Long ago, the contract of marriage consisted of a clasping of hands and a public agreement by the couple to live together as husband and wife. This was followed, of course, by much feasting and merrymaking. It is this clasping of hands that has given name to the term ‘hand fasting’. This act could be officiated by a member of the clergy, a prominent member of the community, by the head of the family or by the couple themselves before a gathering of their family and friends depending on the law of the land in which they lived.
As hand fasting referred to the contractual agreement rather than the relationship itself, it could take on many forms. The couple could promise to stay together forever, thus binding themselves into a permanent marriage or they could promise to marry in the future, a betrothal, or they could agree to a trial marriage for a certain amount of time. The most common time period for these trial marriages among modern Pagans seems to be a year and a day. This is a very popular measure of time in much of old Celtic folklore, which may account for its popularity, though there is no indication that this period of time was traditional for trial marriages.
Handfasting- A Pagan Wedding?
In modern times, hand fasting is a common term applied to any Pagan wedding regardless of its form. A Pagan hand fasting may or may not involve the binding of hands with cords, a practice which evolved from the original clasping of hands. Some use hand fasting in place of a traditional wedding, complete with a state marriage license, while others will forgo the legalities altogether. Still others will have a hand fasting to mark the beginning of their trial marriage or betrothal and a more ‘American’ style wedding after the trial period has expired.
For legal weddings, a marriage license must be obtained. You will need to present ID and acceptable forms vary and there will be a fee and a waiting period of a few to several days, so plan ahead. Once you have your license, you must get it signed by an ordained clergy-member or a justice of the peace or judge and (usually) two witnesses. Your officiant may have rules regarding the nature of the ceremony they perform, but the law cannot dictate the type of ceremony you have. You task is to find a legally ordained clergy who will perform the sort of ceremony you want. If you can’t, you have the option of having a separate civil ceremony in addition to your spiritual binding.
Be sure to check with your state office to make sure you know the laws for your state. For betrothals, trial marriages, and spiritual unions (those before the Gods, but not before the State) anyone may officiate, or the couple may choose to perform the ceremony themselves.
Visit http://family.findlaw.com/marriage.html for much more information.
Because of its flexibility, hand fasting is a popular choice for same-sex couples. Most of the Pagan community is welcoming of members of the LGBT community. Indeed, the Pagan community has served as a haven for many LGBT individuals who were ostracized in other religious communities, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a priest/ess willing to do your ceremony. There are some Pagans who do condemn same-sex unions on religious grounds, but these folks are rare in the community. The next person you ask will likely be much more gracious.
When I first wrote this article, same-sex marriage was not legal in the United States and this section was much longer. I am pleased to be able to shorten it with this edit. Unfortunately, same-sex unions are still not recognized by law in all countries. If there is any chance you might travel outside your home country with your spouse and children, you may wish to have the various legal documents drawn up to carry on your person to ensure that you and your spouse retain your rights to be involved in the care your children and each other should and accident or illness happen in a country where the union is not recognized. Talk to a lawyer about this.
A trial marriage is a marriage with an expiration date. A year and a day is popular and three years is not unheard of. There are no legal forms to be filled out for trial marriages as they are not legally recognized, but it is a good idea to draw up a contract to address the issue of any common property that is acquired during the trial period- Like a pre-nuptial agreement with out a marriage license. Make sure you address the issue of children in these documents; if you already have children from a previous relationship, you may need a release to allow your trial spouse to provide care for your child. It is also a good idea to draw up documents related to medical and financial decisions. These documents can expire with your trial marriage. Talk to your priest/ess and lawyer about this.
For some, the word handfasting implies a trial marriage, but this isn’t always the case. A handfasting ceremony can be part of a “permanent” and legal wedding, and it is not a requirement for a trial wedding. Any ceremony can be easily adapted for a trial marriage ceremony. The wording will just need to be changed and the invitations printed accordingly. Trial marriage ceremonies are usually much smaller than the real thing; this is probably best.
Many people decide to have a “real” wedding after the trial marriage has expired while others just renew for another year and a day, or three or seven years. Others may wish to simply go their separate ways.
Some people choose to have a handfasting ceremony as part of an engagement ceremony with the promise of a more formal, legal wedding to take place later.
The Wedding Feast
The wedding feast is the most anticipated part of the wedding. Often the ceremony is quick, and occasionally private, while the feasting that takes place afterward can go on long into the night.
Sometimes couples wish to forgo the formal ritual altogether and just have a party. This is especially true in the case of betrothals and trial marriages but is also perfectly acceptable for elopements and small, intimate ceremonies. If the ceremony was private, the couple may wish to recite their vows at the feast. You may add other ritual elements to the feast, such as family blessings, cake, toasts or others as appeals to you. And, of course, the license can be signed with great pomp, or not.
Some couples prefer to keep their weddings as close to modern tradition as possible so as not to offend their Abrahamic relations. If you follow the traditional Christian flow of a wedding, and change the wording a bit, this can work out quite well. You may wish to have your wedding outside or in a home or a hall rather than in a church. Sometimes though, we must marry in a church to please our relations. This too can often be managed with a few simple wording changes that won’t offend the officiate.
Small to medium sized ceremonies can be performed within the Circle of your own tradition. In these cases, the entire group would process in first, singing and appropriate song, followed by the wedding party who would then move to the center, or perhaps make an inner circle. These ceremonies can be very intimate and touching.
I have been approached by a number of young girls seeking hand fasting rites to be performed in private, with no witnesses and no feast, usually at the suggestion of their young man. While this can be done, of course, it sort of defeats the whole purpose of handfasting, which is to declare your intention and seal the contractual agreement before witnesses. I would be suspicious of the young men (and the young women) who suggest these things. I would be suspicious of anyone who wished to extract a vow from another and was unwilling to do it before witnesses. If you must, most ceremonies can be easily adapted for a private rite.