The desire to make your wedding feel like it's truly and uniquely yours is totally normal. And one way in which contemporary couples are seeking a more personal bent for their nuptials is by adding a "unity ritual" to their ceremonies. As the name suggests, a unity ritual is any sort of symbolic gesture that demonstrates a couple's commitment to each other. Across the wide and ranging variety of unity rituals, one stands out in popularity: handfasting. This is where a couple joins hands and has them wrapped in ribbon, binding them together spiritually and physically (yes, this is where "tying the knot" comes from). While this ritual most commonly appears as part of an otherwise traditional ceremony nowadays, it used to be a (sometimes wholly unromantic) ceremony unto itself.
Author and Wiccan high priestess Deborah Blake tells Refinery29 that handfastings originated in the British Isles in the 12th century. She adds that the act of binding people's hands together as a symbolic gesture can be found elsewhere in the world and history, but this is where the practice as we know it began. The term itself is from the Angl0-Saxon word "handfæstung," which refers to shaking hands in order to seal an agreement, explains Anna Franklin, an author, practicing witch, and Pagan high priestess. Back then, a handfæstung was made after the groom had agreed to a "down payment" for his betrothed, before the wedding itself — romantic, right?
Blake adds that, when handfastings were considered the norm, they were about "as legally binding as an actual wedding ceremony." According to Franklin, "marriages in the old days did not always take place with the benefit of clergy. Often only the rich could afford a church ceremony... In most parts of Europe, a declaration before witnesses was enough to constitute a legal marriage."
By the 1700s, Franklin explains, some communities treated handfastings as trial marriages. Two people could have a handfasting, go off and live together as a couple, then, after a year, decide if they wanted to stay together. At that point, a couple could either seal their union with another ceremony or go their separate ways. That's why traditional handfasting vows usually had a time stamp on them — Franklin says a common promise made was "I give myself to [partner's name] for a year and a day" or "I give myself to [partner's name] for thirteen moons."
Modern-day handfastings, however, typically feature long-term vows of love and commitment, and can be traced back to the rise of Neopaganism in the mid-20th century, Blake explains. A couple might share a cup of wine or light a candle together during the handfasting, and incorporate elements of other types of unity rituals. They might also perform their handfasting during their wedding ceremony or at another time in front of a smaller, more intimate gathering.
What remains the same across handfastings is the binding of the couple's hands — sometimes just their right hands, sometimes both with the ribbon making an infinity symbol. "It is considered that, as the hands are bound together, so the couple are joined in love, trust and mutual support," Franklin says, adding that some may even opt to keep their hands tied together until the next day, to fully grasp the commitment they've made to each other.
As much as the handfasting ceremony has evolved, it has always represented two lives becoming one. It will likely continue to evolve as more couples discover its simple symbolism — and still the theme at its core will be devotion.
"I have performed many handfastings over my years as a high priestess, and no two were alike, except in the love shared by those participating in them," Blake adds.