MJB writes: “Some Wiccan friends of mine were recently married in a ritual called handfasting. What exactly is this and is it Christian?”
Handfasting is definitely not Christian. It is a pagan ceremony of Celtic origin that is used by couples to enter into a kind of temporary marriage lasting for one year and a day, an agreement that can then be made permanent if both spouses agree.
Handfasting is said to have originated in the Celtic lands of Scotland and Northern England and is how couples in the pre-Catholic period announced their commitment to one another. Normally made for a year and a day, after this time the couple was free to exit the agreement and choose another mate, or to make the commitment permanent. The practice was largely suppressed in 664 when Catholicism became the dominant religion in the region.
Today, the custom is popular with Wiccans and other neopagans who create their own handfasting rituals. They are not considered to be legal arrangements unless the couple files for a license according to the applicable laws of their state and the officiating person holds a valid license issued by the government to perform marriages.
The ceremonies vary, but most have the same basic characteristics. For instance, the ritual usually takes place outside with the couple standing inside a circle made of rocks or other markers. The circle is traditionally large enough to handle the entire wedding party and guests. Candles mark the four “cardinal” directions and an altar is usually erected near the center of the circle. This altar is large enough to hold a knife, chalice, cloth, rope or ribbon, a small silver box and a trowel. A broomstick is laid on the ground beside the altar.
The bridal couple are not usually clothed in traditional wedding garments and both wear crowns of flowers. After the presider rings a bell three times to indicate the start of the ceremony, the two enter the circle from the east, which is the direction of the sunrise. The presider asks if anyone present is aware of any reason why the two should not be joined, after which the couple pledges that they have come of their own free will. They exchange rings while reciting a statement of commitment to one another.
The presider then asks them to drink from the same cup, first separately, and then together to symbolize the need to be separate individuals but still a couple. A cord or ribbon is then loosely tied around their joined hands, representing the commitment just made. This part of the ritual is the origin of the expression, “to tie the knot.”
With their hands still bound, the couple reads a statement of love to one another after which time the bonds are removed. They then cut off a lock of each other’s hair which is put into a silver box and buried in the center of the circle as a symbol of their future relationship. After all of the formalities are finished, the couple joins hands and jumps over a broomstick which is symbolic of the effort required to make a committed relationship work.
The bell is rung once again and the couple walks clockwise around the circle, greeting their family and friends. A feast similar to any other wedding reception generally follows.