Handfasting has taken on a couple of slightly different definitions, but all of these include the same basic elements:
- People come together to ‘pledge their troth’ (make a promise) to one another to be joined, if not by legally-binding marriage, then as if they are married and all the attendant expectations that come along with taking that step.
- A cord of some kind is ceremonially looped around their joined hands and knotted as a symbol of this union.
So long as the ceremony includes these two things, the people can be considered Handfasted.
I’d like to clarify that non-traditional, polyfidelity, or polyamorous relationships are not a problem for handfasting either and actually present a wonderful option for this particular situation. People in these relationships can employ handfasting as part of their union ceremonies, but for the sake of convenience in this article, I’m going to refer to the people involved in a handfasting as a couple or partners. That’s not to exclude the poly community, it’s just easier to type.
Handfasting is an ancient practice that is found in many cultures. I believe this is so because of the inherent sacredness of the hand in all walks of life. Hands are used to do everything, both mundane and spiritual, and since the union of two people is a rite that impacts the couple, their family, and their community, presumably for life, the ritual binding of hands is a beautiful way to consecrate this vow.
In Pagan traditions, Handfasting can either be interchanged with Wedding or Marriage in conversation or it can hearken back to the older traditions of the trial union, where couple’s pledged to live as husband and wife for a year-and-a-day before deciding if they wanted to seek a permanent binding or part and go their separate ways.
If a couple seeks a Handfasting rite as part of, or to be the central focus of a legally recognized wedding ceremony, then it is important they find someone licensed in their state to solemnize the union. A ceremony can be as beautiful and moving and magical as you please, but if the officiant isn’t registered as legal clergy when they sign the marriage certificate, you’re still technically unmarried.
Finding an officiant for a Handfasting is also challenging, mostly because they aren’t as out there in the public eye as a priest, pastor, or Justice of the Peace (JoP). If you’re looking for a Pagan clergy person to officiate, you might try looking at local Pagan bookstores or shops in your area or checking online. Witchvox has wonderful listings available for Pagan clergy by state.
Here’s what you should look in an officiant and some general tips for getting the best results for your ceremony:
- Vet credentials — Just because someone claims to do Pagan weddings doesn’t mean they’re actually qualified. Ask to see their certification/papers of ordination and proof that they have the legal recognition in your state to solemnize a marriage. Most of the time, they should offer this up front simply because there are so many people who just want to do the ceremony, either for ego-boosting or the money, and aren’t legally qualified. But, in the end, this is your responsibility.
- Seek referrals or references — If this person claims to have done weddings before, ask them for references of their former clientele and talk to those people. Ask if they were happy with this person’s work and if they would recommend them.
If you are their first client, they should be honest with you about that, and you have the right to decline if you don’t feel like being the lab rat for them to try things out on. If you have a good feeling about them, if they are honest and sincere, and if you’re willing to give them their first shot, then by all means — that’s wonderful. Everyone has to start somewhere. The truth is, you should know up-front this is what everyone is getting into so you can make an informed decision. You want someone who is going to make your special day special. Don’t settle for weak sauce if you want hot peppers.
- Do not wait until the last minute — Affianced couples are notorious for rushing around and panicking about forgetting things or worrying that something just isn’t going to turn out right, especially brides. Do not put this pressure on yourself or your officiant. Once you have a date set, the ABSOLUTELY VERY NEXT THING TO DO WITHOUT HESITATION is to find an officiant. This comes before worrying about dresses, tuxedos, flowers and who is going to sit where, photographers, catering or food, and even the location for the service and reception. You NEED to get your officiant booked as soon as possible. The reason being is that because qualified Pagan officiants are rarer than any other type of wedding officiant, our schedules get booked FAST, especially in a peak season for weddings. Waiting until a month or so before your chosen date is a luxury that those who just want a regular or JoP-type of service have. Pagans do not have this luxury. Hunting for a good officiant is hard, and scheduling one for a particular time is harder. Don’t put yourself into that stress-pit.
- Look for someone you genuinely feel a good rapport with. People are all different, but you want someone who is not going to drive you crazy, or make you feel bad when discussing your dreams and hopes for your day. A good officiant should want your ceremony to be personal and they should be willing to work with you to give you what you want. They probably won’t give you the exact script planned for the ceremony, but you should know what to expect going in and shouldn’t be afraid of any uncomfortable or upsetting surprises being popped at the last moment. They should be patient and understanding, but also honest. If your officiant does premarital counseling or if this is a service you seek, they should be willing to tell you what they see going on and if they have advice to offer, it should be professionally presented in a manner you would expect from a clergy person.
- Payment should be agreed upon and rendered before the wedding service, or if your officiant works on a deposit system, that should be laid out and agreed to by all parties before the wedding day. The money an officiant charges may vary from one officiant to another, or even within one officiant’s service. For example, my rates begin at $85 for a basic ceremony (think of a J0P-style wedding) and go up from there. Others may charge a flat fee for all services.
- Premarital counseling sessions — In mainstream religious traditions, the premarital counseling often has a religious focus. Depending on your officiant, that may be the case for you. Personally, I don’t focus on that unless the couple wants it, or I’m counseling people I share the same belief structure with already. Because of the great variety within Paganism/Witchcraft among practitioners, I feel it’s not my place to say something like, “The Goddess seeks these things from you…” if they follow a more animistic or pantheistic path. If you go for premarital counseling and your officiant does this, I’d count that as a red-flag. It’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it is something to be mindful of before handing over payment and agreeing to accept their services because it’s a potentially big clash.
Things that should be discussed in premarital counseling sessions:
1. Special items to be used for the ceremony — If there are to be any ritual items used in this ceremony specifically that aren’t regularly in either the officiant’s or couple’s possession and must be bought for this, that should be discussed early on. For example, I have a cord I use in Handfasting rites, but often the couple would like to keep the cord used as a personal memento. If they want to keep the cord used in their ceremony, either I add the cost of materials to my standard fee and make a cord for them which they keep afterward, or they acquire the materials and make it themselves.
2. How Pagan do you want the ceremony to be? — Lots of families are a blend of spiritual paths and beliefs and it’s very rare to have a handfasting where everyone in attendance knows the intimate details of what’s actually going on here. If you have guests who are non-Pagan, how will things be worded so as to keep the ceremony what you want without causing– or at least with the effort of limiting — interfaith stress and strain among attendees? You and your officiant should work this out way ahead of time.
3. Flow of the rite — Who will be doing what, where, and when. This is just basic wedding ceremony preparation. It’s expected that the officiant will handle the bulk of this — that’s what you’re hiring them for — but make sure you still feel like you have a voice in what’s going on. Above all else, this is YOUR wedding. Your family and friends might not always remember that, but your officiant should never forget it.
If you are planning a handfasting, either as the couple or the officiant, I hope these insights helped and will give you things to consider going forward.