Handfasting: A ritual in which the hands of both marriage partners are tied together to symbolize their connection to each other. From Middle English hondfesten, "to betroth." Originally Old Norse handfesta, "to strike a bargain; to pledge." From hond = hand and festa = to fasten, fix, or affirm. Modern English retains this sense of fast in words such as fasten and steadfast.
I witnessed handfasting for the first time at a wedding I attended over the weekend. The program described the ritual this way:
Handfasting is a traditional Celtic wedding ceremony. The term comes from the verb to handfast, which was used in Middle to Early Modern English to make a contract of marriage. The symbolic binding of the hands at the end of the service inspired the terms "bonds of holy matrimony" and "tie the knot." This custom has also been known the world over, through many different periods of history. During the Middle Ages, to be seen in public holding hands was a sign that a couple was exclusive to one another. The handfasting tradition also comes from this time when rings were for the very rich, yet love knew no bounds and a simple cord represented your commitment and love.
A lovely story, to be sure, but because most pre-modern marriages were arranged, the binding would have represented obligation rather than love.
One of the other highlights of the ceremony was the recitation of a delightful epithalamion* (wedding poem) written by spoken-word artist Taylor Mali. The poem, titled "Falling in love is like owning a dog," begins with this stanza:
First of all, it's a big responsibility,
especially in a city like New York.
So think long and hard before deciding on love.
On the other hand, love gives you a sense of security:
when you're walking down the street late at night
and you have a leash on love
ain't no one going to mess with you.
Because crooks and muggers think love is unpredictable.
Who knows what love could do in its own defense?
You can read the entire poem on Taylor Mali's website.
* The word is sometimes spelled epithalamium.