Handfasting, handfasting, let me count the ways! - Aileen Dockerty, Wedding Officiant and Celebrant
Celebrant conducting wedding and funeral ceremonies and marriage officiant licensed by the Province of Ontario throughout Durham Region, York Region, Toronto and Ontario.
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Handfasting, handfasting, let me count the ways!

Handfasting, handfasting, let me count the ways!

Due to the fact that I have been privileged to perform many handfasting ceremonies over many years (and they are increasing) either as part of a legal wedding ceremony or without the legalities, I have delved quite deeply into the tradition, its origins and the many cultures that embrace this ancient custom.  It is also important to note that as well, full handfasting ceremonies (with or without a legal marriage component) are often requested by couples that have seen the symbolism and beauty of this fabulous tradition.  At this time, I can honestly say that this is the most popular and meaningful addition to any kind of wedding or commitment ceremony that is requested.  Certainly, handfastings are increasing in popularity.

Here is a very brief summary of this amazing cultural addition:

A Brief History of Handfasting

We find the word “handfasting” actually referring to a kind of marriage in the British Isles.  A handfasting ceremony is an ancient marriage ritual made popular in Ireland and Scotland during the early Christian period.  This symbolic joining together of the couple’s hands is the origin of the familiar expression, “tying the knot”.

Unlike “official” weddings which had some kind of officiant, and would be recorded solemnly by people whose job it was to record these things, handfasting was simply performed by a couple in front of a witness or two.  It was generally no more complex than the couple joining hands (thus making “fast” their hands) and declaring themselves united.  Sometimes signifying a betrothal, rather than a marriage or often a marriage between peasants where legal marriage was not possible, signifying a “common law” relationship.  Indeed, in Scotland, handfasting was recognized as a legal marriage until 1939 when marriage laws were changed in that country.

With the advent of the church rather than the civil wedding, the term handfasting fell out of usage until the 1950s.

Today, a handfasting ceremony is a beautiful and unique way to represent your union and honour your heritage.  The ritual takes place during the ceremony, before the rings are exchanged.

Handfasting Alternatives for Different Beliefs

There are actually very many types of handfasting ceremonies for alternative belief systems where wording and certain components are different including Celtic, Pagan, Druidic, Grecian, Romany and Wiccan.  All can be incorporated into a wedding or commitment ceremony, or simply a full handfasting ceremony.  In addition significant guests and family members can be involved in the handfasting ceremony itself in a variety of ways.

Vows can be said by each of the bride and groom spontaneously or repeated after the celebrant/officiant.  In addition, vows can be asked of the bride and groom, and/or appointed guests, each adding a different coloured cord or ribbon to the handfasting collection on the couple’s joined hands.

Instead, a braid can be made from different kinds of cloth or ribbon in different colours which are significant because of the meaning of that colour (or simply bridal party colours) and as each vow is asked by the celebrant, the long braid is wrapped one more time around the hands.

Celtic Handfasting

For Scottish handfasting ceremonies (and sometimes ceremonies for their Irish and Welsh cousins), the cloth/ribbon used is made of tartan.  A family tartan or two can be incorporated if in existence or an alternative tartan can be selected.   Alternatively, a custom made braid can be used with charms/beads on the end to match the wedding party colours or preferred colours for the couple.

Actually Tying the Knot

Different knots can be used depending upon the type of handfasting selected.  The infinity knot is a symbolic knot which I often use after discussing this with my couples;  another option is that the braid/cord can be tied three times with specific words spoken representing the significance of each knot.  However, the possibilities for knotting the actual braid are endless!

More information and photos are set out on our handfasting page.  Please also see below for real Handfasting tartans and braids  (please click on each image for a better view):



Handfasting Vow Option No. 1

You cannot possess me for I belong to myself. But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give. You cannot command me for I am a free person.  I pledge to you that it will be your eyes into which I smile every morning. I pledge to you my living and my dying, each equally in your care. I shall be a shield for your back, and you for mine. I shall not slander you, nor you me. I shall honour you above all others, and when we quarrel, we shall do so in private and tell no strangers our grievances. This is my wedding vow to you. This is the marriage of equals.

Handfasting Vow Option No. 2

I pledge my love to you, and everything that I own.
I promise you the first bite of my meat and the first sip from by cup.
I pledge that your name will always be the name I cry aloud in the dead of night.
I promise to honor you above all others.
Our love is never-ending, and we will remain, forevermore, equals in our marriage.
This is my wedding vow to you.


Option A

[Vows can be used with one or multiple ribbons or cords]

(Groom) and (Bride), I bid you look into each other’s eyes.

Will you honour and respect one another,
and seek to never break that honour?

We will [the first cord is draped over the couples’ hands]
And so the first binding is made.

Will you share each other’s pain and seek to ease it?
We will [Second cord is draped over the hands]
And so the binding is made

Will you share the burdens of each so that your spirits may grow in this union?
We will [third cord is draped over the couples’ hands]
And so the binding is made.

Will you share each other’s laughter, and look for the brightness in life
and the positive in each other?
We will. [fourth cord is draped over the couples’ hands]
And so the binding is made.

Is it your intention to bring peace and harmony into your every day communications?
We will [Fifth cord is draped over the couples’ hands]

And so the binding is made

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).
We will [Sixth cord is draped over the couples’ hands.]

And so the binding is made

[Vows can be expanded]

[Cords are tied together]

Option B

Do you wish to enter this ceremony? Yes, we do.

I ask that you face one another and look into each other’s eyes.

Groom, will you bring suffering into the relationship? I may.
Is that your intent? No.

Bride, will you bring suffering into the relationship? I may.
Is that your intent? No.

Bride and Groom, will you make peace your first priority and, at those times when you forget, be brave and take the first step forward to healing? Yes.

And so the binding is made. (The first cord is placed over the couple’s joined hands).

Bride, will you share Groom’s laughter and joy? Yes.
Groom, will you share Bride’s laughter and joy? Yes.
Bride and Groom, will you look for the brightness and joy in life and the positive in each other? Yes.

And so the binding is made. (The cord is looped over the couple’s hands).

Bride, will you trouble Groom? I may.
Is that your intent? No.
Groom, will you trouble Bride? I may.
Is that your intent? No.

(Sentiments like the ones above will make the guests laugh momentarily until they realise that this is the truth of what happens and how important it is for Bride and Groom to acknowledge this).

Bride and Groom, will you be present in the challenges so that you may grow strong in this union? Yes.

And so the binding is made. (The cord is looped again over the couples hands).

And so on…
Eg: Will you dream together…
Willl you cause anger…
Will you honour …
Will you always respect and give gratitude to the other.

After each question, the ribbon will be looped around the couple’s hands.

After A and B, the Officiant/Celebrant will say: 

(Bride) and (Groom), as your hands are bound together now,
so your lives and spirits are joined in a union of love and trust.
Above you are the stars and below you is the earth.
Like the stars you love should be a constant source of light,
and like the earth, a firm foundation from which to grow.

(from this point the ceremony will  move on to traditional vows and the ring exchange)

Interestingly, today, couples which do not wish to legally marry, may instead engage in complete handfasting ceremonies, making the commitments their peasant ancestors made.  Have we gone full circle?

  • Larry Thomas
    Posted at 14:28h, 30 August Reply

    I can’t thank Aileen enough for expediting my purchase of the custom double bead, wine red, Royal blue, and ivory handmade handfasting cord. She ensured it was sent to the address of the wedding to ensure it arrived on time. This was the first time anyone attending the wedding [150+ people] had witnessed the handfasting ceremony. The cord was beautiful and added so much to the enjoyment of the ceremony. Aileen, thank you so much for all your help. I highly recommend Aileen and her products to fulfill all your wedding requirements. Larry Thomas, Athens, Alabama.

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