Handfasting is an old tradition which, depending on its use, can define either a religious ceremony an unofficially sanctioned wedding, or a temporary marriage. The word Handfasting actually comes from the Gaelic phrase Handa Fathair, which means “attempting marriage.” The term refers to both the physical making of a commitment by the joining or shaking of two hands. However, it also describes a process that involves more than mere physical activity. It is considered to be a process of faith-based promise-keeping.
The origin of the custom in the west is not clear. The phrase “hand fasting” in Ireland is frequently used to describe the Christian practice of receiving the Holy Communion by a couple. In fact, many non-Irish speakers do not understand the reference to hand fasting when they hear the term. In modern times, however, many Catholics will insist that the custom is solely a Christian practice and has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestants, or the Eucharistic community itself.
The tradition of hand fasting dates back to the fourth century. It is thought that this earliest form of commitment ceremony was used by Scandinavians as a way to keep away evil spirits, but it is also believed that this practice migrated to Ireland and to Scotland. By the twelfth century, most Scottish families practiced it. A change in the law in Ireland made it easier for couples to publicly commit to each other before their wedding ceremony.
In some cases, the couple will undertake a series of handfasting commitments prior to their wedding day. For example, in the case of a union between someone willing to be married to just the one person, the couple will fast until their marriage ceremony. This does not mean, however, that they must separate from one another for the duration of the wedding day. In these cases, the wedding ceremony usually takes place after the commitments have been taken, and the families continue to hold their wedding ceremonies normally.
Traditionally, the customs surrounding handfasting vary from family to family. In some families, the ceremony involves the whole family joining in to bind their loved one to their union. In other cases, the tradition restricts that only one family member to participate in the ceremony. The first family to start the ritual may simply do so as a family unit, or they may take the lead and ask each other to join in. If the family is especially close, they might even decide to start the tradition on their own and then invite their friends to join in as they go through the tradition together.
While the tradition may have started as a legal binding in many cases, in most modern day weddings, the handfasting ceremony is no longer required for those who wish to marry. Instead, the engaged couple goes through a short wedding ceremony that officially gives them both permission to marry in the eyes of the law. At the end of this brief service, the bride and groom take their separate rings and exchange them. This officially completes the handfasting. There is no legal binding involved at any point during this entire process, although there are still some families who choose to observe a period of time after the wedding ceremony to dedicate the couple for their handfasting.
During Scotland, the church wedding ceremony is one of the most common traditions in this area. In many rural communities, there are still small villages with a Catholic church with a modest community that uses this type of ceremony. A Catholic church wedding in the highlands or anywhere else requires that the wedding couple first perform a handfast before the mass. This is true for almost all Catholic denominations; however, it is also true for many other religions, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
Many people in the United Kingdom today celebrate pagans or not just pagans. There are some traditional wedding couples who choose not to be joined together by marriage rope but use the ceremonial cords instead. Scotland has a rich tradition of using these cords. The practice dates back to at least the 11th century, when the Romans began placing metal chains around their necks to symbolize chastity and piety. These chains, which were originally made from bronze or iron, have been replaced by modern-day jewelry and cloth ties. There are even some Scottish families that continue the tradition of tying their hands together by tying cords, perhaps out of a desire to keep their families closer.