Hand-fasting: A Celtic Tradition for your Irish Wedding Ceremony

Danielle Ace-38Many couples who come to Ireland for their dream wedding are looking to incorporate some Irish traditions and elements into their special day. One detail many couples are choosing is hand-fasting.  This post explores quickly the history behind the hand-fasting ceremony and how you can incorporate it into your dream Irish wedding today. We have some great tips on how to design your hand-fasting chord, and some ways to personalize it so it is truly unique to you as a couple.

HISTORY  Dating back to ancient Celtic times, hand-fasting was, in the simplest of terms, the official wedding of the ancient Celts. Dating back far beyond 7000 B.C. in ancient Ireland, two people who chose to be married were brought together, often on a feast day such as Beltane, and faced each other. With arms extended, they clasped hands and a braided chord or ribbon was wrapped and tied around their hands, the Druid priest proclaiming the two persons are now engaged. This period of engagement would typically run the length of a full year, during which the couple were encouraged to cohabitate together (and consummate the relationship). It was a public declaration of intent to marry, signaling to potential suitors that the woman was intended to her betrothed and not to be harassed. After the period of a year was over, the engaged couple would return to the priest and declare their intent to be married, which would follow soon after. If they decided they were not a good match, the couple were allowed to dissolve their hand-fast and be free to choose another suitor and bride.

As Celtic culture spread from Ireland and Scotland through Britain and into western Europe, so did the customs of marriage. Hand-fasting became a staple of culture where all Celtic people resided, up through the introduction of Christianity. As Christian marriage ritual began to take over, some elements of paganism of the Celts remained, including hand-fasting. More often than not, the hand-fasting was incorporated into  the Christian marriage ceremony itself, and remained as such for many years. Especially in settlements and villages outside of larger city-centers where monasteries and cathedrals were fewer and farther between, Christian Irish people exclusively used the hand-fast as de-facto marriage ceremony until a priest would visit the village, at which point he could “finish” the marriage rite properly with a Christian marriage ceremony. To be considered valid, the couple simply needed to declare their consent to be hand-fasted to each other in the presence of a witness, who would tie the knot for them. To this day hand-fasting is legally recognized in some Irish and Scottish villages as a legal and binding marriage!

TODAY   Ireland’s marriage ceremonies have a required civil element (legal), which all couples must abide by, and then a spiritual element if the couple so chooses to incorporate. Be it a traditional Catholic marriage ceremony or one centered on Celtic spirituality or a simple blessing ceremony, a couple can incorporate virtually any element important to them on their Irish wedding day. Couples who come to Ireland to get married often look to the culture and history to gain inspiration, a great majority finding it in the hand-fast ceremony and using that in their own wedding as either an element woven in a traditional Christian wedding or blessing or as the main event itself. Couples love the visual representation that hand-fasting provides; it is literally “tying the knot right in front of your friends and family. And with some creativity and planning, the hand-fasting can be a truly meaningful keepsake for your wedding and heirloom to pass on to your children later.

THE CHORD  Hand-fasting involves the part that is actually tied into a knot — called the “chord.”  Traditionally it was made of rope or dyed cloth, embroidered if the skill and money afforded it. Today it can be anything from silky ribbons, thick or thin chords, fabric taken from heirloom dresses, or basically anything that could be theoretically tied around two hands. The resulting product is usually around a yard in length, allowing for it to be wrapped about the hands a couple of times to mimic the Celtic knot type pattern (celtic knots in artwork symbolize unity and everlasting). But as a couple you can choose virtually anything to work. Here are some ideas:

  •  If your wedding as a specific color theme, you can incorporate them in your hand-fasting chord.  Plain silk ribbons from a fabric store work perfectly for this.
  • Have the kids help out! When we renewed our vows, I had our three kids each pick out a ribbon for our hand-fasting chord. They took turns helping me braid it into one thick chord. I look at it now once in a while and my heart fills with joy knowing that the kids help create such a special part of our day.
  • Add a charm to make it special! There are little charms used for jewelry; if there is a special symbol that is meaningful for you as a couple, think about adding that charm to the ends of the chord or ribbons. Not only will it give it a personal meaning, but it will have visual appeal and texture. If you can’t think of anything, add some golden shamrocks or a lucky horseshoe (also traditional Irish symbols of luck for a wedding day)!
  • Something old, something blue.  For our vow renewal, one of my “something old” was actually a ribbon used in the hand-fasting chord. It was a beautiful purple and gold ribbon dating back to the Victorian era that I found on etsy. Not only did it offer a stunning look in the chord, offset by the darker purples and greens the kids chose, but it stood out as something unique and special. If you’re looking for your “something blue” then think about adding a blue ribbon here!  If there is a family heirloom — dress, veil, article of clothing — where a piece can be taken out, consider using that as part of your chord.
  • Use natural elements. Some couples will collect items from vacations special occasions during the relationship. Seashells, beads, paper or tissue cranes….virtually anything can be crafted into your hand-fasting chord that can tell a story about your relationship.
  • Have your guests help.  For a smaller, intimate wedding, consider handing out ribbons to each of your guests. When the time comes, invite them to each walk up and hand your celebrant their piece of ribbon, each contributing a piece of your hand-fasting chord.
  • Florals and Nature!  Doesn’t have to be ribbons and chords! For a stunning look that is organic and also deeply symbolic, think about having natural garland, vines, flowers woven together by your florist to serve as your hand-fasting chord.

THE NUMBER   There is no set rule as to how many ribbons or chords can be used in this. For logistical purposes, you might not want to use something terribly heavy or some kind of scratchy material that will irritate the skin. But any amount will work. Some couples prefer for the ribbons to be symbolic; they will have one ribbon represent each of their children for example. Other couples will conceptualize their wishes for each other in their marriage; each ribbon is symbolic for that particular wish. Many, though, settle on the number 3. As is said in Ecclesiastes: “Though one may prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”  Pagan Celts also strongly believed in the number 3.

WHO TIES IT   Traditionally the celebrant you engage for your wedding will tie the hand-fasting chord, but if there is someone special you would like to do it instead — parents, family, children — then feel free to talk to your celebrant about that. There is no set “rule” for this; traditionally anyone in the village could be the witness who tied the hand-fast.

AFTER THE CEREMONY   Usually the hand-fast chord is left tied to the couple; they are encouraged to slip it off with most of it still tied if possible.  Some couples place it around their unity candle (if using) while others simply bring it home and frame it or place in a keepsake box. From our vow renewal chord, we used 3 ribbons; I plan to give one to each of my children when they get married to use as part of their own hand-fast chord.

Hand-fasting is really a lovely tradition, seeped deeply in Irish history that has every place in your dream Irish wedding. For those couples looking to incorporate something traditionally Irish and super romantic, truly this is a most lovely element to consider for your wedding ceremony.

Photo courtesy of Kelly McAllister. For more gorgeous photos of Danielle and Ace’s beautiful Howth Head elopement, click here.

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