Handfasting is a beautiful, ancient marriage ritual, which has found a new fresh expression in modern weddings and commitment ceremonies. It involves tying a couple’s hands together, binding them as one in love and in their new life. Handfasting is a meaningful and incredibly versatile ritual. It can be done in all kinds of ways, to suit every couple in different venues. You can choose your ribbons to express your personality and everything that’s important to you – or quite simply, to fit the theme and colour scheme of the day.
What is the origin of handfasting?
The word comes from Old Norse ‘handfesta’ which means making a bond or striking a deal, by the joining of hands. The word became ‘handfasting’ in Old English, as spoken by the Anglo-Saxons and it evolved to mean the joining of hands in marriage.
Like other traditional practices, handfasting was absorbed into church ritual. These days, at a church wedding, you’ll still see a form of handfasting. After the couple has said their vows, the priest will wrap their hands together in the stole he/she’s wearing and say the traditional and rather wonderful words: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder”.
Who chooses a handfasting?
The answer is anyone and everyone – there are no boundaries of age, belief, style or tradition. You might think it’s just for pagans, or medieval re-enacters but a handfasting suits a stately home wedding as much as a festival wedding. If a handfasting appeals to you – go for it! There are so many ways to make it your own.
Handfasting for a wedding, commitment ceremony or renewal of vows
A handfasting can form part of a wedding, commitment ceremony or a renewal of vows. It can feature with or without a legal marriage or an exchange or rings.
Within a wedding, a handfasting adds an extra dimension to the sealing of your vows. Other members of the family or the bridal party can get involved.
For a commitment ceremony, handfasting is a significant, modern way to express your love, regardless of whether you ever want to be married. You don’t need to exchange rings – just bring your desire to be committed.
If you want to renew your vows, a handfasting enriches your original marriage ceremony, without taking away or replacing. We can use vows and colours from your wedding day, or do something that reflects who you are now. On a practical note, a handfasting allows you to keep your wedding rings on. That might not seem a big issue but speaking personally, after 20 years of marriage, my wedding ring is a lot snugger than it used to be!
How does a handfasting work?
At the heart of the ceremony, either during the marriage vows, or just after, the wedding couple will join hands. With this gesture, they are signalling their wish to be united in marriage. I wrap their clasped hands with the handfasting ribbons and say the blessing words. Afterwards, I slide the ribbons off, forming a knot and in this way, the couple has literally “tied the knot”.
And then everyone applauds!
What do you need for a handfasting?
Firstly, you don’t need to use ribbons – you can use cords, braids, lace or ribbons plaited together. If you have crafty or artistic friends who want to paint/knit/crochet/embroider your ribbons, that would be incredible wouldn’t it? Any kind of textile, or fabric which wraps around your hands will work well. You might use upholstery silk skeins, climbing ropes or even garden twine!
Whatever you choose, your ribbons need to be at least 1.5 metres in length. You can have as many ribbons as you like – often three are used but there are no rules. It looks good if the ribbons are similar width, which presents an even finish when they are tied. If you like, you can sew charms onto the ribbons to make them even more personal.
You can create the ribbons yourself, or you can hunt out specialist suppliers. I have a particular weakness for ribbon shops. The creative, colourful world of VV Rouleaux is like heaven to me!
If you prefer cords, Ceotha based in Edinburgh offers beautiful hand-crafted cords including the beach-themed ones below.
Can family and friends be part of a handfasting?
Yes – absolutely! I love it when people close to the couple want to get involved. You could ask your family or friends to choose your handfasting ribbons – whatever they feel expresses something about you as a couple. Alternatively, the ribbons can represent their wishes or blessings for your marriage. During the ceremony, they can be responsible for the ribbons and lay them over your arms. They may wish to say something about their choice. They can even tie the knot for you, with a bit of practice first!
Inspiration for your handfasting ribbons
You don’t need to be creative to make wonderful handfasting ribbons – you just need to decide on a theme for them. Start with the most important people and passions in your life and go from there. To help you get inspired, here are some things that your handfasting ribbons might express:
- Your past, present and future – represented in colours or different fabrics
- Your personalities eg yellow for happy, blue for thoughtful, red for passionate, silver for fun
- Promises for your marriage eg fur fabric for nurturing; elastic for trust; climbing cord for courage; gold ribbon for success and so on
- Shared passions eg a paw print ribbon for your love of your pets, a glittery one for your good times, the colours of your favourite sports team
- Your dreams, hopes and adventures
- The colours of your wedding scheme
- Special people – a ribbon for your children, grandchildren and so on
- Social, sports groups or faith communities that mean a lot to you
- Souvenirs from your travels, like these fabrics below, from Guatemala
There are so many ideas. Have fun thinking what would work perfectly for you! I will love helping you with suggestions too if I am your celebrant.
After the wedding and honeymoon is over, you can keep your ribbons in a memory box, frame them, or rework them into something else. I love the thought of the ribbons woven through a twisted willow wreath. I have a super-creative couple getting married next year and they are going to make a Welcome Home wreath with their handfasting ribbons. It will all be decorated with beads and charms, which sounds amazing. I can’t wait to see it!