As a registered marriage celebrant (you can find out more here) I’m often asked this question and there definitely seems to be some confusion between the content and indeed, intent, of the two. So let’s play at being dictionaries first and make sure we have our definitions clearly defined.
A handfasting ritual is essentially a spiritual promise before the Gods ad Goddesses to partner together for a period of time, for the rest of this mortal life or for eternity. A marriage ceremony by contrast, is ultimately a legal declaration but can also be a religious commitment to remain together as man and wife for the rest of this mortal life. Just to complicate matters though, a handfasting can also be a legal marriage ceremony. Confused yet?
Let’s explore the marriage ceremony first because that’s the easier of the two concepts to really comprehend. Legal marriage, at least here in Australia, is the “union of a man and woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life” as defined by the Marriage Act and Regulations. The ceremony must be solemnised by either a registered minister of a recognised church denomination or by a legally registered civil celebrant. Legal weddings can also be conducted by other persons under certain circumstances such as for certain couples outside Australian waters like service personal and so on. However, for the most part, only those two recognised types of persons can solemnise a legal wedding celebration.
That’s not to say that someone else can’t conduct a great deal or even the majority of the ceremony. Many weddings, particularly civil ones can, and do, include all sorts of small rituals and traditions and these can really turn an otherwise ‘standardised’ ceremony into something more personal and unique. In order for the ceremony to be recognised and to result in a registered marriage, the civil celebrant or minister must briefly talk through and say three different sets of wordings. These word sets can be modified but their meaning can’t be changed or modified. Essentially the celebrant or minister must discuss what marriage actually means, they must ask the couple if they intend to marry and be party to the vows, and they must declare them as husband and wife. In addition, they also have to produce three copies of a marriage certificate, lodge them with the relevant state authority and so on but what all this means is that as long as the officiating person includes those words and does those actions, the rest of the ceremony can be absolutely designed by the couple.
At the conclusion, the couple (who must be a man and woman in Australia) are legally coupled together, are legally obliged to support one another and can only escape from their bonds via divorce, annulment or where the ceremony was conducted illegally. Essentially then it’s a legally binding contract to partner with one another for life and while a religious ceremony may also be conducted before the deity of that recognised religion (primarily Christian in Australia), the ceremony itself remains a legal and lawful contract.
Handfasting by contrast need have no legal basis to it and is purely a promise of partnership before the Gods and Goddesses or the patron and matron deities of the couple in question. However, where all the legal’s are included an it’s conducted by a registered civil celebrant (or minister of a church although a Pagan handfasting is unlikely to be conducted within a Christian or more traditional faith form), it can also become a legally binding contract of marriage.
Without those legal inclusions however, and within the essential meaning of handfasting, the ceremony can be conducted for a same sex or heterosexual couple, and it can also be conducted as either a ‘wedding’ with a full commitment or as an ‘engagement’ and promise to marry later. In fact it can also be conducted well after a couple originally married or handfasted as a means of renewing and affirming their original vows.
The handfasting can also have a timeframe placed on it as well. Unlike a legal marriage in Australia which is “for life” as defined by the Marriage Act, you can handfast with your partner for the common time frame of a year and a day. At the end of that period you can either elect to recommit with another handfasting or walk away.
Couples can however handfast with one another for the term of their mortal life which is similar to the legal marriage requirement and some couples have even promised to remain together into future lives as well. Essentially the timeframe for the life of a handfasting is up to the couple and contrasts with its legal counterpart. The legal marriage vow expects the couple to commit “until death us do part” or similar wording, while the more flexible handfasting traditionally states that the couple will be together “for as long as the love shall last”.
There’s an important note to consider here worthy of attention. Some critics of the handfasting will suggest that if you only commit “for as long as the love shall last” then it’s an easy licence to walk away from your spouse after you have a tiff over who left the toilet seat up or down. The truth is that the handfasting was a pledge and a commitment before the Divine, to partner together for that period and that’s what your expected to do. It’s not a marriage licence free from a breakfast cereal packet and it’s not something you can simply discard again because you’ve changed your mind. When you commit to a partnership, you do exactly that, you commit. So just because you don’t have that legal document saying you’re bound together, you are in fact bound by a much stronger force, your pledge and promise to the Lord and Lady. In other words, a handfasting is a religious ceremony of promise declared before the Divine and is more binding spiritually than any legal piece of paper.
So while it’s a spiritual promise, the handfasting can be conducted by anyone the couple feels comfortable with. Many couples handfast themselves while others ask their High Priestess or a trusted spiritual advisor or friend to witness their promises before the Gods and Goddesses. However, remember that if they also want the handfasting to be legally binding, then a civil celebrant or church minister must conduct the legally required sections of the ceremony and then it becomes a merging of a handfasting and a legal marriage ceremony.
A handfasting is usually much less expensive than a traditional legal ceremony because the couple often see that the commitment itself is more important than the pomp and ceremony usually accompanying the big white wedding. The bride and groom are sometimes naked but more frequently they both wear simple clothes and often have no attendants. There’s usually feasting afterwards but it’s usually simple and the celebration is often conducted in a forest or near a stream or the ocean, or in fact anywhere where the couple feel especially close to deity. Where the couple have Christian families or others who may not understand or appreciate the concept of a handfasting, the couple may opt to have a handfasting to honour their love of the Lord and Lady but also follow that with a legal wedding to appease the family.
So there you have it, the marriage ceremony versus the handfasting ritual. Quite different from one another in many respects and with often completely different intents and purposes but they’re two ritual celebrations which can also be combined into one or done separately. Confusing really eh?!
Smiles and blessings, Amethyst
Just as an adjunct, I’m a registered Civil Celebrant here in Australia so I can conduct legal marriages as well as handfastings or any combination thereof. You can find out about my services here.