Generally this was done in the presence of a witness or witnesses. In Scotland, marriages were considered the office of the church until 1560, when marriage became a civil matter rather than a church sacrament. After that time, marriages were divided into “regular” and “irregular” marriages.
A regular marriage took place when banns were read, followed by a clergyman performing the duties of the ceremony. An irregular marriage could take place in one of three ways: a public declaration by the couple that they were husband and wife, followed by consummation of the relationship; by mutual agreement; or simply by living together and being recognized as husband and wife. As long as everyone was above the age of consent (12 for brides, 14 for grooms) and not too closely related, irregular marriages were generally considered as valid as a regular marriage.
Typically the gentry and landowners were married in the “regular” way, so there could be no question later on if the marriage was legally recognized or not — in cases of inheritance, this could be a big issue. Handfastings or irregular marriages were considered the domain of the lower class and peasants. Around the middle of the 1700s, irregular marriages were made illegal in England — but since Scotland kept the tradition, it wasn’t uncommon for an amorous British couple to elope over the border. Gretna Green became famous because it was the first town in Scotland that eloping lovers would encounter once they left England — and the Old Blacksmith’s shop there became the site of many ‘anvil weddings’, performed by the village smith.
An Old Concept, New Ideas
The word “handfasting” fell by the wayside for many years. In the 1950s, when the witchcraft lawswere repealed in England, various occultists and witches — including Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente — searched for a non-Christian term for their wedding ceremonies. They settled on “handfasting”, and the concept was resurrected within the Neopagan movement. Typically, a Pagan handfasting was meant to be a secret ceremony, held only in front of your coven or study group. As Wicca and Paganism become more mainstream, however, more and more couples are finding ways to work their Pagan and Wiccan spirituality into their marriage ceremony.
The actual term “handfasting” comes from the tradition of the bride and groom crossing arms and joining hands — basically, creating the infinity symbol (a figure-eight) with the hands. In Neopagan ceremonies, the clergyperson performing the ceremony will join the couple’s hands with a cord or ribbon during the ritual. In some traditions, the cord remains in place until the couple consummates the marriage. While some people may choose to have their handfasting be a permanent bond, others might declare it to be valid for “a year and a day“, at which point they will re-evaluate the relationship and determine whether to continue or not.
Who Can Be Handfast? Anyone!
One benefit of having a handfasting ceremony is that it because it’s not the same as a legal wedding, there are more options available to people in non-traditional relationships. Anyone can have a handfasting — same-sex couples, polyamorus families, transgender couples, etc. In Dianic Wicca, Z Budapest used the word “tryst” to refer to a ceremony for a lesbian couple.
Dormant for so long, the idea of the handfasting ceremony has enjoyed a huge rise in popularity. If you’re fortunate enough to find someone you love enough to spend your life with, you may wish to consider having a handfasting rather than a traditional wedding ceremony.