Planning and Performing Handfastings
Author: Iris Firemoon
Handfastings are pagan wedding ceremonies, in which typically the couple’s hands are tied together to symbolize the joining of two people, or specifically, “tying the knot”. A handfasting can be a trial, lifetime, or eternal (spiritual) marriage. Depending on the intent of the couple and the national, state, or province laws, a handfasting can be a legal marriage as well.
Regardless of the legal or time extent of the union, marriages typically have one requirement. Both parties must willingly consent to a joining. However, this is not always a universal requirement.
In Ireland and Scotland, during the early Christian period it was a form of trial marriage, often performed in rural areas when a priest was not available. The couple could form a temporary, trial marriage, and then be married “in the Church” the next time a priest visited their area. This is similar to a betrothal, or a ceremony of exchanging vows of consent to a marriage at a future date and/or agreeing to a marriage contract.
“Telltown marriages” were named for the year and a day trial marriages contracted at the yearly festival held in Telltown, Ireland. The festival took place at Lughnassadh (August 1), and the trial marriage would last until the next Lughnassadh festival. At that time, they were free to leave the union if they desired.
We are going to explore two sides to a handfasting. On one side, we are planning the handfasting, and on the other, we are officiating. While not all of us will plan a handfasting, and not all of us will officiate them, these topics go hand in hand.
To plan a wedding, you must understand what it takes from your officiant, and to officiate, you must understand what goes into planning it. Priests and Priestesses are in essence clergy of this religion, and it may be requested of us to perform or aid in these duties.
PLANNING A HANDFASTING: While there are lots of things to consider when planning a wedding, such as a caterer and photographer, today we will stick to planning the ceremony itself.
When picking a date, the astrological influences around that time should be taken into consideration. At the very least, you would probably want to steer clear of getting hitched during a moon void-of-course, Mercury Retrograde, or when the Sun is in opposition of Venus.
Who to put on the guest list is an important fact to think about. When thinking of non-Pagan family members, and even those you will invite that might scoff at the idea of a Pagan wedding, the couple has to sit down and decide how obviously pagan they are going to let the ceremony become. In what a handfasting ritual implies and was first practiced in Wicca, there was no audience of people invited for the novelty of sharing the experience, or non-Craft people. However, since our society is more open to these experiences, things have changed.
Some families are more open to new experiences, and other families are more conservative. A wedding is not the best place to come out of the broom closet. Not only could it ruin a day that is considered to be special to most people, but also it could make everyone uncomfortable, and cause problems down the road.
However, allowing the thoughts and beliefs of family members to heavily influence the ceremony that you want could create feelings of regret. Think about what you and your partner want in the ceremony, and then think about how the guests would respond.
If the couple is set on having a more elaborate handfasting, but do not want to involve family and friends, two ceremonies could be held. The legal bond could be established at a more non-denominational ceremony, while the spiritual bond is fortified in an all-out handfasting.
My good friend who got married in 2004, she sent out a notice in her invitations about the nature of the ceremony. This gave guests a chance to opt out then. I believe that she also passed out programs that explained some of the various part of the ritual (their purpose, some history, and explanation), as well as contained the script of the ritual. The priestess also reinforced these explanations during the ceremony. She also let people come forward after the ceremony and ask questions.
When planning for cowan family members and friends, there are many elements standard to ritual that must be considered, such as the language of the ceremony, the altar, attire, casting a circle, calling quarters, cakes and ale, etc.
One way to make family and friends more comfortable with the background of the ceremony is to adapt the softer language. I have written and performed handfastings in which the couple asked that I omit words that may be misunderstood…such as Witch, Wiccan, and Pagan. Instead, I would create a strong earth-based theme in my ceremony.
I described concepts in terms of the cycles of the sun and the moon, our connection to all things, and in the symbolism of the circle. It may also be wise to explain the history and practice of included elements in the ceremony that might be alien to the guests, such as jumping over the broom, binding, the circle as sacred space, etc.
Keep in mind the attire that you will wear. While Pagan ritual attire is different than traditional wedding garb, you may want to think twice about what you wear. For example, you probably will not want to end up skyclad in front of your parents, and that it typically illegal in public. It would also be a wise move to alert Craft folk attending about any general attire suggestions, mention that family and friends will be in attendance, and to keep that in mind.
Also, think about other traditional elements of rituals, such as how the altar will be structured, whether or not you will set the area up in a physical circle, as well as cast a circle, and call Quarters, Goddess, and God.
Most rituals involved us casting a circle, and with a handfasting, this is no exception. Because of non-pagan family guests, some choose to cast and call the quarters before the guests arrive.
At my most recent ceremony, I all of the prep work, while the bride and groom sorted their affairs. A good friend of mine got married and had us cast a circle while the guests were there. Guests were explained the importance of the magick circle, sacred space, and the barrier that it created. They could then choose to sit inside the circle, or outside the circle.
There are many elements of a handfasting that make it different from other rituals, such as a wedding party, binding, challenge, exchange of vows and rings, as well as jumping over the broom.
Who’s in the wedding party? Handfastings are not the typical ritual, and as a result, we end up with some non-typical situations. If the guests at a wedding are cowan and Pagan, then there is a chance that some of the wedding party may be a mix.
The wedding party can range from coven members and Pagan friends, to the Pagan-friendly and the pagan-skeptical. Keep this in mind when planning on whether or not your wedding party will participate in the actual ceremony.
Find out whether or not they are comfortable with the roles that you are thinking of assigning them, and make sure that they know what to expect. The wedding party can take on group roles, such as setting up the altar, casting the circle, and calling quarters, etc.
Most weddings include an exchanging of vows, which are promises that the bride and groom make to each other. More conventional handfastings will also include exchanging of rings.
During the binding, the wrists of the bride and groom are bound together with ribbon. They clasp right_hand-to-right_hand, and left_hand-to-left_hand, crossing wrists. The priest/ess asks one of them if they wish to be bound to the other. This takes place of traditional “I do’s.”
Then, they may be a set of challenges the bride and group must pass to receive a blessing. The bride and groom, bound, are led to each element, then to any close family members (such as little ones) who want to participate. Bound, their bond is challenged by each.
Either the bride and groom are brought to each quarter, or the person representing that quarter (if you have them) comes to the bride and groom. They present a challenge of some sort, such as “I am the Elemental of the East, Guardian of Air. This is the element of life, of intelligence, of communication, and of thoughtfulness. It is the inspiration that moves us forward.
Do you and will you continue to share your thoughts, ideas, and burdens? Your hopes and dreams?” The bride and groom answer “We do.” They may then receive the blessing of that challenger.
Then, move around through a challenge by the remaining quarter guardians. In one handfasting I participated in, after the elemental challenges, the daughter of the bride had her own challenge. I would imagine that it could be extended to any person directly involved in the union.
When cakes and ale are partaken, this is the bride and groom’s first meal as a united couple.
Jumping over the broom is an African tradition still used today. Brooms were given as wedding gifts as a blessing of abundance, and they were decorated, and kept as keepsakes.
The action of jumping the broom also symbolizes crossing the threshold, as well as taking a leap of faith. Since the besom is a tool of cleansing, it also symbolizes the couple entering the marriage unencumbered. The wedding party or designated people hold the ends of the broom, while the bride/groom jump over it.
For more information on planning a handfasting, Selena Fox put together a great page: http://www.circlesanctuary.org/events/weddings.html
OFFICIATING A HANDFASTING: As priests and priestesses, we are sometimes asked, and at times required, to perform certain clergy duties. Included in the rites of passage that we may be asked to preside over are handfastings.
Not all handfastings are intended to be legal. Some are trial, some symbolic, and some only spiritual ceremonial unions. Legally recognized marriages have several benefits, however none of them are universal to all cultures and countries. In the United States, some of the benefits of a legal marriage include the ability to file joint taxes (which may decrease their total income tax), to control property, to be added to the same insurance policy, to make decisions for their spouse (including life and death decisions, such as the controversial “pulling the plug” scenario), and others.
Legal marriages also afford some spouses benefits should the couple divorce, such as child and spousal support. They can also sometimes establish the man as the legal father of a woman’s child, the woman as the legal mother of a man’s child, give the husband or wife and their family control over the sexual services, labor, and/or property of the spouse, and establish a joint fund of property for the benefit of children.
However, each state, province, or country will have its own requirements for deeming a marriage legal. As the officiant of any wedding ceremony, it is your responsibility to find out what is legally required of the ceremony, if the couple desires it to be legal. You cannot risk performing a ceremony that the couple believes is legal, and finding out later on that it was not. Should something ill happen as a result, you put yourself at risk for a lawsuit.
For example, a person could attempt to add a spouse (who was not previously covered) onto his or her insurance plan, but only to discover that their marriage was not legal, and cannot be added on to the policy. While they are wrestling with paperwork and arranging another ceremony that is legal, the spouse that was not covered is in an accident, all of which is not covered by any insurance.
Check with the local courts for the exact laws for the area. A marriage license, blood test, witnesses, and a licensed officiant may be required (among other things). For example, in Ohio, a marriage license must be obtained by the bride and groom in person at least three days prior to the ceremony. This license is valid for only 30 days. A blood test is no longer necessary.
However, if not a judge, mayor, or other public figure deemed eligible to perform such ceremonies, the officiant must be licensed by the State of Ohio. To obtain a license, the officiant must mail in $10 with an application and a photocopy of the ordination certificate.
While any person can officiate a handfasting, whether or not the ceremony that person performs is legally recognized depends on each state, province, or country. The area that you live in will have its own laws on who can officiate marriages and have them recognized by the government.
Some places require a license, some say that anyone ordained by their religious body can perform weddings, and others require a letter of good standing from the ordaining organization. In Washington D.C., a license must be obtained, and if you are not from the District, a person that is currently licensed in the city must go with you to vouch for you.
There is more information on various state and region laws here, but keep in mind that you will still want to verify with the local courts: http://www.themonastery.org/?destination=ulcLibraryMarriageLaws
To find someone to officiate your handfasting: http://www.witchvox.com/vn/vn_index/xclergy.html
Now, where can you get ordained? Ordination can occur through any religious body. Ordination “is the process in which clergy, monks or nuns are set apart and authorized by their religious denomination or non denominational seminary to perform religious rituals and ceremonies or otherwise to minister in a clerical capacity.” It typically occurs when a student has completed a certain level of study, or certain requirements within a religious group, and thus the requirements vary from group to group.
While eclectic Wicca teaches that self-initiation is permissible, thus indicating that this person is a priest or priestess of Wicca, this person is still not ordained.
In the U.S., most people have heard of the Universal Life Church, and its free online ordinations. I typically do not talk about it, because I do not believe that every person should go online and sign up for ordination, though it is possible. While there are laws on the legality of weddings, and the requirements to perform legal marriages, there are no laws on which religious bodies can perform ordinations.
If Wicca is a recognized religion, and a religious body deems a person capable of performing such ceremonies, then that person is ordained. But I would rather not mail in an ordination certificate from my Wiccan coven to the state of Ohio. Yes, I would rather mail in my ULC certificate for which I paid $4.95. It also gives solitaries the ability to apply for licenses if required and legally perform marriage ceremonies.
There is information on the ULC website as to which states accept and do not accept ULC ordinations, as well as which countries outside of the U.S. do accept them. Many people consider it a joke that people’s pets can be ordained through ULC. Of course, I feel that those people make it a joke, for it serves its purpose.
To check the Universal Life Church: http://www.ulc.org
In some situations, you may be asked to write the ceremony, or give input as to some of the elements. You must be familiar with the elements of a handfasting, as well as how to write and perform rituals. You should at least have a basic handfasting ritual that can be adapted if need be (somewhere stuffed in your pointed hat). If they wish to write their own, this basic ritual can also be given to the couple as a guideline.
You may be asked to counsel the couple, or be put in a situation where the couple needs advice. It is not uncommon for either the bride or groom to get cold feet, to ask questions about commitment, or have questions about the ceremony itself. It is part of the clergy role to act as a mentor and guide.
Be prepared to answer these sorts of questions, should they come up. However, if there are major differences that need to be reconciled, you may want to refer the couple to a professional that can help them sort issues out.
You also have the right to advise the couple address these issues before the ceremony, and even refuse to perform the ceremony should you feel it necessary.
While officiating a ceremony, you have the option of charging for services. Some people feel that it is unethical to charge for such services, but it is a service nonetheless. Some areas have laws establishing a maximum amount that can be charged for ministerial services.
Some of these laws are vague and say, for example, that no more than $15 dollars can be charged for the service of a minister. This type of wording does not say how much work is worth $15. Writing a ritual could be one set of services, performing the ceremony another set of services, etc. Check your local laws for specific information. When I officiate handfastings, I do not charge for my services, but have usually asked that my travel costs be covered.
Handfasted and Heartjoined by Lady Rhea
Handfasting and Wedding Rituals by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein
A Romantic Guide to Handfasting by Anna Franklin
Handfasting and Wedding Rituals by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein
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