October 7, 2013

TEEN LIFE WAY BACK WHEN: Courting Rituals in America, Part 2: Handfasting

F.T. Richards, Illustrator
The Idiot at Home by
John Kendrick Bangs
(public domain)
In Colonial America there was a way to get married without a priest, minister, magistrate or a license.  The ritual was called "handfasting" or "spousal".  This do-it-yourself marriage arrangement was an option for couples who could not obtain parental permission to marry or who could not marry for other reasons.

The couple joined hands and declared each other husband and wife, then lived together.  In Latin this was called verba de praesenti. The marriage vows would be exchanged either alone or before witnesses.  A blacksmith was often called upon to officiate, hence the anvil came to symbolize the of forging a long-lasting union. 

The ceremony could be performed anywhere, even in the bedroom.  This, as you can well imagine, posed a problem. It wasn't unusual for a dishonorable suitor to exchange vows with a young lady, only to renege on his promise the morning after.  Indeed, court records of the time are full of such skulduggery. To forestall backsliding, young girls found it prudent to hide a couple of friends in the closet to witness the pledges.

Handfasting has reemerged in recent times.  In the early 2000's a form of handfasting was practiced in Neopaganism, especially in Wicca, a modern pagan witchcraft religion.  A part of the ceremony involved joining the hands of the wedding couple by wrapping them in ribbons. By 2010, handfasting ceremonies were on offer by commercial wedding organizers and had mostly lost their Neopagan association.


For references and additional reading see the Extras section

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