“Tie the knot” – what does that mean? Getting married!

The origin of this phrase is obscure. The theories underlying this saying is as old as some of the customs, superstitions, symbols and folklore surrounding it.

One suggestion is that it derives from the time when beds where supported by nets of knotted string – not metal or wood based. Thus, to make the marriage-bed they first had to “tie the knot” to have a sturdy base for the couple’s bed for consummation of the marriage. No shred of evidence can be found for this, and it stays as folk-etymological hearsay.

Others belief superstitiously, that it stems from the 17th century when some of the bride-favours were always knots of coloured ribbons stitched to the wedding gown – to be taken from the gown at the wedding feast. These ribbons were mostly blue. Perhaps the tradition of something old, something blue got its origin in this practice. The guests, mostly young men, plucked these blue ribbons off and wore it on their hats as talismans or luck-bringers.

Another theory has it that this phrase originates in Roman times. During this time the ladies wore a girdle (belt, circle, ring, band) around the waist/hips to slim the figure. On the wedding day, the bride’s girdle was then tied in knots. The poor groom had to untie these knots, before consummation of the marriage.

However, the most likely reference is from the ancient Celtic tradition of “handfasting”. It dates to the medieval era, when couples where bonded together in matrimony by tying knots of cloth/rope/twine around their hands. This was a symbolic reference to two people being united. This “contract” was binding for one year and one day. The couple promised to stay wedded for that time before the marriage would be “legal’. If they decided after this time that they were not meant to be, they would part. Otherwise, the marriage was then forever and ever! This practice of handfasting, continues even today with the use of sashes which are placed over the wrists of the couple suggesting the bond of unity.

Handfast: To make a contract of marriage between (parties) by joining of hands; to betroth (two persons, or one person to another) — Oxford English Dictionary

Knots have a place in the folklore of many cultures. Even today. Knots represent eternity, whether this means friendship, love, loyalty or faith. Life and eternity are inter-connected, and this is symbolized by using only one continuous thread as complete loop with no start and no finish. “Knotty” designs are complex and used to decorate jewelry, plates, mugs, clothing and cutlery. These designs can be traced back to ancient times, think Romans and Byzantine Constantinople. Around 650AD a variety of these designs were used to adorn the pages of biblical manuscripts, artwork and documents. Variations of plants, humans, animals and knotty designs were used to decorate and to fill empty spaces on pages. Gaelic Monks in Ireland and Britain were well known for using these designs, later labelled “Celtic Knot”. The Book of Kells a national treasure in Ireland is filled with these designs. It is an illuminated manuscript written in Latin and richly illustrated.

The intricate Celtic knot designs have become a symbol of cultural pride for those with Welsh, Irish or Scottish heritage. It is seen as a mystic, timeless and endless knot involving beginnings (birth and rebirth cycles) and endings, or rather an interpretation of no beginning and no end. A symbol for the eternal circle of life, connecting the physical and spiritual – mind, body and soul. Into eternity, for ever and ever. The patterns are formed by curved lines, strips or spirals winding and weaving around one another. Using one strand or many strands, depending on the design. Each different pattern or style has its own meaning and or symbolism underlying.                                                                                                                    

However, historians are having difficulty finding and/or believing that there was a significance behind each complex design. They cannot ascertain that the Celts had any special meaning for each design as they were typically used as decorations, especially in manuscripts. In the modern era, individuals attach meanings and symbolism to these designs based on personal interpretation. Perhaps that is why it makes sense to use Celtic Knot designs in engagement or wedding rings as it represents interconnectedness and continuity - holding into eternity.

Whatever the case might be, meaning or no meaning, these designs are still in high demand and very popular today.

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