Sunday, August 8, 2010

Handfasting - A Labor of Love

Around the end of last year, two friends informed me that they were officially a couple, and that they wanted me to perform a handfasting to affirm their commitment to one another. Further, they asked me to officiate, which I considered a great honor. They said they wanted a ceremony that was Pagan and Medieval-themed.

The end of July (their planned handfasting date) seemed far away from New Year's Day, so I put the issue aside for a few months. Finally, in April, I asked if we could meet and go over specifics. We spent nearly two hours at Applebee's going over my typed questions, and left with a promise from them that they would send along a web site or two that had inspired them.

I had to gently remind the couple a few times, but eventually did get an email with a wealth of URLs, a link to a lengthy PDF, as well as a poem which they found appropriate for their situation. All in all, I ended up with over 200+ pages of source material.

It took quite a bit of doing, but I took a piece of this, a touch of that, and added my own material as well, to create a workable first draft. Just like when I used to proofread for a living, I needed to screen the document with layers of filters - each a bit finer than the last. Sent the second draft to the couple, and didn't hear anything back for awhile. Afraid I'd somehow missed the mark, I followed up to get their feedback.

Turns out they were very happy with the ceremony, but wanted to tweak the order of a few things, and lessen how much they would have to remember and say. We ended up meeting in their home to go over the ceremony in detail; a number of changes were made so that there was very little that ~they~ had to say in the ceremony. We also moved a few elements around so that the energy flowed a bit better.

We drove down to the physical site for the ceremony, so I could get a feel for how I'd set up my altar, et al. As a Pagan practitioner, I needed to know where the cardinal directions/elements were, especially since I was going to be calling them forth.

Once home, I made substantial changes - mostly the order in which sections happened, and changing to second person rather than first ("you" vs. "I"). I created cue cards for the couple and their attendants (four of whom were representing the elements), and sent them via Priority Mail, so they'd have a chance to review them prior to the ceremony.

By this point, it was two or three weeks or so until the ceremony. I had asked about the handfasting cord itself, and was told that Jan's sister in Hawaii was working on it, and it would be here well in advance of the ceremony.

The plan was to have a rehearsal or run-through the night before the Saturday ceremony. I thought that was a good plan, but it was a conflict for too many participants, so we moved it to Saturday morning, just a few hours before the actual ceremony. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The day of the ceremony, I arrived at the site early and parked as close to the ritual location as possible. Walking to the ceremonial site, I used my partner's GPS device to determine true North. From that, everything else followed.

I had a large folding table to serve as my altar, plus a large plastic tote full of items for the altar.  While I was setting up my altar with all the various elements in their appropriate locations (Air candle in the East, for example), the attendants were creating an outer ring of stakes joined by ribbon, and an inner ring comprised of large stones. Double stones indicated a cardinal direction.

We did a run-through, and it went well.  I had a duplicate set of cue cards for everyone, with each set clipped to the pages of my script.  In most cases, the couple had only to say "I do," or "I promise." And for their vows, it was the classic "Repeat after me..." scenario. The couple relaxed a bit after the run-through; it wasn't nearly as complicated as they thought it might be.

It took a while for me to set up the altar, as there were many elements. For example, I wanted to call upon Wolf energy and Bear energy, for they are the totems of the two women who were being handfasted.  As it so happens, I have lovely carved cedar figures of both wolf and bear, both purchased during last year's Alaska cruise.

There was a special stone to serve as the element of Earth - a heart-shaped rock that the couple had found in their wanderings, and which meant a great deal to them. Candles aplenty on the altar - my biggest fear was that I would set my bell sleeves on fire!

Once the altar was set up, I walked the circle repeatedly, rattling, drumming and smudging the space. I smudged myself as well, as I needed to ensure my energy was as pure as possible for the ceremony.

Once the altar was set up, I cast two circles - a larger outer circle, and a smaller inner circle. This was what the couple requested, so I obliged. I imagine the reasoning was to keep a close, tight inner circle into which only the couple and their attendants would enter, ensuring pure love energy.

Once the altar space had been set up to my satisfaction, it was then a matter of "holding" the energy of the sacred space. Upon requested, I smudged several people, and smudged myself again for good measure. I also used some of my "Holy Night" resin incense, which includes Frankincense. If you're wondering where I got it, check out Tenzing Momo, in the Pike Place Market.

The couple had, by this point, gone to the hall adjoining the park space where the ceremony was to be held. Their outfits were in keeping with their theme - Pagan and Medieval, with a bit of Steam Punk thrown in for good measure. Eclectic, but it worked for them.

Showtime was approaching. I smudged the couple and helped ground them using a Tibetan energetic tool. I grounded myself and drank some water, knowing I had a 17-page script to get through - and most of it would be me speaking.

We got the attendees in place, in the space between the outer circle and inner circle. Then, the ceremony began, and I invited the couple into the sacred space. Looking at photos (taken by my partner), it's clear that the couple was intent and focused; I tried to keep them at ease as much as possible, with a look or a smile.

You can see photos that my partner took here.

The ceremony progressed with the attendants representing the Elements declaring their presence and their purpose in support of the union. I spoke of the lasting nature of love, and how it is a shining star in a dark night. After a bit, the couple and I walked the circle, stopping at each cardinal direction.

We began in the North, where I asked them to promise each other stability and strength. Then, in the East, I asked them to promise each other laughter and insight. In the South, I asked them to promise each other the fires of passion and the power of transformation. Finally, in the West, I asked them to promise each other true love, and to share their deepest dreams and desires.

We walked the circle clockwise until we could return to the altar from the East. I then performed a water and fire blessing and union. For water, there were two small goblets on the altar, each filled partially with water. I asked them to take hold of their individual goblets, and to pour the contents (together) into the Goddess chalice I was holding for them. I spoke of their lives being now joined as one, no longer separate - just like the water. I asked them to drink of their love.

Upon the altar were two small white candles, in front of a much larger ivory "Unity" candle, upon which I'd carved symbols representing their union. They each took a small candle from the altar, and then lit the Unity candle together. After it was lit, their individual lights were extinguished, while the flame representing their love burned on.

Then, the blessing and consecrating of the rings took place. The rings were blessed via each Element - Earth, Air, Fire and Water. They had chosen Elvish rings, with the Elvish inscriptions. The Elvish inscriptions (in English) served as their vows when they exchanged rings.

After the rings were exchanged, there were more blessings and readings by me, leading up to the actual handfasting. The cord was six feet long, including lengthy "tails" with beads strung on the ribbons and cords. It was heavy! I bound their hands together and tied them together thrice - the last being a square knot.

Final blessings were bestowed, and the couple was pronounced handfast. I saw many happy tears in the crowd, even among the most stoic butches. Although not legally binding, I had prepared a Certificate of Handfasting, which I had both women sign.

As the couple left the sacred space, they began to laugh - probably in relief that it was over. I'd tried to make it as painless as possible, and yet honor their intent. I was happy, and felt the various energies running through me. As I began to break down the altar space and put all the elements away, I began to feel tired - I'd been up consecrating and blessing items the night before.

My partner helped me pack up the car with the table, the tote and a couple of bags. We then wandered over to the community center to wish the couple congratulations and best wishes. Their was a lovely spread of food laid out; I hadn't eaten all day, so I gratefully took a plate and had some macaroni salad and deliciously moist turkey.

Then, before leaving, I returned to the site of the ceremony and devoked the deities and elements which I'd invoked in casting my circle and performing the ceremony.

The plan was for the family-friendly reception to be held at the community center, and then for the adults to move to a LGBT bar in the area. My partner was in a great deal of pain, so we left for home not long after wishing the couple well at the community center. After arriving home, I could have turned around and gone back to the bar, but I was spent. I'd done a good day's work, and I felt sure that the couple would understand.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have performed this ceremony; I grew as a practitioner. Blessed be!