HANDFASTING – A SYMBOLIC CEREMONY WITH A LONG HISTORY
The ceremonial tying of knots is another additional ceremony to the wedding that has become popular and fashionable in recent years. The tying of the knot, in addition to the ring, is seen as a symbolic reinforcement of the vows that the couple have just made.
In this ritual a couple reaches for and join their hands together, sometimes one hand each but often both hands. A cord or ribbon is loosely draped or tied around these as either the celebrant recites a few important words, or as the couple make some personal vows to each other.
This amazing and intimate ceremony of the binding of the cords and the vows gives additional theatrical impact to the promise making and every couple should be encouraged to be as creative as possible in making it unique to their own style and story – And that’s the beauty of a celebrant led ceremony, you get to have a ceremony that you want, you way.
Forest green – wide weave celtic cord – 15 strand hand fasting wedding ribbons with tree of life charms – Image from Etsy seller ‘Thetoadstoolgarden’
HANDFASTING – A BRIEF HISTORY
The ancient practice of handfasting has given us the well known phrases of: “Tying the knot” and “The Bonds of Matrimony”. According to Wikipedia: “Handfasting is a history term for “betrothal” or “wedding”. In the Early modern history of Scotland (16th and 17th centuries), especially in the Hebrides, the term could also refer to a temporary marriage”.
So, in the late 18th century, they believed that Handfasting involved the trial marriage of a couple, which would last for a year and a day. At this point they could decide whether to officially marry or whether they’d rather part ways. During the Middle Ages, to be seen in public holding hands was a sign that the couple was exclusive to one another. Rings were usually for the rich; and a cord used in a ceremony worked just as well for everyone else.
Wikipedia goes on to state: “The verb to handfast in the sense of “to formally promise, to make a contract” is recorded for Late Old English, especially in the context of a contract of marriage. The derived handfasting is for a ceremony of engagement or betrothal is recorded in Early Modern English. The term was presumably loaned into English from Old Norse handfesta “to strike a bargain by joining hands”; there are also comparanda from the Ingvaeonic languages: Old Frisian hondfestinge and Middle Low German hantvestinge. The term is derived from the verb to handfast, used in Middle to Early Modern English for the making of a contract”.
In modern usage, and of special interest here, handfasting can be part of the wedding ceremony to join two partners in a legal relationship, more popular in Scotland however becoming more popular among many couples here in the south.
“WHAT IS THE BEST MATERIAL FOR HANDFASTING?”
Set of 4 Elemental cords – honouring the elements Hand fasting wedding binding cords – fire earth water air – Image from Esty seller ‘Thetoadstoolgarden’
Some people prefer ribbons, for delicacy, while other couples prefer cords, for symbolic strength. No matter what handfasting material you decide to choose, it should be about 1.5m long. This allows it to be looped twice over the wrists of the couple and still have enough length remaining to tie a loose knot. It should be light enough to be easily manipulated, but have enough weight that it falls quickly into place when each loop is made. Just as a tip from my research, if the chosen ribbon is made of a light material, you may want to make sure that charms or beading are attached at each end. This extra weight on the light material will make the knot hang well once it is tied.
Most people prefer to have colored ribbons or cords, with the colors having special meaning that has a symbolic meaning for them as a couple. For example, Gold, which could be symbolic of wealth; White, which could be symbolic of clean beginnings; red, which could be symbolic of fire. However, do not start panicking on the colours and their symbolic meanings, you will have enough to be thinking about for your wedding day and you can choose colours because you love that colour, or it is the chosen colour of the wedding theme.
How many cords or ribbons would you have for your ceremony? There are no rules about the number of cords or ribbons that you can have (or must have) for your handfasting. People sometimes think of the Bible quotation “A three-fold cord is not easily broken.” and decide to use three different coloured cords for their handfasting.
MATERIALS USED – CORD Vs RIBBON
There is no right or wrong way to have your handfasting cords made, and they can be as elaborate or simple as you want them to be. It really comes down to what you want to represent yourselves.
Ivory and silver – Celtic 12 strand wide weave satin silky cord – hand fasting wedding – with Triquetra charms – Image from Etsy seller ‘Thetoadstoolgarden’
For a three-cord handfasting coloured cords are often braided: White for purity, blue for fidelity, and red for passion, for example. You as a couple may choose to use other colours; for example, green for fertility and growth, purple for spiritual strength, and gold for wisdom. The “right colours” are the colours that are right for you and your story as a couple.
If you would like to weave beads or other objects into your handfasting, you might want to use a smaller diameter cord. Some people have used Celtic knots (an awesome example is shown above using ivory and silver cords), shells, flowers, and Chinese double happiness charms. Other materials you could introduce onto the mix are strips of hemp twine and other materials, depending on the theme of your wedding ceremony. These are particularly lovely in an outside, rustic wedding ceremony. In the image below we see blush organza mixed with hemp ribbon which I think is a beautiful mix for a rustic handfasting ceremony.
Natural wedding cord- Hemp and blush organza with tree of life charms – Image from Etsy seller ‘Thetoadstoolgarden’
Ribbons probably provide the widest range of handfasting colours. Would you rather have solid colours or ribbons with patterns, such as tartan? How about a handfasting ribbon with hearts? Or would you rather have all of your ribbons the same colour? What about all white handfasting ribbons?
You may decide to use ribbons which match the colours you have already planned for your wedding theme. Some couples have each member of the wedding party wrap a ribbon around the couple’s clasped hands.
Weaving Wishes into Your Handfasting – Some couples choose to braid the ribbons or cords to be used in their handfasting themselves. While the cords or ribbons are being braided, each person can speak aloud her or his desires for the marriage. Some couples use this as a form of meditation or prayer. Typically the braiding would be done by the couple in private, perhaps a day or two before the ceremony. Other people could also take part, or the braiding could be done immediately before the ceremony so that everyone could see the whole sequence. If other people join in the braiding, each speaks his or her best wishes for the couple.
Sunflowers summer wedding cord – lime, hot pink, orange – silver lucky elephant charms – Image from Etsy seller ‘Thetoadstoolgarden’
A THREE-FOLD CORD IS NOT EASILY BROKEN
Some couples choose a three-cord handfasting, sometimes called a Cord of Three Strands Ceremony which is based on the verse from Ecclesiastes “Though one may prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”, – here three cords are braided during the wedding ceremony. Usually either the couple braids the cords themselves while the officiant explains the significance of the three cords, or the couple speaks their handfasting vows while braiding the cords. Most often the three cords are of three different colours and materials, chosen by the couple for the colours’ symbolic meanings to them.
INVOLVING PEOPLE IN YOUR HANDFASTING CEREMONY
This is not for everyone, but a Handfasting could give you an opportunity to involve more people in your ceremony. People could read aloud a passage that is especially important to you, sing a special song, or play musical instruments while the ribbons or cords were being fastened. These are just a few examples of how to include guests in handfasting.
Would you like to have several people join in your ceremony by tying the ribbons or cords? Would you like to have a happily-married couple bestow good wishes on you by wrapping your clasped hands? Your parents could bring the handfasting ribbons or cords to you. It is not unusual to have four parents bring four colored handfasting ribbons for their children’s handfasting. Your parents could tie the handfasting knots if that is what you would like – your imagination is the only limit to a handfasting ceremony as part of your wedding ceremony.
A SAMPLE HANDFASTING CEREMONY
What would a handfasting ceremony look like? Ask any celebrant, and they will all show you a different script for a handfasting ceremony that they have used in the past. Like most celebrants, I would create one personalised to you as a couple after discussing it with you. However, this following script is one I created for my last wedding ceremony where they requested a handfasting ceremony, to give you an idea of what it could look like (I have changed their real names to Jack & Jill, as it was personal to them as a couple) and they chose to have the infinity knot created with the cords while going through the ceremony:
“Jack and Jill have chosen to include the tradition of Hand-fasting into their wedding ceremony today. Hand-fasting is a wedding ritual in which couples hands are tied together as a symbol of their lives being joined together . . . . and this is also the origin of the “tying of the knot” in a wedding . . .
So, to you Jack and Jill, marriage forms eternal and sacred bonds. The promises made today bind your lives together.
Do you still seek to enter this ceremony?
(Bride and Groom: Yes)
Jack and Jill, please hold hands and look into each other’s eyes
Do you promise to stand by each other in good times and bad?
(Bride and Groom: We will)
Do you pledge to be each other’s friend, to love and be a loyal husband and wife for the rest of your lives together?
(Bride and Groom: We will)
Will you share each other’s laughter, and look for the brightness in life and the positive in each other?
(Bride and Groom: We will)
Jack and Jill, as your hands are now bound together, so your lives are joined in a union of love and trust. The Eternity knot of this binding symbolises the vows you have made. Like the stars, your love should be a constant source of light, and like the earth, a fine foundation from which to grow.
May this knot of love remain forever tied, and may these hands be blessed.
May they always be held by one another.
May they have the strength to hold on tightly during the storms of life.
May they remain tender and gentle as they nurture each other.
May these hands build a relationship of love, caring and devotion.
May you both see each others hands as healer, protector, shelter and guide”
WHEN DO YOU UNTIE THE CORDS?
Generally, you don’t. Usually the ribbons or cords are loosely tied in such a way that you can keep them tied and carefully slip them off, keeping any knots made intact. If it is not possible to slip them off, then the knots are left tied and the ribbons or cords are cut on the opposite side from the knots. For display purposes (and symbolically), the bonds are still firmly tied.
Most couples put the bonds in a place of honour, such as on a mantle. Some people drape the ribbons around their Unity Candle. Other people save their cake topper and place it in the centre of their cords. If your handfasting cords or ribbons come apart accidentally, or get untied by someone else, don’t panic! It doesn’t mean that your marriage is doomed! – This knot is merely representative and that the actual ties and bonds made in this ritual have now been made in the hearts and minds of the couple.
Bronze stag blackberry tartan wedding handfasting cord – Scottish wedding – Image from Etsy seller ‘Thetoadstoolgarden’
The only time the cords are to be undone or unknotted is in the case of a hand parting ceremony, so please remember that anything you use to decorate your cord is to remain with it for as long as you are bound to each other.
HERE ARE SOME OF THE MEANINGS ATTACHED TO THE COLOURS:
- BLACK – Symbolic of strength, empowerment, wisdom & vision, success and water – that your union may flow and fill you to your depths
- BLUE – Symbolic of fidelity, strength, longevity – that you may be steadfast and your union unbroken
- BLUE – Symbolic of unity and harmony – that you may always be at one in your desires
- BLUE – Symbolic of a safe journey, with calm and confidence – that you may be at peace and believe in each other
- BROWN – Symbolic of the Earth, home and hearth, the earth – that your union may be dependable and grounded in reality
- BROWN – Symbolic of healing, tradition and nature, skills and talent, nurturing – that you may impart your way of life and your love of the Earth to future generations
- GREEN – Symbolic of charity, luck, love and generosity – that you may share of yourselves freely
- GREEN – Symbolic of growth, prosperity, beauty, health, love – that your union may be fruitful and your happiness abundant
- GREEN – Symbolic of new beginnings , fertility, health, love – that your union may be nourishing and healing
- GREEN & YELLOW – Symbolic colours of luck and optimism – that you may look forward to only happy accidents
- GREY – Symbolic of clouds – that your union may weather every storm of life
- GREY – Symbolic of balance, neutrality, humility and respect – that you may serve each other and your community
- GOLD – Symbolic of wisdom, longevity – that as you grow in age you may grow in insight
- GOLD – Symbolic of wealth, prosperity, unity – that your union may be a treasure of happiness and a joy to you always
- LAVENDER – Symbolic of cleansing and spiritual healing
- LIGHT BLUE & DARK BLUE – Symbolic of trust and truthfulness – that you may always honour your vows
- LIGHT BLUE – Symbolic of study and learning – that you may always learn from each other
- LIGHT BLUE & WHITE – Symbolic colours of sky and clouds – that you may have no limits on your happiness
- ORANGE – Symbolic of warmth – that your union may be cheerful. Also other meanings such as encouragement, adaptability, stimulation, attraction, plenty & kindness.
- PINK – Symbolic of love, unity, honour, happiness and romance – that your union may be filled with love eternal
- PURPLE – Symbolic of royalty, healing, health, strength and power – that your union may be worthy of respect and loyalty
- RED – Symbolic of fire – that your union may be passionate. Also other meanings such as will, love, strength, fertility, courage, health, vigour & passion
- SILVER – Symbolic of creativity, inspiration and vision, wisdom – that your union may be filled with wise choices
- VIOLET – Symbolic of mystery and romance – that you may always have more to discover about each other
- WHITE – Symbolic of clean beginnings, spiritual purity and truth – that your union may grow anew
- WHITE – Symbolic of purity of word, peace, serenity and devotion – that all your thoughts and deeds will be pure and true
- WHITE – Symbolic of air – that your union may be filled with spirit
- YELLOW – Symbolic of the sun and of light – that your union may be warm and that your love may be a beacon of hope to those in sorrow. Also other meanings such as attraction, charm, confidence, balance & harmony.
Game of thrones inspired wedding cords – Targaryen, Stark, Lannister, Baratheon – Image from Etsy seller ‘Thetoadstoolgarden’
Of course, all of the above are some of the symbolic meanings behind the colours that you may have in mind, however if blue is your most favourite colour out of all of them, then please have blue in your colour choice. If your wedding day has a theme, then why not have appropriate colours on your handfasting cords / ribbons to the theme, such as the Game of Thrones themed ribbons on the image above? There are no rules on the colours as the important part is the ceremony of handfasting itself.
Once completed, the handfasting knot represents the oneness of the couple. So after the wedding ceremony most couples choose to keep their knotted handfasting cord as a symbol of their commitment to each other and their togetherness, often using the same cord again during anniversary celebrations and if renewing their vows in years to come. Some couples choose to display their knotted cord in a frame, and some people believe that the presence of the cord brings blessings to a couple’s home.
So we have learnt that a Handfasting has the beginnings of the origin of the phrase “tying the knot”, and a handfasting is the Ancient practice of binding a couple’s hands in a ceremony that symbolises their commitment to each other. To many couples, the handfasting cord holds a tremendous significance.
While handfasting ceremonies are becoming ever more popular as more and more people choose to emphasise their personality, love story and individuality in their weddings, there really is no wrong way of designing your cord and conducting the ceremony. A personalised handfasting can truly ‘tie’ a very special wedding together.
A big thank you to Cleo, the owner of the Etsy shop thetoadstoolgarden, for her permission to use a couple of her many styles and images of handfasting cords in my blog. Please visit her site on the following link in Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheToadstoolgarden
TIM DOWNER | WEDDING CELEBRANT
- Are you looking for a place of beauty for your dream wedding ceremony, but do not want to be restricted to just approved licensed venues?
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If this sounds like something you would like to know more information on, or how a celebrant led ceremony gives you as a couple the opportunity to have the wedding ceremony you have dreamed about, then I would be delighted to hear from you. You can contact me via email at email@example.com