years they have spent together. Handfasting has become increasingly popular in recent years. Handfasting in modern times can be celebrated and more importantly performed in several different styles in any location.

The styles of Handfasting vary from a simple inclusion of the tying of hands within a traditional wedding ceremony to a Handfasting held in a sacred site such as within stone circles as Stonehenge or Avebury Circle for example.

The popularity of Handfasting has been brought to the forefront of public knowledge due to its depiction on TV and in films. The 1995 film, ‘Braveheart’ shows William Wallace played by Mel Gibson and Murron the love of his life being joined in a union of love in a Handfasting ceremony. Games of Thrones has also shown wedding scenes that include Handfasting and quite recently a major British soap held a Handfasting between two key characters.

With the growth and popularity of festivals including Glastonbury, many couples are creating WEDFESTS or LOVEFESTS in fields and woodlands or forests and private grounds to celebrate their love.

Choosing to have a ‘mash’ of both traditional and ancient ceremonies is a great option for many couples torn between the two. After all, so much of the tradition of Handfasting is steeped in folklore and legend and open to modern interpretations. A modern Handfasting permits licence to create the perfect ceremony for you.

What happens at a Handfasting ceremony?

During the handfast, the couple will have their hands tied together, binding them into their new future as one. 

The celebration will be woven into the rest of the ceremony, accompanied by the beautiful, unique words of the wedding Celebrant before, during and after the handfasting. 

How to tie a Handfasting knot.

There are many different ways to tie a Handfasting knot – some are more like soft wraps while others are tight knots!

Some of the most common wraps are:

  • “The Gift” Handfasting knot
  • “The Drape” Handfasting knot
  • “The Wrap” Handfasting knot
  • “The Wrap, Release and Pull” Handfasting knot
  • “The Loose” Handfasting knot
  • “The Discrete” Handfasting knot
  • “Side by Side” Handfasting knot

Here, Jane Bechtel shows us how each knot looks (and how to do it!).

Not every Celebrant is experienced in Handfasting – it’s important that you chat to them about your expectations for the Ceremony to make sure they are the right person for the job.

How many cords are in a Handfasting ceremony?

There is no set rule for how many cords you can use in a Handfasting ceremony; however, three is the most popular amount, as it allows the couple to braid the cords together.

If you choose to use just one cord, it is recommended that you choose a fabric that is a minimum of one to two metres long so that it can loop around your hands and wrists.

What do the colours of Handfasting cords mean?

The colours you choose for your Handfasting ceremony reveal a huge deal about you as a couple; you can use the colours to add another poignant layer to the ceremony.

Some different ways you can use colour in the ribbons and cords of your handfasting include:

  • Your past, present and future – every colour or fabric will represent a different period
  • Your dreams, hopes and adventures as a couple
  • Special people in your life – for example, if you have children they could be symbolised with one colour, your parents with another and so on
  • Your personalities – you could have a yellow ribbon to express the joy in your partnership, a red for the passion, blue for the deep, thoughtful emotions 
  • Any promises that you are making for your marriage, such as gold for success or green for exploring the natural world as one
  • Any faith communities that you hold dearly
  • … or it could even just be in line with your wedding colour scheme!

Another huge benefit of tapping into the different colours and fabrics of your Handfasting is that this can then be used as inspiration for your vows or promise to one another, bringing the entire ceremony together seamlessly.

Who can conduct a Handfasting?

The spiritual beliefs and cultural and social background of each couple will generally determine the style of Handfasting conducted and the component parts that are included. Finding a celebrant who can perform a Handfasting in the style a couple seek is paramount. I suggest they speak with them in person, ask lots of questions and then make their choice.

Handfasting is a beautiful loving gesture and offers a very visual addition to the ceremony with a physical reminder in the form of the bindings. It is a very symbolic way to remember it and ‘ties the knot’, binding you in love to one another, in front of all of your loved ones. Creative and memorable keepsakes can also be part of the ceremony such as a signed commemorative certificate as proof that you have partaken in an ancient medieval Celtic Handfasting.

Handfasting ceremony script.

The beauty of a Handfasting ceremony – especially when it is led by a Celebrant – is that it gives you the space and freedom to layout your wedding however you please.

But if you’re looking for some inspiration, here is an example script for how to structure your Handfasting wedding ceremony.

  • Processional and music
  • Welcome and Statement of Intention
  • First Reading
  • Second Reading
  • Presentation of the Handfasting cords or ribbons
  • Handfasting ritual 
  • Exchange of Vows
  • Declaration of Marriage
  • Closing
  • Recessional and music

We’ve also collected a few ‘favourite scripts’ from our team of Celebrants.

Are there any other traditions that go alongside a Handfasting?

Following the binding and tying of the hands, the couple may choose to partake in ‘Cake and Ale’ with a ceremony to toast their health and happiness and to symbolize the beginning of their life together. Traditionally, ale was drunk but this can be any beverage of choice. Some couples drink cider, beer, wine, mead, well water and cold tea! A special two handled Scottish quaich or loving cup is traditionally used but also goblets and animal horns have been presented to me. The cake can vary too from individual cupcakes to larger cakes being cut and shared with guests.

A Handfasting ceremony may also have a traditional ‘Jumping a besom broom’  ceremony to signify the creation of a hearth and home together. The tradition of jumping the broom has long associations with marriage and cohabitation in not only Europe but Africa and America.  Couples have also made their own besom broom.

Handfasting Jumping Broom

How can we personalise a Handfasting ceremony?

As with all ceremonies, couples can choose beautiful traditional Celtic readings and have music played on lute, harp or drum.  The couple set the tone and mood of their ceremony by the choices they make. Handfasting can be created to be both sincere and reverent, nature related and spiritual as well as fun and inclusive. Guests can end the ceremony by counting the couple down to jumping over the besom broom. Culminating in the throwing of rose petals or breadcrumbs.

Handfasting has changed since its original inception, and today couples are being creative and imaginative in where and how they prepare and decorate the space for the ceremony. Much imagination can also be used in representing earth’s four elements. Some couples ‘go large’ and have a real fire pit and wind chime in the trees. Others rely on my elemental table where a candle burns and feathers or a bell represent air.

Couples selecting their Celebrant should be supported throughout the creating of their Handfasting. They should ideally be sent choices of suitable readings, vows, pledges and words of endearment to create the love, warmth and energy of their Handfasting.

If you think a Handfasting is for you then set about planning yours. Be creative. Be imaginative. Be inspiring. Be yourselves!  

Find your perfect Celebrant for your Handfasting ceremony by browsing our Celebrant Directory.

Handfasting Glenda 4

Celebrant and Photographer Credit: Deborah Page, Glenda Procter and Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Jennifer Claire is the Founder of The Celebrant Directory and lives and breathes all things ceremony! After officiating big days for 10 years, she now focuses on giving you the tips you need to create your perfect celebration.

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