Moon, moon tell unto me,
When my true love I shall see?
What fine clothes am I to wear?
How many children will I bear?
For if my love comes not to me,
Dark and dismal my life will be.
- Old Irish verse
It is the springtime of the year and thoughts turn to love. To the Celts, and surely to all people past and present, courtship leading to marriage is one of the great rites of passage in a human life.
The time when one joins with another, when two come together to make one, is a rich fracas of destiny - both personal and otherwordly. Throughout time there have evolved any number of traditions and rituals designed to ensure the health, wealth and fertility of a betrothed couple.
Unlike the sometimes elaborately orchestrated weddings which take place today, our ancestors were often sealed together in a simple, natural ceremony called handfasting. Handfasting was the act of the prospective bride and groom facing each other and joining right hand to right hand, left to left and being bound by a ceremonial wrap or rope. This "tying of the knot" signified the oneness and the unity of the couple.
Handfasting ceremonies, like many weddings today, often took place out of doors, with all of nature to bless the union. The resident goddess or god of nearby rivers, lakes or holy wells were called upon to further sanctify the union. Witnesses and guests were sometimes provided with small pebbles to cast into the water while wishing for the new couple. The resulting ripples from the pebbles, radiating out, were seen as completion and of the sending of good tides to the couple as well as the community.
The use of a veil to cover the bride (and sometime the groom as well) is another very old tradition. Before she is veiled, the bride is of this world, in her maiden state. When veiled she becomes an otherworldly creature, a goddess in her own right and she takes on the mystery and feminine powers to which she is entitled. As she is unveiled by her groom, she returns to this world changed, as one life falls away and another begins.
Samhain, as the begining of the new year on November 1, was the season of wedding (and interestingly enough death) revels. On October 31, a primary pursuit of the evening were divinations calculated to reveal who one's bride or groom might be within the year. Conversely, Beltaine, on May 1, was the time for declaring divorce as this was usually the first community gathering after the long winter season.
A lovely tradition, reported by writer Padraic O'Farrell called for the groom to present his bride with newly churned butter next to a tree or stream (these being symbols of endurance). The groom recited the prayer "Oh woman, loved by me, mayest though give me thy heart, thy soul and body."
Simple and meaningful - these were the hallmarks of the Celtic wedding and the first step to a hopefully happy life. Modern lovers can look to these traditions to bring meaning to their own ceremonies as they hope for their own happy futures.