Handfastings and marriages occur the year round, but there is something about the summer months that especially calls lovers to pledge themselves to one another in multitudes. What is it exactly? Does the blossoming and blooming of nature call us to blossom and bloom in our love? Does the flowing of the yearly tide make us yearn to tap into that growing energy before it begins to ebb? Do the ancient fertility rites of Beltane nudge us to join together from across the ages? Do people simply have more free time? Odds are, it's a mix of all these elements—a blend of the magical and the practical—that causes so many people to wed at this time of year. Regardless, the balmy days of summer draw me to the subject of handfasting, and all the joys (and tribulations) therein.
Handfasting and Wedding Rituals: Welcoming Hera's Blessing by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein is a prime place to start. Brimming with details on handfasting history, ways in which to incorporate magical symbolism into your ceremony, and, best of all, many innovative and inclusive rituals, Handfasting is ideal for any pagan who plans on "tying the knot" (it's pretty obvious to us where that modern term came from, isn't it?), or just anyone who is looking for a different sort of union or a unique ceremony. You won't find guides to different diamond cuts or when to send out invitations and thank you notes, but you will find help with the things that make up the true core of any handfasting or wedding—the words spoken, the symbols used, and the people you share it with.
What are handfastings? For those of you who did not catch the pagan origins behind the phrase "tying the knot," the term "handfasting" comes from the tradition of two people pledging themselves to one another (oftentimes for a year and a day) and sealing that pledge by binding their hands together with cord and knotting it. Today handfastings vary immensely in their forms. Some are legal marriages, and some are private promises. Some choose to continue the traditional year-and-a-day time frame, others for as long as love will last; some for life, and others for all lifetimes to come. Variations aside, the goal of these rituals is the same: to make vows of devotion witnessed by family, friends, and the divine.
Why is it we continue to desire these rituals? With the alarming divorce rate, the (often immense) costs and stress involved, and the questionable social and political implications, we are certainly given many reasons to give up the idea of legally bonding ourselves to another. Yet the wish to do so is as strong as ever, perhaps even stronger, because the act is seen more and more frequently as a choice, rather than a need. When two people decide to dedicate their lives to one another despite all of the arguments against it, it is a brave and true statement of their commitment to one another. Raven Kaldera sums up the challenge quite well when he says,
"marriage is a crucible within which people find out more about themselves, their upbringing, their brainwashing, their demons, their strengths, their challenges, and their true paths. It's almost impossible to commit yourself to that kind of close connection with another human being, even if only for a while, and not learn something deep about yourself."
Who is involved may very well be the aspect of handfastings that differs most from traditional weddings. From clergy to participants, pagan unions have always been more inclusive and accommodating than traditional ones. Long before the gay marriage debate, there were gay unions performed by Wiccan and pagan priests and priestesses. While perhaps not legally binding, these rituals provide the public (and divine) recognition that is desired. In Handfasting and Wedding Rituals, Kaldera and Schwartzstein offer rites for gay and lesbian couples, transgendered couples, polyamorous "couples," and even underage couples who wish to make a serious commitment to one another (the authors present this as a way to acknowledge the young people's love for one another, while hopefully discouraging rash acts like elopement, and even include a part in the vows to "promise to do everything in my power, and make whatever sacrifices are necessary to refrain from burdening you with a child of our union until such time as we are legally of age and have the resources to support a family"). Handfasting and Wedding Rituals also offers rituals for interfaith unions, including those to blend pagan elements with Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Judaic traditions.
Moving beyond the vows, Handfasting and Wedding Rituals also respectfully considers the people you choose to surround yourselves with at this meaningful event. Kaldera and Schwartzstein offer ways in which blended families can incorporate their children into the service, including the couple making vows to their new (step) children. Also included are ways to incorporate children in general, without relegating them to the somber (and often empty) roles of flower girls and ring bearers. One couple the authors worked with decided to have all the children dress up in elven clothing and masks and run about the space throwing glitter before the ceremony and blessing the space with "faery gold."
Blessings, readings, vows, and full rituals are labeled with levels of one, two, or three in terms of their "pagan content," an important and useful way in which the authors consider your guests. A level one ritual, while likely to be different than the average wedding, is not likely to upset anyone who isn't pagan sympathetic. A level two ritual will have a bit more pagan terminology, and a level three ritual will often invoke specific pagan gods and goddesses, and won't disguise your beliefs to anyone. Each level offers meaningful and beautiful words for you to use. It all depends on your (and your guests') comfort zones and willingness to step beyond what is expected at such events.
Ah, the all important question of "when?" Although many do marry in the summer months, and this does tap into the earth's energy, any time of year can be lovely. It's no wonder that handfastings and weddings are often scheduled months, or even years, before the ceremony. While there are plenty of reasons to do this, from securing a location to hiring a caterer, one reason that may be overlooked is astrology. Even if you don't know much about astrology beyond your sun sign, there are a few relatively simple things you can do to ensure the heavens are on your side on your wedding day. Keep in mind though, as Kaldera and Schwartzstein state,
"the likelihood is that you won't be able to find the perfect day, unless you have three years and none of your friends mind coming to a wedding at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday."
The following advice was gleaned from Sharon Leah, the Editor of Llewellyn's Astrological Calendar, and the guide to many successful Llewellyn employee weddings. First, as a time of new beginnings, weddings should ideally take place some time between twelve hours after the new Moon and when the moon the moon is full. Before the new Moon is twelve hours old it is still considered dark, which is not an advantageous phase for weddings. Second, try not to marry while the Moon is void-of-course (which happens before a sun enters a new sign, and can last anywhere from two minutes to two hours), as things undertaken during that time do not turn out as intended. The third big thing to consider is whether Mercury or Venus may be retrograde during your chosen time. Both of these will cause problems. Mercury retrograde is well known for making plans, communications, and things break down. Venus retrograde could point to the holding back or misdirection of love and good things between the couple. For simple moon phase information, check out Llewellyn's calendars and almanacs. For more information on planning your wedding date using astrology, look at Appendix A in Handfasting and Wedding Rituals. A little bit of research can go a long way to ensuring an auspicious day for your ceremony.
This is the really fun part, deciding how you want to celebrate your handfasting, and your imagination is the limit. From decorations to vows, there are so many options to choose from. It can become overwhelming. Make sure to keep it enjoyable, and to incorporate elements that are meaningful to you and your beloved. No matter what florists, cake chefs, color coordinators, and your mother may say, go with what feels right to you. And try not to take things too terribly seriously. While your vows and the commitment you are making are very serious and important, the little details are not. We all want everything to go as planned, but we all know (especially as magical people) that things tend to end up the way they are supposed to, which is not always what we had in mind. I have seen exceptionally laid back people get so strung out over wedding preparations that they do not enjoy themselves at all, but rather hold their breath until the festivities are over and they can collapse. That's not exactly the mood you want to start a marriage with, is it? So, enjoy yourself and make it a day that you remember not as an obstacle to be overcome, but as a celebratory first step on a challenging and fascinating journey.