Modern Paganism is one of the world's fastest growing religious bodies. In its simplest definition, Paganism is a modernized recreation of the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe — basically, it's a revival of the old pre-Christan beliefs and practices. However, this is the 21st century. Modern Paganism has been heavily influenced by modern values and ethics, such as feminism and environmentalism.
So please don't fear that you may witness an animal sacrifice at a Pagan ritual; many of us are vegan and are strong supporters of animal rights!
But it might help to give you an overview on what to expect…
What is Paganism, anyway?
There is a wide array of religions and spiritual traditions that fall under the “Pagan umbrella,” and yes, some are legally recognized faiths. The main three religions you will find within Paganism are:
Wicca: A nature-oriented faith that focuses on the cycle of the seasons. One of Wicca's main tenets is the Rede, which is summarized as, “An it harm none, do as thou wilt.”
Druidry: A recreation of ancient Celtic practices, with a strong focus on poetry and storytelling. An example of a Druid wisdom teaching would be this Celtic triad, “Three things loveable in a person: tranquility, wisdom, and kindness.”
Asatru: A reconstruction of ancient Northern European beliefs. Think “Vikings” and you aren't so far off. Asatru has the Nine Noble Virtues, three of which are courage, truth and honor.
What is a handfasting, exactly?
A handfasting is a wedding or betrothal ceremony, and to be handfasted is equivalent to being married or betrothed. Before we get into the details, let's back up a bit and have a quick history lesson.
In most of pre-Christain Europe, weddings were fairly straightforward affairs, and this was especially true for northern Europe and Celtic lands. Two families came together and they worked out a deal on land ownership and any trading of goods. Then, the couple would exchange gifts, clasp hands, and make oaths of loyalty to each other. Afterward their families and the community they lived in would throw a party and have a feast. Going to the trouble of a full religious ceremony officiated by a Druid (or someone similar) was typically reserved for people of very high social status. For most people the transition from single to married was a do-it-yourself affair, with the couple's community acting as witnesses.
As Christianity began to spread across Europe, the new Church lacked the resources to have a clergyman in every rural village and hamlet. As such, the Church would send circuit priests to travel to out-of-the-way parishes during the warmer months. Obviously, this presented a problem to families who needed to make an alliance with another family or clan. It's also difficult to ask young people in love to wait so long before they can make a home together. Especially if the young woman was already pregnant! Governments had a similar problem: it was too difficult to provide a judge or magistrate to every little village, let alone manage all the paperwork required for marriage licenses at a time when everything was handwritten on parchment.
So, the folk looked back to the traditions of their grandparents and found a compromise. The couple would self-marry in the old style when it was convenient for the community. The union would later be formally blessed by the church when the circuit priest came to visit.
In the Middle Ages, handfasting-type rituals became popularly used as betrothal rituals. In some parts of Europe, such as Scotland, the word “handfasting” was used to say that a couple was engaged. It was more common to hear that a couple was “handfasted” than “betrothed.
”These types of self-uniting marriage traditions lasted well into the colonial era, when settlers in the New World faced difficulties due to long distances and lack of resources. It was only a couple of hundred years ago that nations began to pass legislation requiring couples to be legally wed via a specific set of rules. In fact, in some parts of the world, self-uniting ceremonies are still perfectly valid and legal.
As modern Paganism began to truly grow in the early-to-mid 20th century, Pagans sought marriage rituals that had historical significance without strong ties to other religions. Two fit the bill: the tying of hands in the handfasting tradition, and the jumping of the broom.
So is it a real marriage or not?
A Pagan handfasting can be several things, depending on the couple's wishes. It can be a legal marriage. It can be a commitment ceremony for a common law or civil union. It can be a kind of trial marriage for a couple who wish to ease into married life. It can be a formal betrothal.The ceremony can be led by an officiant, Pagan clergy, a friend, or be a self uniting-ritual. Sometimes, due to the small size of our religious body, it can be difficult to find a clergy member who is also a legal officiant. As such, Pagans who wish to become legally married will often “get legalled” before or after the wedding. They will have the legal paperwork and requirements taken care of at the local clerk's office or other government-specified office.
What can I expect to see during the ceremony?
You may be surprised at how familiar much of the ceremony will be. There will be vows. You might see a bride in a white dress. You may see a wine blessing, or the sharing of a loving cup by the couple. You may see a bride wearing a veil; after all, this practice goes all the way back to ancient Pagan Rome, when brides wore brightly colored veils to protect themselves from evil spirits. You will probably see the couple exchanging rings or some other token of their love, such as necklaces. Rings and other jewelry have been used for the purpose of binding people to an oath since at least the Iron Age. You may see the lighting of candles, possibly even a unity candle ceremony.
Now let's look at the things that could be unfamiliar to you…
Folks tend to stand or sit in a circle for Pagan rituals
So don't be surprised to find this sort of seating arrangement. While standing is common, if you need to sit, don't be afraid to ask for a chair before things get started (or better yet, when you RSVP). It's likely that you won't be the only person who needs a chair.
A common practice is the blessing of the space wherein the ritual is being held
This could be done by burning incense, ringing bells, banging drums, sprinkling sacred water, walking around the space to “cast the circle,” or tossing flower petals and herbs. The purpose of this is simple: the ancient marble temples are now crumbling tourist traps. So, modern Pagans often hold their rituals where they can, and make the ritual area holy or blessed as needed. It can also be done to drive out any negative energies from the area, including those that people may bring with them, such as wedding planning stress.
There may be a mention of something along the lines of “our/the gods”
Which you can consider to be including your own, if you have any. Keep in mind that no-one expects you to join in on any prayers.
The elements of earth, air, water, and fire may be invited or spoken of.
These are symbolic of the basic building blocks of life and creation. The air we breathe, the water in the oceans, and so forth. The elements can also symbolize certain concepts: earth for the physicality, air for intellect, water for emotions, and fire for passion.
Common phrases used in Pagan rituals.
These include “blessed be” and “hail,” these are similar to “amen” or “cheers.” “Merry meet” and “merry part” are greetings that are often used at the start and end of rituals. “So mote/may it be” is an affirmation and indication of agreement.
Paganism is more family-friendly than most people may think.
It's not uncommon to see children (and even dogs) moving about the ritual space, sitting on the ground, nursing in mother's arms, and joining in as is age-appropriate.
The actual tying of hands using ribbon or cords
In its simplest form, a handfasting is the binding of a couple's hands or wrists together as a unity ritual within the ceremony. This can be done a variety of ways: the couple may tie the knot themselves, it may be tied by the officiant, or by friends and family of the couple. This is typically the main section of a Pagan wedding and can incorporate the exchanging of rings, speaking of the vows, or the blessing of the union. How long the cord remains physically tied is entirely up to the couple (a few brave souls even remain bound until they retire to their honeymoon suite). Robert and Cecily decorated their broom using handmade cords from their handfasting.
Jumping over a broom is also a common practice
The Wedding Broom can be called by its old-timey name of “besom.” The broom symbolizes a few different things and the couple may choose to place emphasis on one or more for their ceremony. Brooms are often stored by the front or back door of the home, and thus a broom can symbolize a threshold, the line between the old single life and a new married life. This is similar to the tradition of carrying the bride across the threshold of a new home.
As brooms are used for cleaning and sweeping, it can symbolize the sweeping away of the old dirt of your past to start fresh. The handle of a broom is somewhat phallic in shape and the brush is shaped somewhat like a woman's skirt, so these two things combined can symbolize fertility and union. A broom also symbolizes the daily grind of marriage; that is, cleaning the floors, taking out the trash, making dinner, and caring for one another.[Note from the editors: there has been some debate online about whether jumping the broom is cultural appropriation of African American traditions. Based on our research, the tradition has several complex histories, including African Americans, Romani people, and Welsh roots. Ultimately, it's complicated.]
There may be a Maypole Dance
This is another European folk tradition that has ancient Pagan roots. It is a tall pole with strings or ribbons attached at the top, and people dance or move around it, winding the ribbon around the pole as they go. It's usually a lot of fun and is accompanied by music, singing, and laughing when you realize that you're getting the steps wrong. The symbolism of the Maypole is a bit of a mystery even to historians. To Pagans it can be a sacred tree, being dressed up and decorated. It can signify the “axis mundi,” the pillar that connects the heavens and the earth. It can have the meaning of union and fertility, in that a hole is dug and a pole is planted into the “womb of the earth” and it is then wrapped in beauty. It can be a symbol of marriage, as the pole is wrapped in colorful ribbon, similar to how the hands and wrists are bound during a handfasting.
The vows sworn may not be what you are accustomed to
Often, they are personal vows written by the people getting handfasted. Such things as love, honor, or cherish and obey, may not be mentioned. The phrase “'till death do us part” may not be used, but instead replaced by the more realistic and modern concepts such as “for so long as our love shall last.”
Anything else I should be prepared for?
The officiant might be a woman, and a priestess at that. Even if this is not what you are used to, please treat her with the proper respect such a title deserves.
There is a good chance that among the guests and wedding party there will be people of every background. Expect to meet wonderful folks of many different gender identities, sexual orientations, races, social and economic backgrounds, and abilities. Equality, open mindedness, and inclusiveness are important values to Pagans.
Chances are good that the event will be held outdoors, so dress for the weather and leave your stiletto heels at home.
Please don't worry about being witness to people running about naked. This is a wedding! While Pagans do have liberal and open views on the human body and sexuality, most people will NOT want to get naked in front of their grandmother at a wedding. This is one of those things that is made much of by media and Hollywood, but in reality is rather different.
Please do not handle or touch the wedding altar, any shrines, or any obvious sacred objects. Treat such things as you would an altar, shrine, or religious paraphernalia of any faith. Looking and admiring is perfectly acceptable. If you see folks lighting candles or making offerings (such as pouring wine into a dish) and you think that you may like to participate, simply ask what the etiquette is first. People will be happy to explain what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how you could too if you desire to do so.
If someone is obviously in prayer or meditation, please do not interrupt them.
Please do not invoke or call upon any god(s) out loud without first asking if that is acceptable. It's just good manners. Most Pagans are quite friendly towards other religions. Some may come from an abusive family or background of a certain faith, and not wish to hear prayers or invocation from that faith. You can pray with your internal voice as much as you wish, of course.
There is usually someone designated to mind any fires that are lit and to ensure that the wood for the evening's fire doesn't get used too quickly. Please ask before placing a log into a bonfire. If the “Fire Keeper” asks you to move a chair or do anything for safety reasons, do so immediately. Some fires are considered sacred as well, so do not throw any trash or cigarette butts into the fire until you know if that is acceptable or not.
Pagans love to give toasts. Expect a lot of them.
Pagans know how to throw a great party. Even if the ceremony itself seems very serious, you can expect good food, good people, and a lot of laughter during the reception. In truth, the ceremony is likely to be laid back, happy, and shorter than you might expect. Keep in mind that you may be offered food or drink, but you may politely turn anything down that you do not want.
It's just a wedding. Relax, sit back, and remember why you were invited in the first place: the people who invited you care about you and want you to be part of their special day.