- present participle of handfast
The term is derived from the verb to handfast, used in Middle to Early Modern English for the making of a contract of marriage.
Historysee Marriage in Scotland The term is originally a loan from Old Norse hand-festa "to strike a bargain by joining hands". The Council of Trent changed Roman Catholic marriage laws to require the presence of a priest. This change did not extend to the regions affected by the Protestant Reformation, and in Scotland, marriage by consent remained in effect.
By the 18th century, the Kirk of Scotland no longer recognized marriages formed by mutual consent and subsequent sexual intercourse, even though the Scottish civil authorities did. This situation persisted until 1940, when Scottish marriage laws were reformed. In the 18th century, well after the term handfasting had passed out of usage, there arose a popular myth that it referred to a sort of "trial marriage". A.E. Anton, in Handfasting' in Scotland (1958) finds that the first reference to such a "trial marriage" is by Thomas Pennant in his 1790 Tour in Scotland. This report had been taken at face value throughout the 19th century, and was perpetuated e.g. in Walter Scott's 1820 novel The Monastery.
In the present day, some Neopagans practice this ritual. The marriage vows taken may be for "a year and a day", a lifetime, "for all of eternity" or "for as long as love shall last". Whether the ceremony is legal, or a private spiritual commitment, is up to the couple. Depending on the state where the handfasting is performed, and whether or not the officiant is a legally recognized minister, the ceremony itself may be legally binding, or couples may choose to make it legal by also having a civil ceremony. Modern handfastings are performed for heterosexual or homosexual couples, as well as for larger groups in the case of polyamorous relationships. Currently, handfasting is a legal Pagan wedding ceremony in Scotland, but not in England, Wales or Ireland.
As with many Neopagan rituals, some groups may use historically attested forms of the ceremony, striving to be as traditional as possible, while others may use only the basic idea of handfasting and largely create a new ceremony.
As many different traditions of Neopaganism use some variation on the handfasting ceremony, there is no universal ritual form that is followed, and the elements included are generally up to the couple being handfasted. In cases where the couple belong to a specific religious or cultural tradition, there may be a specific form of the ritual used by all or most members of that particular tradition. The couple may conduct the ceremony themselves or may have an officiant perform the ceremony. In some traditions, the couple may jump over a broom at the end of the ceremony. Some may instead leap over a small fire together. Today, some couples opt for a handfasting ceremony in place of, or incorporated into, their public wedding. As summer is the traditional time for handfastings, they are often held outdoors.
A corresponding divorce ceremony called a handparting is sometimes practiced, though this is also a modern innovation. In a Wiccan handparting, the couple may jump backwards over the broom before parting hands.
As with more conventional marriage ceremonies, couples often exchange rings during a handfasting, symbolizing their commitment to each other. Many couples choose rings that reflect their spiritual and cultural traditions, while others choose plainer, more conventional wedding rings.
- Anton, A. E. "'Handfasting' in Scotland." The Scottish Historical Review 37, no. 124 (October 1958): 89-102.
handfasting in German: Handfasting
handfasting in Italian: Handfasting