Handfasting Ceremony

I was invited to conduct a handfasting ceremony on a beautiful farming property up on the Dorrigo plateau in northern NSW.  The garden, where the ceremony was held, was a maze of pathways that were an invitation to wander through the terraced beds of flowers and shrubs down to a cleared area which overlooked the lush, green hills. In the northern corner stood a big oak tree which had seen many family occasions. It was gnarled and beautiful and was decorated with a big yellow ribbon around its huge trunk.

You may remember the song, Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree, made famous in the seventies – the lyrics apparently, date back four centuries. The yellow ribbon around the trunk of an oak tree symbolised the promise of a young girl being true to her man. At the ceremony I attended, the yellow ribbon tied around their oak tree symbolised the couple’s loyalty to each other as they had endured many months apart while the groom was working interstate. There are many rituals that have lasted centuries that symbolise a couples love and commitment.

Handfasting Ceremony

The handfasting ceremony dates back to the time of the ancient Celts. From my research I discovered it was used to acknowledge the beginning of a trial period of a year and a day during which time a couple were literally bound together – hand fasted. There are many different historical reports that differ on whether this was a temporary or long term binding arrangement. There have been so many other factors at play relating to a couple’s status over the centuries.

As part of the marriage ceremony the couple from Dorrigo pledged their love to each other with ribbons being wrapped around their hands with each promise.

A Lifetime Commitment

In a hand fasting ceremony the couple’s hands are joined together, usually holding hands so the wrists and pulses are touching, with a ribbon or symbolic material looped over the couple’s wrists and tied by the celebrant or a friend.  The words spoken usually express that the couple are bound by their love and commitment for one another and like the cord, which has two individual ends, they are two individuals. Yet, in essence, they are one.

Before starting ensure that the ribbon is the right length – I recommend a rehearsal so that everyone is familiar with the ritual before the ceremony day. Here is a sample ceremony below, looping the ribbon six times.

The bride and groom usually remain joined by the looped ribbon until after the marriage vow – not for a year and a day! The final tie being done loosely so the ribbon can be removed easily while remaining tied.

As the celebrant, ensure you are standing so all the guests can see the ceremony. You may also wish to explain the ritual and its history before starting. People love to know what is going on.

You can use just one long cord or ribbon that is looped over the joined hands at each asking or you can use a separate cord or ribbon for each question, and then tie them all as one when the asking is complete. Make sure there is plenty of time to really allow the couple to hear the questions that are being asked of them.

There is usually a question to start a handfasting ritual such as:

Jane and Matthew, do you come here voluntarily to enter this marriage ceremony? (Yes, we do.)

Jane and Matthew, would you please hold hands.Jane and Matthew, will you honour and respect one another? (We will.) The first cord is draped over the couples’ hands.

Will you support and assist each other in times of pain and sorrow? (We will.)
Second cord is draped over the couple’s hands.

Will you be present in the difficult and challenging times so that you may grow strong in this union? (We will.) Third cord is draped over the couples’ hands.

Will you share each others laughter and joy, and look for the brightness and fun in life, and the positive in each other? (We will.) Fourth cord is draped over the couples’ hands.

Is it your intention to bring peace and harmony into your every day ways of communicating? (We will.)
Fifth cord is draped over the couples’ hands.

And when you falter, will you have the courage and commitment to remember these promises and take a step back towards one another with an open heart? (We will.) Sixth cord is draped over the couples’ hands.

Other possible questions
Are you willing now and always to make this commitment to each other? We are.

Will you stand side by side for the rest of your days together? We will. 

Will you bring fun, laughter, joy and happiness to your relationship? We will. 

And as the years pass and your hands become aged and wrinkled, will you reach out and be there for each other? We will.
And now as your hands are bound together, I ask you to declare your vows to each other.

At this point the legal vows can be incorporated. There are so many variations on the handfasting ceremony depending on what the couple would like.

Find out if your couple have any ideas first of all and if not, then you can ask them what they would like to promise to each other and what values they would like to uphold. Their answers can then be reformulated to create the questions.

This video produced by the Humanist Society in Scotland is great for showing you how to place the ribbon or cord so the couple can literally ‘tie the knot’ easily and with one move.

For more information about creating inspiring wedding ceremonies and incorporating readings, blessings and rituals click here.

Handfasting ceremony