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For a Year and a Day

A Viable Alternative

By Tristan BiggsPublished 6 months ago 8 min read
Couple "Tying the Knot'

It seems clear that the ‘sanctity’ of marriage has all but been forgotten. An estimated 50% of all married couples end up filing for divorce, and the only people who really benefit from this are the wedding planners and the divorce lawyers. Recently I read an article that asked the question: “What should one look for before getting married?” to which one person replied: “A good divorce lawyer.” Even though these words were said in jest, they do have a certain thread of truth to them. After all, a couple is advised to enter into a ‘Prenuptial Contract’ even before they even get married, and given the percentage of marriages that fail, this advice seems pretty sound.

It is no wonder then that so many nowadays shun the whole idea of matrimony altogether, and would rather just live together. However, this also poses a problem in that there is no guarantee of fidelity or commitment from either partner, and thus - even though the legal problems that accompany a breach in the marriage contract does not exist - any break-up still carries with it a huge amount of emotional and psychological baggage.

The question is: What if there was an alternative, a sort of compromise between the two? The answer is that such a thing does exist. In fact it has existed since before Christian missionaries decided to convert the entire world to their belief system, or attempt to at any rate. The ancient Celts, among other Pagan folks had a custom known to some as ‘Handfasting’, which was a kind of marriage, the difference being that it was not necessarily ‘Until Death do Us Part’. Instead the agreement could last for a ‘Year and a Day’. After this time, the couple has to decide whether they wish to remain together or part company.

Although, in current Neopaganism, a Handfasting is synonymous with a wedding, it used to be thought of as a form of engagement, especially in England and Ireland. In Scotland, however, it was considered a ‘Probationary Marriage’ or a ‘Temporary Marriage’, and this is where the ‘Year and a Day’ concept began.

My partner and I had suffered traditional marriages that did not work out well at all. Thus, when we started considering making our commitment to one another more formal, we were reluctant to follow the same tradition that had caused us so much pain in the past. I had purchased a book on Pagan weddings, and came upon the idea of the ‘Year-and-a-Day’ Handfasting. Both of us really liked the concept, and began working out our own version of this tradition that felt right for both of us. After a long deliberation, we began looking for someone who would preside over our betrothal. Luckily we found a couple who were willing to do so. They had been appointed High Priest and High Priestess of a Pagan circle on the East Rand of Johannesburg.

We set a date and a location for the ceremony. It would be on the 29th of August, and it was to be held at the botanical gardens where my first wedding reception had taken place. The reason for this was that I wanted to put all the negative memories behind me, and replace them with positive ones.

Now, to go any further, I need to share some details of the proceedings: The ceremony itself was a very private affair. It took place in a quiet part of the gardens, and only a select few could attend. Sadly I could not invite my parents as they would not have approved of the arrangement, both of them being a little too conservative. I appointed a close friend of mine as the ‘Best Man’, and my partner chose her daughter, who was twelve at the time, to be the Maid of Honour.

Before the actual ceremony, the High Priest and High Priestess blessed the area in which it would commence, and each of those attending had to be cleansed of all negativity before they could enter the circle. This is a common Pagan practice as most of the Pagan rites, ceremonies and rituals are held in the open. My partner and I were the last to enter, after which the circle was declared closed. A makeshift altar had been put up in the centre with certain sacred elements, a bouquet of flowers, and a censor in which a mixture of herbs was burning. There was also a plate with a small loaf of raisin bread, and a jug of apple cider.

The two clerics stood in front of the altar, and Sara and I approached them. After this we exchanged the vows that we had prepared, both to one another, and to my partner’s two children. Within these promises was a clause that stated that we would both honour them for a year and a day, and that we would decide after that whether we wished to renew them or not. We also stated that, should we choose to part company, this would be done amicably and without grudge or malice. My partner promised her children that her love for, and devotion to them would never change no matter what. I stated that I would never come between them and their mother and that I would always love and respect them, and never intentionally do anything to harm them. Once this was over, we broke the raisin bread, and shared it with one another. Then we shared the cider, drinking from the same chalice.

The final stage was ‘Tying the Knot’. Interesting point is that it is this Pagan tradition that gave rise to the common saying that is often used to describe getting married. In certain traditions, this entails the couple holding hands while facing one another, and either someone attending the ceremony, or in our case the High Priest and Priestess wrapping a piece of fabric around our wrists, and tying it in an elaborate knot. After this we carefully let go of each other’s hands without disturbing the knot. Another interesting fact is the word ‘cnotte’, from which ‘knot’ is derived, is a Middle English word that can also be used for marrying, or the ‘bond of wedlock’.

Then at last it was time for us to be officially pronounced ‘Handfasted’, to which all present chanted: “So mote it be”. After this the circle was dissolved, and we all went and joined the rest of the group, those who had not been included in the ceremony, for the reception.

During the planning stage, both of us had agreed on how we would officially declare that our betrothal had come to an end, if that was our decision: Once we returned home, the knotted fabric was hung above our bed as a reminder of what we had promised one another. If we decided to part company, for whatever reason, the cloth would be taken down and the knot untied. On the other hand, if we decided to stay together, we would leave the cloth where it hung, the knot still intact. We were handfasted 14 years ago, and the knot has remained untouched! To renew our vows, we normally share a small loaf of raisin bread - or something similar - and a glass of wine. Most times we share the latter from the same chalice with the exception of during the recent pandemic, for obvious reasons.

Having counselled a few couples, as well as some individuals, who were having marital issues, one of the more common complaints is that one or both partners were ‘just not putting any effort’ into the relationship. It seems that for many, marriage is a goal rather than an integral part of a couple’s journey through life together, and that once the ring is in its place, some people stop trying to maintain the relationship. Perhaps some believe that, because the vows say: “Until Death do Us Part”, they don’t have to try anymore, which is of course not true at all. The ‘Year-and-a-Day’ agreement, on the other hand, allows for a revision of the relationship’s progress during that time period, and assures that it remains a ‘work in progress’ for both parties. This also allows the couple the opportunity to rectify any problems in the year ahead.

Another advantage of a Handfasting in general is that it is not just for heterosexual couples. There are countless options for same-sex betrothals as well. One drawback is that it is still not legally binding in most countries around the world; something I believe very strongly needs to be addressed. Here in South Africa, where we live, not even the African traditional weddings are considered to be legal, and couples either have to hold a second Christian or Muslim wedding, or approach the magistrate’s court to make their marriage official. One friend of ours had a Hindu wedding, but a Christian marriage officer had to be present as well, a situation that seems more than a little ridiculous

In closing: I am not suggesting that this is a cure-all for marital problems. I am only stating that it has worked in our marriage, and am putting this forward as a possible alternative to, on the one hand, a tradition that has perhaps either been eroded or can be considered to be for a bygone era, and on the other a situation in which there are few guarantees. I leave it up to you the readers to decide if this may work for you. Or perhaps it will start you thinking of another solution, either from the past or something completely new and innovative.


About the Creator

Tristan Biggs

I was born in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and currently live in South Africa. From an early age, I seemed to have a knack for poetry. I have written a number of stories, poems, and several novels, ranging from fantasy to non fiction.

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Comments (1)

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  • Emeka Nwankwoala4 months ago

    I got it right. Thanks you for your explanation on divorce. I love that.

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