Everything to Know About the Handfasting Ceremony

Here's how this Celtic tradition works.


Getty Images / Design by Zackary Angeline

Unity rituals are a great way to add an extra layer of meaning to your wedding ceremony before exchanging rings and vows. From lighting candles to layering colors of sand, there's a wedding ceremony ritual to fit every couple's style. One of the most popular options is the handfasting ceremony.

What Is Handfasting?

Handfasting is an ancient Celtic ritual in which the hands are tied together to symbolize the binding of two lives. While it is most often included in Wiccan or Pagan ceremonies, it has become more mainstream and pops up in both religious and secular vows and readings.

As you consider integrating this tradition into your wedding, questions will likely arise: Who conducts it? What kind of material should we use? What color should it be? Where did the tradition begin, anyway? Ahead, we talk to wedding planner Michelle Johnstone Clark and investigate by breaking down the various interpretations and origins behind this wedding day tradition.

Meet the Expert

Michelle Johnstone Clark is the founder and lead planner of Waterlily Weddings in Ireland.

The History and Meaning of a Handfasting Ceremony

The handfasting ceremony has its roots in ancient Celtic tradition and dates as far back as 7000 B.C. In ancient Ireland, when two people chose to be married, they were brought together to have a braided cord or ribbon tied around their hands in the presence of a priest. This act merely acknowledged the pair's engagement, which typically ran the length of a year.

"It was a public declaration of intent to marry, signaling to potential suitors that the woman was intended to her betrothed and not to be harassed," Michelle Johnstone Clark, founder and lead planner of Water Lily Weddings explains. After the year was up, the couple returned to the priest and either declared their intent to be married or declared that they weren't a good match. Both would then be free to choose another suitor and bride.

Today, the tradition is incorporated into the wedding ceremony or is the main event itself. In addition to the binding of hands, vows are also typically exchanged.

Handfasting Ceremony FAQs

Who conducts the handfasting ceremony?

You can find someone who performs them regularly or you can simply have your officiate conduct it.

Does handfasting have to be done at a wedding ceremony?

It doesn't. It can be done during an engagement, when a couple makes the choice to live together or to celebrate a special ceremony, an anniversary, or a renewing of vows.

Can anyone participate in the handfasting tradition?

Handfastings are commonly used in Wiccan and Pagan ceremonies but anyone can take part in the tradition. It's become popular in modern-day ceremonies due to the "tying the knot" symbolism (and because it was shown on Game of Thrones).

How should the hands be tied?

Many opt to cross hands, taking your partner's right hand in your right hand and their left hand in your left hand.

You could also opt to stand next to one another, joining one of your right hands with the other's left, and have your hands bound that way, around your wrists.

Who should tie it?

Typically the officiant does, but as Clark explains: "Couples are now having members of their family tie the cord and we have seen couples add a number of ribbons or cords so siblings can help the celebrant tie the knot, which is really fun."

What kind of material should be used?

Traditionally, cords or ribbons are used. You can choose to still use either today or some couples choose to use cloth from sentimental items of clothing. As Clark suggests, you can also add charms to the end of the cords, like horseshoes, seashells, or beads. Furthermore, she adds, "For a stunning look that is organic and also deeply symbolic, think about having natural garland, vines, flowers woven together by your florist to serve as your handfasting cord."

How many pieces are needed?

You can use as many pieces as you like, but three is the standard so that couples can braid the pieces together, which symbolizes their lives joining together.

How long should the material be?

The cord or ribbons should be about a yard in length, which will allow for it to be wrapped around the hands a couple of times.

What color should the material be?

That's up to you. You can opt for colors that match the theme of your wedding or maybe colors that are special to both of you.

How long should we remain bound?

In medieval tradition, the couple is supposed to be tied together until midnight. You, of course, can take it off after the ceremony or wear it throughout the day (though that might make navigating the reception a little difficult). When you do remove it, it's encouraged to try to slip it off with the tie intact. Some couples even bring it home as a keepsake.

How to Have a Handfasting Ceremony

During the ceremony, the officiant begins by explaining the ritual and what it means to the couple. This statement often includes the notion of the couple binding their lives together and the union of their hopes and desires. The officiant then invites the couple to join hands, which symbolizes their free will to enter into the marriage. From here, the officiant reads a series of vows as cords are wrapped around the couple's hands. You could opt to use a separate cord for each vow, or twist or braid together a few cords and wrap them as one around your hands. Then, your officiant may make an additional statement about the completion of the binding and the commitment it symbolizes. After your hands are bound, you can proceed to exchange additional vows or use your handfasting as the vows you'll exchange and move directly to the ring exchange.

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