As with many old customs, the exact origin of handfasting is the subject of some confusion. According to some historians, handfasting was used in medieval and early modern Scotland as a binding marriage of the “irregular” variety. In the medieval and early modern periods, there were two types of marriages in Scotland – “regular” and “irregular”. “Regular” marriages were typical Christian marriage ceremonies performed by a priest or other member of the clergy, while “irregular” marriages were performed in the absence of a member of the clergy. These “irregular” marriages still carried with them all the legality of the more “regular” ones, however. Historians believe that the allowance of “irregular” marriages in Scotland stemmed from the fact that many rural villages were either too small, poor, or isolated to support a priest, and that many of these rural villages only saw a member of the clergy a few times a year.
This is one interpretation of the origin of the handfasting tradition. Another possible explanation, if certain lay historians are to be believed, is that handfasting evolved as a sort of trial marriage as a response to the low birth rate in Scotland throughout much of the medieval period and before. According to this view, the couple was legally bound for a year and a day in the hope that a child would be conceived within that period. If, at the end of that period, no child had been conceived and both members of the couple expressed a desire to be separated, the couple was allowed to go their separate ways without suffering any legal complications. Both members of the couple were then free to search for a partner with whom they stood a chance of conceiving a child. This supposedly ensured that the birth rate stayed high enough for the population to either stay consistent or increase.
Regardless of what people believe regarding the origin of the handfasting tradition, there are several aspects of the ceremony itself that everyone can agree on. The most important and distinctive feature of the ceremony is that the couple is required to clasp right hands, and then their hands are bound together with a cord or ribbon. The couple will remain bound together in this manner until either the binding is consummated or twenty-four hours have past (whichever comes first). Conventional wisdom on the subject dictates that the couple is much better off if they simply get on with it, and a couple may be given private time after the ceremony for this purpose. This is, however, not a requirement, and is entirely dependent upon the beliefs and attitudes of the couple and any guests attending the ceremony.
The ceremony itself shares a lot of structural similarities with a typical Judeo-Christian wedding ceremony, despite it being much shorter. There is the declaration of love, the exchange of vows, and the calling on a higher power (or powers, as the case may be) to bless the couple. If the couple being handfasted follows a Neopagan belief system, the individual conducting the ceremony will call upon the Lord and the Lady, the Divine Masculine and Feminine, to bless the couple’s union. In Neopagan handfasting ceremonies, there will also be references to the seasons and the turning of the year. Many Neopagan handfasting ceremonies take place on May Day, which coincides with Beltaine – the Neopagan fertility festival and celebration of spring. At the end of the ceremony, the couple may jump over a sword or a broom, much in the same vein as the breaking of the glass during a Jewish wedding.
Handfasting can be either a standalone ceremony, or incorporated into a more traditional wedding ceremony. It can also be used for different purposes, whether it is a trial marriage, an engagement, or a legal wedding. The unusual nature of the ceremony itself appeals to those who feel marginalized by more typical wedding ceremonies, and incorporating or using this tradition could be a good choice for same-sex couples. Due to its origin in Ireland and Scotland, handfasting might also appeal to couples interested in celebrating Irish or Scottish heritage.