You’ve heard of the phrase “tying the knot,” but did you know that this common metaphor for “getting married” is rooted in an ancient Celtic wedding tradition known as handfasting?
This unity ritual is believed to have begun as a betrothal rite in pre-Christian Ireland, when couples would pledge their love to each other by having their hands bound together with ribbon in the presence of a witness. The knot was symbolic of their union, commitment, joining of families, and—legend has it—was defined by a contract of a year and a day, at which time the couple could decide to keep their symbolic knot intact or break the bind.
Today, unity rituals like handfasting are being integrated into contemporary wedding ceremonies as a uniquely personal way to add another layer of meaning and significance to the act of getting married.
While the ribbons are a mainstay of the ritual, there is flexibility in how you approach the ceremony itself; it can take the place of a standard wedding ceremony, or be woven into a more mainstream matrimonial experience. And while popular with modern-day Pagans, handfasting can fit in with ceremonies that are secular or religious, as well.
When John Francis McCullagh and Courtney Boyd-Garza embarked on the planning process for their vegan wedding, it was John Francis who proposed that they integrate handfasting into their Halloween nuptial celebration.
“I was raised Catholic and Courtney grew up in her local church, but I wouldn’t say we’re particularly religious,” says John Francis. Deeply connected to his Irish roots, he wanted to express some of that meaningful heritage in their ceremony, and landed on handfasting as a way to personalize their union.
“I’ve known about handfasting for years,” says John Francis, a filmmaker and producer. “I probably came across it in a book or movie at some point.”
Both he and Courtney, a writer and social media agency owner, liked the idea of opting out of the ring-exchange ceremony, since Courtney loved her engagement ring and didn’t feel the need for a second ring, and John Francis already wore an Irish Claddagh ring, which features a heart clasped by two hands. Handfasting offered all the symbolism of a ring exchange, but with a unique twist.
Couples can approach the handfasting in a variety of ways, including having an officiant preside over the ceremony (there are officiants in every corner of the world who specialize in handfasting), or enlisting a friend or family member to do the honors.
“We wanted something a little more unique,” says Courtney. “It seemed fitting for us both to actually do the tying.”
His best man played a role in the ceremony, first wrapping a green rope symbolizing the groom around the couple’s hands, followed by Courtney’s maid of honor winding a purple rope representing the bride around their hands. Next, John Francis’ mother, who was also their officiant, wound a golden rope around their hands to symbolize love and marriage.
“The way the three ropes were wrapped allowed Courtney and I to pull our hands back," says John Francis, "and in doing so, we tied the knot!”
Unity rituals like handfasting are being integrated into contemporary wedding ceremonies as a uniquely personal way to add more meaning and significance to the act of getting married.
Guests fully immersed themselves in the magic of their ceremony, some even dressing up as fairies and fantasy characters for the occasion. A dear friend performed a traditional Irish song on the harp, and everyone in attendance relished the incredible food from local plant-based purveyors TLC Vegan Kitchen and the stunning cake created by their friend Gillian of Sweet Gilly’s.
“They were all blown away by how delicious it all was,” says John Francis.
For couples thinking of integrating a handfasting ceremony into their wedding celebration, John Francis and Courtney suggest following your hearts and making your big day an authentic reflection of who you are as a couple.
“I am a big advocate for celebrating your wedding your way,” says Courtney. “If there are unique ideas or concepts you want to add to the ceremony and/or reception, go for it. As long as the two people getting married agree on what they want, that’s all that should matter.”
There is plenty of room for customization in the modern handfasting tradition, and adding personal touches can charge the ceremony with more feeling and significance. To get started, consider these elements for making your handfasting as beautiful and meaningful as your matrimonial bond.
Choosing ribbons, cords, or pieces of fabric is not only a fun activity to embark on together, but allows you to spend time thinking about the significance of the act and the feelings and sentiments you want to emphasize. Perhaps you'll choose fabric or ribbon that has been in the family for generations, to pay homage to a specific relative (or relatives); or you might settle on colors that hold personal or symbolic meaning. You might also consider having friends or family bring their own special ribbon to the ceremony to make the experience more interactive.
Deciding who will perform the ceremony is one of the most important facets of the ritual. You can have your wedding officiant perform the rite, call in a Druid priest or priestess (they're out there!) or another handfasting specialist, or have an interactive experience and invite friends and family to participate in the symbolic tying of the knots. John Francis and Courtney's ceremony incorporated friends and family, but the actual tying of the knot was performed by the couple themselves.
What words are spoken and, equally important, when they are spoken presents yet another opportunity to fine-tune your feelings to better express yourselves during your ceremony. You may choose to recite specific vows as the ribbons are being tied, recite a favorite piece of poetry, or you might prefer that your officiant take on the speaking role so that you can direct your focus toward the sacredness of the act. Some couples also take the opportunity to explain the significance of the ceremony to guests before getting started. However you choose to approach your handfasting, know that it will be a perfect reflection of you as a couple!
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