Handfasting is an old Irish ceremony of commitment. The ceremony formalized a relationship, whether an engagement, a trial marriage, a permanent marriage, or optimistically, a marriage over several lifetimes. This Celtic ceremony of unity, whatever the terms, represents the intention of two (and nowadays sometimes more) people to make their lives together and ideally to love and cherish one another.
The Celtic harvest festival, Lughnasa, celebrated on August 1, was greeted with great anticipation not only because it expressed gratitude for the harvest, but because by the end of it, many couples had formed, were handfasted, and went off for a year of marriage to renew their vows the following year---that “year-and-a-day”---or not, as the case may be.
Though handfasting goes back to the mists of ancient times in Ireland, as do the Brehon laws, when marriages were not always what today we think of as “traditional,” it was practiced even in Christian Ireland. There were not always priests around to perform the wedding ceremony, and love, like time, prefers to wait for no man. It was not even a requirement that the marriage be witnessed for it to be legally binding once the couple had performed the ceremony.
Under Brehon law, there was an understanding that marriages didn’t always work out, and incompatible couples needn’t stay together, but the care of children, division of property, and inheritances were serious matters, and provisions were made under these sophisticated laws.
Irish wedding ceremonies are rife with symbolism, and handfasting is no exception. In handfasting, the wrists of the couple are bound together with a ribbon or cord. Each partner holds the hands of the other---right hand to right hand, left hand to left---their wrists crossed. The ribbon is wound around the wrists over the top of one and under and around the other, thus creating the infinity symbol. It is said that this ritual is the origin of the term “tying the knot.” The vows are spoken and the celebration commenced.
In a Celtic ceremony, everything has meaning: the music, the flowers, the braids in the bride’s hair, the rings---now often Claddagh rings---and even the use of evergreen garland around the doorways.
Though some may think that the symbols used in these ancient rituals are somehow anti-religious, make no mistake; they may be hold-overs from pagan times, but they are valid representatives of the things we humans hold precious. They speak to the collective unconscious, to the inner person. Do you shake hands? Does a suitor ask for the hand of a woman in marriage? And when we marry, do we promise to love the other forever…and a day?