Monday, January 27, 2014

#Irish Culture: Handfasting

Handfasting: An Ancient Tradition

He stepped in front of her with a serious look. “Mary, you were present at their handfasting ceremony a year and a week ago.”
“You were already at their wedding. This is just a formality. They have to approach the priest and when the priest asks if they object to the union, which you know they will not, then he will officially marry them. They’ve been living together for a year and a week. There’s nothing more for them to do than make themselves husband and wife before God tonight after taking their vows.”
                                                                  - Kathleen's Revenge by: Allison Bruning

Handfasting Marriage Photo
We're tying the knot. 

I've given my hand.

You've heard those expressions before. Did you know they are derived from an ancient Celtic wedding tradition? No? Those sayings have ties back to the handfasting ceremony.

Handfasting? Never heard of it? It's not a word that we commonly hear nowadays. So what is handfasting and why in the passage above does the wedding couple have to participate in a church wedding when they already had a handfasting ceremony?

Handfasting was practiced in the British Isles for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggest it made it's first appearance in the isles when the Celts migrated from Europe to Britain around 7000 B.C. The custom spread as societies sprung up throughout Scotland, Ireland and England. You can learn more about the history of handfasting in the British Isles at this link.

The handfasting ceremony occurred with a couple came before a priest to declare their intentions. The couple would clasp hands and the priest would bind their wrists together with a specially made cloth. The ceremony was simple and was considered a social contract between the couple to be man and wife. Some couples chose to have a public handfasting ceremony so that their union was formally recognized by the public. This would include several witnesses who would stand by the couple. The only importance the public ceremony had was that it validated the union publically. In the eyes of the Irish and the Scottish, a couple who had the handfasting ceremony were man and wife, no matter if it was a public matter or not. 

The handfasting ceremony continued throughout the centuries in England, Ireland and Scotland yet the importance of the ceremony waned after the Christianity came to the isles. The Council of Trent in 1527 declared since marriage was considered to be a church sacrament then the church must conduct the ceremony. The Irish government, though, would not record marriages until the middle of the 19th century. Handfasting ceremonies were important to the rural areas because it could takes weeks or months for a clergy to arrive to a couples village. The couple would hold a public handfasting ceremony to declare their union. The union created by a handfasting ceremony was considered to be a "common law" marriage and was generally only practiced by the poor. To the Irish any couple who had a handfasting ceremony were recognized as being married, even if they married in an irregular way. In the 1700's England banned handfasting as a legal way to marry but Scotland did not. Although, it was not legally recognized there were Irish couples who secretly kept with the tradition as a way of maintaining their Celtic heritage. In their eyes, they were married but they still had to endure the long process of a church wedding.

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