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Handfasting

Pronounced /ˌhændˈfɑːstɪŋ/Help with IPA

At one time, betrothal — the solemn exchange of vows of intention to marry — was as important a step as marriage itself. Some of the ceremony once common in betrothal — such as exchanging rings or a formal kiss — later became part of the marriage service as that progressively became more important.

We don’t know a lot about the rules in Anglo-Saxon England before the Norman Conquest, but the betrothal ceremony seems to have been marked by the happy couple joining hands. This was the handfast — the holding fast of hands.

It seems that in Northern England and Scotland, handfasting marked a first stage of marriage, a temporary contract that lasted a year and a day. If at the end of that time no child had been born and the couple didn’t want to continue, the betrothal lapsed.

The ceremony’s name has become known again in recent decades because it has been adopted by modern Pagans such as Wiccans. The culmination of the modern ceremony often takes the form of a couple jumping together over a broom, another borrowing from ancient custom. For today’s Pagans, however, the ceremony is marriage, not betrothal. Some have a complementary divorce rite called handparting.

Page created 5 Aug. 2000

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World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2014. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-han1.htm
Last modified: 5 August 2000.