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Engagement and Wedding Rings History & Tradition

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“With this ring, I thee wed.” As he says these words, your husband to be slips a gold wedding band on the fourth finger of your left hand. Then, you repeat the same words and place a ring on his finger. It is a magic moment, a tradition that is as much a part of the wedding ceremony as your vows. You probably can’t imagine getting married without the words or the rings. Yet, it might surprise you to learn that this is not an ancient custom at all, but rather a fairly new one.

The double ring ceremony didn’t come into fashion until late in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, rings were not always worn on what Americans call the “ring finger.” In many parts of the world, the engagement and bridal rings are worn on the right hand, not the left. In some European countries, the wedding ring begins life as an engagement ring. It doesn’t signify marriage until it is engraved. And, among some Eastern religions, rings are not even exchanged during the wedding ceremony. So, how did this treasured part of the wedding ceremony become sacrosanct?

Wedding Ring Traditions

Today, the wedding ring–a circlet made of precious metal–symbolizes the institution of marriage. The bridal and engagement rings tell the world that you are committed to another human being, one half of a couple, “till death do you part.”

They are small but mighty symbols of eternal love and fidelity. It was an ancient Egyptian who first placed a ring on the finger of his bride, but not necessarily to pledge his undying devotion. It was more a sign that he had confidence in her ability to care for his house. A Greek or Roman bridegroom gave a ring to their father-in-law, rather than their bride, which probably grew out of an even older practice of purchasing a wife.

Traditions come in and out of favor for many reasons. One is simply good marketing. The American jewelry industry tried to popularize the double-ring ceremony in the late 1800s, but this first effort proved unsuccessful. In fact, exchanging rings, or “doubling ceremonies,” as they were called, didn’t catch on until the late 1930s. Following the War, an improved economy and better marketing helped the industry considerably. By the early forties, 80 percent of all weddings had become double-ring ceremonies.

Wearing the ring on the fourth finger of the left hand is a time-honored custom in America, England, and France. In other countries, however, the ring is worn on the fourth finger of the right hand. This finger is significant because it is supposed to contain the vena amoris, veia d’amore, or vein of love. This belief originated in classical times, but in actually, it is a myth with no scientific basis. By wearing their rings on that finger, a man and woman were declaring their eternal love.

There is great variation the order in which rings are placed on the bride’s finger. In one, the bride wears the wedding ring below the engagement ring to make it closer to her heart. In another, she wears the ring above the engagement ring, which symbolizes the progression from engagement to marriage. Still another is that the wedding ring is worn alone. In the US, wedding bands are often sold in sets of two (either the bride and groom’s wedding rings or the bride’s engagement ring and wedding band) or three, which include the engagement ring, a slender wedding band that is later attached to the engagement ring, and the groom’s ring.