Handfasting is the word used by ancient Celts to describe their traditional trial marriage ceremonies. It is also a term used to describe an engagement or a betrothal. It was and is a ceremony in which the couple declare publicly their intentions. Handfasting is used today by many Pagans, Neo-Pagans, Wiccans, or just plain romantic people. Originally handfasting was an agreement of marriage for a year and a day, or another set period of time, a trial marriage (if you will) to see if the couple would like to re-marry after the end of the agreed period of time or to go their separate ways. We still use expressions today that have their origins in the ancient handfasting rituals, such as "getting hitched", "tying the knot", "joining hands", and "legally bound".
This was the way many ancient pre-Christians were married. In that time, it was up to the community to oversee the events and contracts between its citizens, until the Church stepped in and took over this duty for the people.
The very word "handfasting" has its' origins in the wedding custom of literally tying the bride and grooms hands together. This was taken from the custom of shaking hands over a contract to bind it. During the ceremony the bride and groom might face each other and then place, first, their right hands together, then their left, to form the symbol of "infinity" while a cord is used to tie their wrists together. In ancient times the cord was not untied until the marriage was consummated. If a handfasting was performed with the two left hands together without the tying of the knot literally, as was the custom of some of the rich German Nobility, it meant that the woman was a recognized mistress, but would not be able to lay claim to either the name, property or inheritance of her betrothed, living only under the protection of her man while he was alive, his legal first wife would be the only one to gain the benefits. However, her offspring would be taken care of so the name of the game was to have as many children as possible, to provide some sort of security for this lesser wife in her old age. It is important to understand that in Brehon (ancient Irish) Law the contract was intended to protect the property and the rights of the party to ensure that the offspring were properly recognized.
On a more romantic note, this ceremony is rich with tradition. The Modern couple might choose to incorporate many of the ancient traditions of Handfasting into their wedding. The bride may choose to wear red, and a circle may be formed on the ground with rocks, crystals or some other markings. Candles will be placed to mark the four cardinal directions. An altar is placed in the center of the circle only big enough to hold the marriage documents, a knife, a cloth , rope or ribbon, a small silver box and a trowel. There is also a broomstick that is laid beside the altar. Wild flowers are spread inside the circle. The betrothed couple will enter east of the circle wearing circlets of flowers, while the family and friends stand around the circle. The priest or priestess may ask the couple a question in challenge, after answering, the bride and groom declare their intent and love for each other so that they are one in the eyes of the "God and Goddess" and in the eyes of the family and friends present. They might cut off locks of hair to place in the silver box. This symbolizes their future relationship, one as intimate as the mixing of their hairs. They then pick up the trowel and bury this box together at the center of the circle. At the end of the ceremony, they sign the documents, and then jump over the broomstick, this symbolizes the effort required to make a commitment and make things work together. There are many other rituals that can be added to this beautiful ceremony and ancient tradition. No matter which way you choose to have a handfasting, it is a wonderful ceremony.