Titled: Handfasting, Wedding, Mating Ceremony
When: A ritual of this sort occurs whenever two or more people have decided to make a special commitment to each other.
Why: The ritual establishes the parameters of the bond between the participants and announces to the community that these people are now a family together and sets up the conditions of their commitment to each other. Those conditions can vary greatly and the duration the participants are expected to fulfill those commitments may also vary.
Handfasting commitments can last a lifetime, like a traditional marriage is expected to, or they can last an indefinite period of time, ending when the participants feel that it is no longer serving its purpose (“As long as love lasts”), or they can last for a specific period of time like, 3 months, a year or several years and can be renewed at the end of each cycle for as long as the participants desire to continue the commitment.
The conditions vary from family to family and may include stipulations about what constitutes fidelity, what living arrangements might be, how mutual finances and property are to be dealt with, and anything else the participants feel is important to maintaining a positive relationship. The ritual can be public or private, but it serves to define the expectations of how the relationship is to proceed as well as offer blessings and hopes for the future mutual lives of the participants.
I say “participants” instead of couple because I acknowledge that some families cannot be boiled down to just one primary couple and that some handfastings may include a number of spouses. Another purpose of these ceremonies surrounds the legality of the union. If a legally recognized marriage is to take place, a handfasting ceremony can be the happy venue for the signing of those particular documents, which would require that the person performing the ceremony be legally able to assist in that way, but this is never a necessary part of such rituals.
I can’t say that there is such a thing as a typical pagan handfasting any more then there is a typical pagan baby blessing ritual or initiation, but even among non-pagan traditions, one might be able to pull some common features of wedding and handfasting ceremonies:
Usually special, symbolic or formal clothing or costuming is worn.
For a pagan ceremony, the casting of a ritual circle is often a part as is the invoking or evoking of deities or spirits and offerings made to them.
A challenge may be offered to one or all participants or some other means of demonstrating the determination of the participants to join together may be contrived.
The participants are often blessed and exchange tokens of some kind.
Vows are made, the participants to each other and sometimes the community to the participants as well.
There might be a grounding of some sort, then any circle that has been cast would be opened.
The parties that can follow these celebrations can be some of the most exciting and well-attended of them all, though many people chose instead to have very private and intimate ceremonies with just close family and/or a coven group.
What are the general themes? Love and romance are big themes in most weddings with the focus being on the unity of the participants. Displaying wealth and extravagance have become the cultural norm for weddings and indulging this trend as an opportunity to throw a unique and incredible party is one choice people may make. Even without extravagant measures, however, personal taste and expression of the participants, demonstrating their nature as a family and as individuals is a common theme, as is continuing family traditions. Fertility is also a major theme, with the idea that a new couple might soon produce children and also wish for a prosperous marriage.
Modern western style weddings are some of the only real highly ceremonial rites of passage familiar to a majority of people. They are powerful rituals and are steeped in tradition, superstition and personal expression. As such, I can barely scratch the surface of the multi-million dollar industry and decades or centuries of cherished traditions inherited by modern western brides and grooms.
Some traditions that appear in modern handfastings are taken from popular or beloved family Christian traditions. Others are reclaimed from those same traditions and recognized for their pagan roots.
Since this is one of the few rites of passage that are not about the change of one single individual but involves the joining of one person to another, a pagan handfasting may involve one participant who is not pagan, not to mention any family members or guests who are not pagan who may not be familiar or entirely at ease with pagan ideas and traditions. Therefore, pagan participants will need to take into consideration the beliefs, views and level of comfort any non-pagan participants or guests may have when constructing their ceremony and any traditions from other religions that may need to be involved due to the religious sensibilities of the non-pagan participants.
Clothing- The grand white wedding dress is something that is so connected to wedding ceremonies and is so iconic that it may sometimes seem that it is the only option for a blushing bride, but I have seen much more variety in pagan wedding costumes then I have ever seen in the mainstream. The tailored suit of grooms may easily be exchanged for some other costume representing their tradition, heritage or personal style. Brides may wear any color that is meaningful to them, be it red or green or even black. Participants may even choose to wear matching outfits, shifts or robes of some special color or design, representing their entering the union as equals. Other trappings, like flowers, may represent both personal taste and also carry magickal and spiritual significance, using specific herbs and flowers to represent specific ideas or wishes for the new family.
Challenge – The challenge may or may not be part of a ceremony. In a typical Christian wedding, the challenge might be when the father of the bride “gives” his daughter away. The bride is indirectly challenged and her father’s support speaks for her right to be wed to the groom. In other cases, a couple might approach the altar together and be challenged as to their intent. In other cases a pre-arranged drama may take place where either the bride or groom may be waylaid by a member of the opposite party of attendants and have to speak to their honest intentions or even give a token bribe to be allowed to approach the altar (perhaps representing their ability to contribute to the upkeep of the new family). I’ve even heard of staged bridal abductions, where members of the grooms party trap and carry off the bride depositing her at the altar (with the explicit permission and participation of the bride, of course, demonstrating her eager willingness to become a member of the new family.)
Blessing – Blessing the participants may range from a simple prayer, to special readings or songs from family members who wish to honor the participants, to the raising of a cone of power meant as a magickal act wishing happiness and fertility upon the participants’ futures together.
Vows - Vows are not limited to just the participants alone. Other members of the family may find themselves in a position to exchange promises with the newlyweds, including step-children, other spouses and even the community as a whole may be asked to promise to support the union of the new family.
Tokens – Tokens may be used to seal the vows. Rings or cords may be exchanged, and usually a kiss. A unity candle may be lit by the participants as a token of their new unity. The exchanging of cords is what gives the handfasting its name as a traditional handfasting involves the participants having their hands fastened together by cords. The cords could be chosen for their representative colors or may be tokens from the participants’ lives, such as the life-cords from their initiations, or a family tartan or heirloom. How long the hands remain tied depends on the tradition, with some people remaining tied for the remainder of the day, some longer and some removing the cords right away once out of the sacred circle, but the cords will often be kept as a sacred talisman of the marriage or burned to prevent them from being untied.
Grounding – Grounding may take the form of a traditional communion or cakes and ale ceremony, with the participants sharing a special food or drink, or may be done with music and dancing or a closing prayer. One popular way to end a handfasting is to have the participants jump the broom, which is an act that is common both to Celtic tradition and African American tradition, and often represents the new families shared duties in the household. Modern times have translated this custom into jumping or being carried over the threshold of the new home.
Celebration – after the ceremony, there are plenty of customs and superstitions practiced at wedding receptions, including the ceremonial cutting of the wedding cake, the first dance and throwing of the bridal bouquet. This party is a way for the new family to bond with the participants and celebrate the joining of the new family, beyond just the participants. It is a time to recognize the change of relationships within the larger family and community as well as the core family.
How is the person’s life changed after the rite? Well, if the marriage is a legal one, all sorts of legal changes take place, from how you file your taxes to how you get treated in hospitals to how your property gets divided when you die. Unfortunately, the US government and our society tends to reward people who choose legal marriage over other perfectly valid and fulfilling lifestyles, but that’s a gripe I’ll have to discuss at another time…
In any case, after this point, the participants are seen to be wholly a family unit, independent and connected to each other. Vows of fidelity and other promises are to be taken seriously and a life is built together. For many people, a life together may already be fairly well established and the rewards of such a ceremony may reflect more on familial and interpersonal relationships, making solid familial ties where there were previously only ties of close association and also deepening the commitment and focus each participant has for each other and their mutual future. For long term handfastings, if the relationship is to end, the commitment would then have to be unbound and for short term handfasting, the bond would have to be continually renewed after this point or made long-term. In any case, relationships don’t end there, they have to be maintained carefully and lovingly. A handfasting ceremony may help provide a special basis to move forward from and for any loving family, will be a bright and shining day to remember and give them strength.