The exact origins of the handfasting ceremony are mostly lost to time, however we can be certain that the ancient British custom has been around for many thousands of years. Evidence suggests that early handfasting ceremonies and weddings coincided with types of pagan worship, particularly amongst Celts that migrated to Britain for Europe around 7000 B.C; this coincides with the establish of societies - often revolving around the worship of a matriarchic godess figure. With this the concept of marriage and weddings became increasingly important as a type of social contract , although ancient weddings and handfastings were often more economic and political in nature; as opposed to the modern day emphasis on love, commitment and shared experience between a bride and groom.
Handfastings that took place alongside a Druid ceremony were important in Celtic Britain, however this type of ceremony was often reserved for the richer elite members of societies, with most choosing to express their love with a smaller handfasting celebration that they could afford. The importance of May Day and Beltane are still felt in Pagan and Celtic faiths to this day, and they were often seen as a traditional day to get engaged. This follows with the Scottish and Irish views that a handfasting signified betrothal between a couple rather than marriage itself. At this time, a wedding ceremony that took place in front of witnesses - often friends and family - was not required for a couple to claim they were married, however holding a more public handfasting in front of the local community ensured their status as a couple was recognised. Unlike a modern marriage, which is designed to last forever, a handfasting would often be valid for a year and a day.
The term handfasting derives from the custom of tying the bride and grooms hands and wrists together during the marriage ceremony. A specially made cloth was used and in some traditions it was not untied until the marriage had been consummated. The etymology of the word suggests that it stems from the Anglo-Saxon word 'handfaestung', which was the tradition of shaking hands to signify a contract; not just in the sense of a marriage or wedding. However this part of the handfasting term is also related to the term wedding. Where a 'wed' was a down payment made by a man to his future brides father, before the handfasting took place, in order to secure her hand in marriage.
Handfasting has changed since its original inception, however some traditional parts of the practice are still used in a variety of ceremonies. For example, renewing vows several times without a permanent marriage. Accepting that a bond will only last as long as love does. The specific method of tying the ribbon or cord during the handfasting, right to right hand and left to left. Incorporating a legal practice in the handfasting, where rings are also exchanged during the ceremony.
Overall, whilst the origins of handfasting are not sure, it is certainly steeped in tradition and ancient history.