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Handfasting

Pronounced /ˌhændˈfɑːstɪŋ/Help with pronunciation

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.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Aug. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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