How to Pull Off a Mixed Faith Handfasting Without Losing Your Mind

How to Pull Off a Mixed Faith Handfasting Without Losing Your Mind

by L. Lisa Lawrence

The scent of blooming flowers fills the air as warm gentle breezes caress her face. As she gazes around the circle, she sees the loving faces of her family, friends and circle members smiling with approval. After sipping mead from the same chalice, she and her groom receive a blessing and together they jump the broomstick, symbolizing their moving forward into their new life together. Then they share a passionate kiss while everyone cheers. As the couple head off to a special place created in the woods just for them to consummate their vows, the guests feast, joke and marvel at how perfectly everything went and how the Goddess blessed them with glorious, sunny weather for their Beltaine nuptials.

In the real world, more often it goes like this:

It’s pouring cold, freezing, horizontal rain, even though the forecast called for dry weather with sun breaks. Her family and covenmates are inside the circle, and members of the groom’s family (those who didn’t refuse to show up at all) are standing on the outskirts. Some are uncomfortable; others are downright disapproving, especially after seeing that strangely dressed man with the sword that they just know is used for ritual sacrifice. Some are still appalled at the fact that the “marriage” is only for a year and a day and can be renewed and formalized with all the legalities (or not) next year. She’s just discovered that the material she made her gown from is transparent when wet, guests are shivering, and the wind keeps blowing the candles out.

This second scenario demonstrates how mixed faith handfastings often turn out, but it doesn’t even begin to describe the controversy and stress involved in the planning that leads up to the event. One of my more memorable events as clergy involved a bride-to-be calling me three days before the wedding in tears, relating the tale of how she’s not sure she wants to marry the “worst man in the world” because his parents badgered him into putting the word God (and we’re not talking about one that wears horns) into the wedding vows.

Maggie came from a pagan family but didn’t want any religion at all in the wedding. Mark agreed to a nonreligious ceremony with pagan elements at the time the wedding was planned but caved in to pressure from his fundamentalist Christian parents at the last minute. Neither of them was willing to budge on their position.

I told Maggie, “You two can use different words. He can say `God,’ and you can say `community.'”

She stopped crying and said, “Really? We can do that?”

“Yes, dear, you can,” I replied calmly. “It’s your wedding, and you don’t have to say anything that you don’t want to.” Mark agreed and the wedding was back on. This was a warning, however, that once both families got together, things could get ugly.

What do you do when the bride comes from a nice pagan family and the groom’s parents are fundamentalist Christians? Aside from eloping, it’s not easy. Weddings are stressful in and of themselves, but when one side of the family has a deep rooted fear of the faith of the other, things need to be handled delicately.

Even for couples who share a spiritual path or philosophy, bringing two families together can be a disaster waiting to happen. I jokingly say that my specialty is the Dharma and Greg wedding, in which the spiritual paths, life experiences and values of each family appear to be diametrically opposed, and the in-laws have nothing in common and may even dislike, fear and mistrust each other. For those who aren’t familiar with the television show Dharma and Greg, it features an unlikely couple who got married after only knowing each other a few hours. She is a New Age Buddhist with pagan tendencies whose parents are hippies, and he is an attorney from a wealthy, conservative, uptight family. It makes good television for a reason, because nothing is ever going to run smoothly when two families like this are brought together.

There are several ways to approach the mixed faith handfasting, once you have gotten over the urge to avoid the whole potential fiasco by eloping:

  • The couple can hold two ceremonies, one for each of the families.
  • They can get married at the county courthouse and then host a reception.
  • The couple can say, “This is our faith, and if you don’t like it then you can just stay home.”
  • They can do their best to combine the elements that are important to them into one ceremony that will be meaningful and nonthreatening to all. If you’re bringing two families from very different backgrounds together, this last approach lays some excellent groundwork for all those holiday celebrations that are going to come up over the years.

When planning a handfasting of the last type, one of the first things I try to do is to find out what word the couple wants to use (or not use) for deity or greater power. It’s amazing the number of couples who agree on everything but this, so it’s best to get it out of the way. Many words can be used if a couple wishes to avoid religious arguments or offending anyone: Great Spirit, Great Mystery, Universe and Community are just a few examples. For those who wish to appease religious family members, “Mother-Father God” is often less threatening than “Goddess.” In Maggie and Mark’s wedding, they each used a word that was comfortable for them.

The next thing I ask the couple to think about is what elements of the ceremony are most important to them. There are many elements that can be included in a mixed faith ceremony, including binding the hands, exchanging rings, lighting a unity candle, sharing wine, mead or juice from a chalice and jumping a broomstick or bonfire — walking around the fire rather than jumping is recommended if the bride is wearing a long dress with a train.

Most of these elements can be explained as an “ancient tradition” from whatever part of the world the family is from. If any of us goes back far enough into our ancestry, we can find a pagan tradition to cite. For families of Celtic descent, there is always movie Braveheart, in which Mel Gibson and his bride had their hands bound together by a priest in front of a Celtic cross. If you need to, invoke Mel and say, “That’s the way Braveheart did it.”

Another good way to explain pagan elements is to say that they are Native American-styled. It’s funny, but for some people an action is threatening if a white person does it, but if it’s from another culture, it’s okay, especially if they’ve seen Dances With Wolves or other similar movies that show the beauty and spirituality of other cultures. Many fabulous earth-centered prayers and blessings are attributed to Native American cultures and can fit quite nicely into pagan or mixed faith weddings. Two important things to remember if you are borrowing something from another culture are not to claim the element as your own and to be respectful of it.

Once we get past the parts that are easy to explain or pass off as something other than overtly pagan, some others need to be considered. Most people are perfectly willing to stand in a circle and may even think it’s charming. But truly casting a circle may require some creativity. No matter what tradition the bride and groom may share, it’s likely that there are those who would be uncomfortable with a member of the wedding party walking around with an athamé to cast the circle (to them, it’s not a sacred tool, it’s a big scary dagger). A circle can be cast by spreading rose petals, corn meal or any other organic material. If the family that might be uncomfortable is from a Catholic background, all you need is some incense and candles and the circle can be cast by ritual procession.

The use of quarter altars and the calling of directions can often avoid threatening even the most conservative grandparents if you do it correctly. Having a woman in a flowing gown hold up a seashell towards the Puget Sound and wish the couple “all the blessings and bounty of the sea” is going to go over better with someone’s Southern Baptist grandmother than invoking the “guardians of the watchtowers of the west.” In one handfasting ceremony I facilitated, the couple went to each of the four directions, where a friend or family member stood and read something written to help guide them in their married life. The elements were there, but not overtly.

Believe it or not, even in this day and age, some people expect a “minister” to be a middle-aged or older male, not a couple or a woman. At Maggie and Mark’s wedding, people who thought I was a guest were laughing and joking with me before the final run-through. When I was introduced as the “minister,” more than one person was visibly shocked. As I stood there with my long red hair, long black robe (which didn’t look like the one the minister in the Methodist church I grew up in wore) and tree-of-life necklace, which I thought was conservative enough for this wedding, I wondered if they could tell what I was.

While the bride’s family and I stood there holding our breath, waiting for her to finish her thought, one woman began, “But you look so…” She finished: “…young to be a minister.” I laughed and sighed with relief. I had just turned 39 at the time and to be considered too young to perform a wedding was quite a compliment. Once she was assured that I was legally ordained and had done this many times before, everything was fine.

If their families are very fundamentalist, some couples will choose to veil the pagan aspects of the ceremony as much as possible to avoid any discomfort. Others will turn the event into a chance to educate the nonpagans in the group. If the pagan elements are very open, it’s a good idea for the couple to provide a small, printed guide that explains how and why things will be happening a certain way, such as: “We will be casting a circle to create sacred space.” “We will call upon the blessings and lessons of the four directions.” “We will be calling upon the masculine and feminine aspect of the divine to bless this union.” A little education goes a long way. If you think a specific family member might have difficulty, this guide can be mailed to them ahead of time with an invitation to call if they have any questions or concerns. The idea is to try to make everyone as comfortable as possible before the ceremony starts.

Making the guests physically comfortable is important as well. Make certain that chairs are available to elderly or disabled guests. If quarter altars are to be used, a chair can be placed on both sides of each altar. This not only provides seating that doesn’t impede ritual movement but can keep candles and other ritual tools from getting knocked off the altar. If you are holding an indoor ceremony and want to use sage instead of light incense, it is a good idea to check to see if any of the guests have allergies so that you don’t trigger an asthma attack.

Maggie and Mark’s ceremony concluded with them walking around the bonfire “in an ancient Celtic tradition symbolizing their leaving one life and entering into their new one together.” One of the older, conservative relatives came up to me afterward and said, “That was one of the most beautiful, meaningful weddings I’ve ever attended,” completely clueless to the fact that she had just participated in a pagan ritual performed by a witch. As the woman walked away, one of the bridesmaids winked at me knowingly, her pentacle barely peeking out from the neckline of her dress.

Both families were happy, and no one who would have been offended was any the wiser. The rain that fell before the wedding had moved on, and we marveled at how perfect the day was as we watched bubbles the guests had blown to celebrate the event float toward a spectacular sunset.

Special Kitty of the Day for Jan. 11th

Maggie Rose, the Cat of the Day
Name: Maggie Rose
Age: Ten years old
Gender: Female
Kind: Chocolate Point Birman
Home: Holland, Pennsylvania, USA
Krom the time she arrived at age three months, weighing 2.9 pounds, Maggie Rose (aka Her Maggieness) has ruled the house. She has to share it with another Birman, two-year-old Sophia Grace (who is her half sister). But definitely, in her mind, everything in the house belongs to her! She didn’t become a lap cat until after the age of two, but now she follows me around and has to get on my lap whenever it is available. In the photo, her attitude is “This is mylap, even if there is already something on it!!!”. Of course, all of the many toys belong to her, although she does share them occasionally. And the computer printer holds a singular fascination – she will come running from wherever she is, out of a seemingly sound sleep, to attack the paper as it comes out of the printer.She is the consummate hostess cat, feeling it her duty to entertain all guests, even offering to use their lap for a sleeping place or to share their bed at night. Of course, in return, she expects them to play with her, as well as admire her. She tends to win over even those who wouldn’t have said they like cats! They must like Maggie!

Maggie Rose, the Cat of the Day


Doggie of the Day for December 9th

Maggie, the Dog of the Day
Name: Maggie
Age: Nine years old
Gender: Female Breed: West Highland White Terrier
Home: Berlin, Connecticut, USA
Maggie is our West Highland White Terrier. Maggie is special because she is very lovable and enjoys playing with her family, along with other dogs in the neighborhood. She was born on the 4th of July, but hates the sounds of fireworks. Maggie is very energetic and loves to go for walks around the block. Her favorite food is carrots, but she will eat pretty much any food you give her besides bananas. Maggie spends most of her day napping while the family is gone. Once they get home, Maggie gets very hyper and loves to play fetch with her squeaky toys.

Maggie loves being outdoors and going on car rides. In the summer she travels with her family to their house on the shore where Maggie enjoys sitting in the grass and greeting all the people who walk by. She sometimes comes on boat rides with her family and occasionally swims in the ocean on hot days.

Maggie is the best dog anyone could ask for!