There are two conflicting beliefs about the history of Handfasting:

"Handfasting" was the word used by the ancient Celts to describe their traditional trial-marriage ceremony, during which couples were literally bound together. The handfasting was  a temporary agreement, that expired after a year and a day. However, it could be made permanent after at that time, if both spouses agreed.

"Handfasting" was the word used throughout the once-Celtic lands of Scotland and Northern England to refer to a commitment of betrothal or engagement. It was a ceremony in which the couple publicly declared their intention to marry one year and a day in the future. In 1820,  Sir Walter Scott used the term to refer to a fictional sacred ritual that bound the couple in a form of temporary marriage for a year and a day. He wrote of it in his book "The Monastery:

"When we are handfasted, as we term it, we are man and wife for a year and a day; that space gone by, each may choose another mate, or, at their pleasure, may call the priest to marry them for life; and this we call handfasting.1,2

Handfasting was suppressed following the Synod of Whitby in 664 [CE}...when Celtic Christianity was abandoned for the Catholic Church.

Even though the historical legitimacy of handfasting as a form of trial marriage is in doubt, some Wiccans and other Neopagans today create handfasting rituals for their own use or adopt ceremonies written by other Neopagans. 

During the 1995 movie, Braveheart, Mel Gibson, in the role of William Wallace, was handfasted with his girlfriend Murron. Handfasting has since grown in popularity among Cowans (non-Pagans) -- particularly those whose distant ancestors lived in ancient Celtic lands. 3

What is the legal status of a handfasting?

They certainly can result in a legally-recognized, permanent marriage or (after 2000-JUL-1 in Vermont) a civil union. However, certain legal standards have to be met, as specified by the applicable state and province. A common set of requirements is:

The officiating person must hold a valid license issued by the government to perform marriages. Obtaining such a license is a simple procedure for clergy who are affiliated with an established denomination. Some jurisdictions require a faith group to have been registered for an minimum number of years before their clergy are eligable for licensing. In many cases, the regulations assume that a traditional church structure is in place, with a defined laity and clergy; Wiccans, other Neopagans, Aboriginal spirituality, etc. sometimes have difficulty adapting to these requirements.
A marriage license has to be purchased in advance. Various jurisdictions have regulations which prohibit the issuance of a license if the couple do not meet certain gender, age, medical, and consanguine criteria. A license may expire after some period of time. If a spouse has been married before, proof of divorce or annulment is normally required. 
A minimum interval of time may be required between the purchase of the license and the ceremony.
There must be witnesses at the ceremony, other than the officiating person and the couple, who will sign the license. A minimum of two is typical.<
The couple must be aware that they are engaging in a ceremony that will be cause them to be permanently married according to state/federal law. /td>

You might wish to check in advance with the local office that issues licenses. Various states and provinces have their own special regulations.

Alternately, a handfasting can be simply a declaration by a couple that they wish to form a temporary or permanent "common-law" relationship. The couple would not be married after the ritual. 

Couples who wish to have their handfasting recognized as a legal marriage may have difficulty obtaining a person who is willing to officiate. Most Christian and Jewish clergy would not be willing to conduct a Pagan ritual. Some ways of finding a cooperative presider are:

Ministers from congregations affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association will frequently perform ceremonies that are written by the couple; some even require it. 4 Since the UUA recognizes Neopaganism as one of the sources of its religious and spiritual traditions, many of its clergy should not object to conducting a Pagan ritual.
Some Neopagan priests and priestesses have been able to obtain a license to marry by presenting various legal documents which show that they have been selected by their coven as their clergyperson. This process sometimes takes persistence.
Some Neopagan priestesses and priests register as clergy with Universal Life Church, and are subsequently able to obtain a state or provincial license to officiate at marriages. The Universal Life Church has minimal requirements for ordination.

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What happens at a Neopagan handfasting?

In some ways, a handfasting is much like a typical marriage. The couple, a presider, friends and family are present. The couple exchange vows and (usually) rings. The couple usually has some attendants to assist in the ceremony. The presider, and the handfasting party sign the wedding license. Pictures are taken. Everybody smiles and hugs. 

But in some ways a handfasting is quite different from the typical marriage ceremony. Most couples designed a unique ritual which fits their needs. Some of the following components may be present, in any order that the couple feels comfortable with. A heterosexual handfasting ceremony is described below; the text can easily be modified for a same-sex couple. Some of the statements and the ritual of casting and banishing the circle would be modified to match the Wiccan tradition that the couple follows:

The date may be chosen to be near a full moon. Handfastings during the month of May are rare because that is the month of the union of the Goddess and God. (Most Wiccans are duotheistic: they believe in two deities, one female and the other male.)
The ceremony is often held outdoors; preferably in a wooded area; ideally at a crossroads. A backup location is selected in the case of rain.
The bride will not be dressed in a traditional wedding gown. The couple will wear attractive clothes for the ceremony. The bride often wears red.
A circle is formed on the ground with rocks, crystals or some other marker. It is large enough to handle then entire wedding party, and guests, with plenty of empty space. Candles will mark the four cardinal directions. An altar is located near the center of the circle. It is large enough to support the marriage documents; a knife; chalice; a cloth, rope or ribbon; a small silver box and a trowel! A broomstick is laid beside the altar. Wildflowers may be spread inside the circle. The bridal couple stands to the east of the circle. They wear circlets of flowers. Friends and family are gathered around the circle.
The presider rings a bell three times to indicate the start of the ritual and to demarcate divisions within the handfasting ceremony.
The couple approaches the circle from the east -- the direction of sunrise; this symbolizes growth in their relationship. They walk once around the circle and enter from the east.
The presider explains to the guests the significance of the ritual to be performed.
The circle is then cast. This usually involves a Wiccan priestess or priest walking around the periphery of the circle four times, with elements representing earth, air, fire and water. They will recite a statement at each of the four directions.
Answering a challenge from the presider, the couple each declares their intent to join with the other so that they are one in the eyes of the God and Goddess, and of family and friends present. 
The presider asks the traditional question whether anyone present is aware of any reason why the couple should not be handfasted. Hopefully, nobody objects.
The couple recites a statement, saying that they have come of their own free will "in perfect love and perfect trust" to seek the partnership of their future spouse. They exchange rings. Each recites a prepared statement, such as: "I, [name], commit myself to be with [name] in joy and adversity, in wholeness and brokenness, in peace and turmoil, living with him/her faithfully all our days. May the Gods give me the strength to keep these vows. So be it.10
The presider challenges them to drink from the same cup. Each drinks separately. Then each holds the cup so that the other may drink. This symbolizes the need for a balance between apartness and togetherness in their future life together.
The couple will face each other, joining both their left and right hands together. Their arms and bodies form a figure 8 when viewed from above The a double circle is both the mathematical infinity symbol and an ancient religious symbol for the union of a man and woman.
The presider will place a cord,  ribbon, or strip of cloth over the couple's hands. It may be loosely tied; it might be red in color, symbolizing life. This symbolizes that the handfasting is a commitment, but one that is not an onerous one. One year and a day after being handfasted, the couple may return to the presider and repeat their vows with the cord or cloth tightly knotted. This symbolizes the intent to have a permanent relationship. This ritual is the source of the expression "to tie the knot."
The couple each reads a statement to the other, expressing their love and their hopes for their future together. Since their hands are bound, the texts are held by their assistants. The bonds are removed.
The couple uses a knife to cut off a lock of each other's hair. This is put in a silver box. This symbolizes their future relationship, one as intimate as the mixing of their hairs.
The presider offers advise to the couple, perhaps saying: "Be understanding and patient, each with the other. Be free in he giving of affection and warmth. Be sensuous with one another. Have no fear and let not the ways of the unenlightened give you unease, for the Gods are with you now and always.10 The presider asks the assembled guests whether they will support the couple in their new relationship together. Hopefully, they answer "I do." The presider then pronounces the couple to be handfasted as husband and wife.
The couple kiss each other -- their first gift to each other as a handfasted couple. They then perform their first task together: they pick up the trowel from the altar, and bury the silver box at the center of the circle.
The presider, married couple, and witnesses sign the marriage documents.
At the end of the ceremony, the handfasted couple join hands and jump over a broomstick. This symbolizes the effort required to make a committed relationship work.
The priest or priestess who originally cast the circle now banishes it.
The presider states the the handfasting is concluded: "The circle is open but unbroken. May the peace of the Old Ones go in our hearts. Blessed be."
The bell is rung three times. The married couple then go clockwise around the circle, greeting friends and family.
A feast traditionally follows.

 Recent developments:

2000-MAY: William Mackie is a bishop of Celtic Church in Scotland, a small faith group that has attempted to recreate Celtic Christianity. He promotes the legalization of handfasting ceremonies. He said: "I plan to lobby MSPs to get it reinstated in its entirety: a lot of people make a mistake and, as long as there are no children involved, the one year opt-out would save a lot of hassle." Bishop Mackie is aware of 19 handfasting ceremonies during 1999 in the UK. In order to make the rituals legally binding as permanent marriages, he omits the option that allows the couple to part after a year and a day. 6

Copyright © 2000 & 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAY-31
Latest update: 2001-JUL-1
Author: B.A. Robinson