Which finger is the ring finger? Which hand does the engagement ring and wedding band go on? At first glance these questions seem to have a very simple answer – wedding and engagement rings go on the fourth finger of the left hand. Easy right?!
Not so fast. Here in Canada as well as the US, Britain, France, Italy and many other countries, that is the traditional hand to wear your wedding rings, but this is by no means universal. The hand that you wear your engagement ring and wedding band on can be determined by culture, religion and geography. Let’s take a look at what has influenced current traditions.
The Vein of Love
Long before the engagement ring was the wedding ring, which has been traced back to Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians considered the circle to be a symbol of eternity, and the ring to symbolize eternal love. Various Roman sources claim that Ancient Egyptians wore their wedding rings on the fourth finger of their left hand, as they believed that finger has a vein that is directly connected to the heart. This vein is called the Vena Amoris (Vein of Love in Latin), and while it’s a lovely idea, it is not anatomically correct.
The Romans continued the tradition of wearing their wedding rings on their left hand as they followed the Egyptian way. The Roman marriage was more of a business contract than a romance, with the ring signifying the transaction of the woman being passed from her father to her husband. This meant that the wedding ring was only worn by the woman and not the man. This pattern of only women wearing a ring continued for most of history, until around WWII when men also began to wear a ring.
The Right Side
As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, the wedding ring began to be worn by those of the Christian faith. There is evidence that Catholics wore their wedding rings on the right hand during the early middle ages. This came from the belief that the right hand was spiritually more significant, as God blesses with his right hand and it is also used to make the sign of the cross. In 1054 AD the Greek Orthodox Church broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and to this day Orthodox Christians still wear their engagement rings and wedding bands on their right hand. The influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia and most Eastern European countries means they also wear their rings on the right hand. Jewish wedding ceremonies began including rings in the middle ages and they also wore them on the right hand, however during the ceremony the ring was placed on the index finger where it was easier for witnesses to see.
The Left Side
In the 16th century the Protestant Reformation saw the Church of England break away from the Catholic Church. King Edward VI declared that the wedding ring must be worn on the left hand and the new church wrote a prayer book laying out the placement of the ring during the ceremony. The Protestant church chose the left hand because it wanted to distinguish itself from the Catholic practise of wearing the ring on the right hand. Since then the majority, but not all, of Western European countries have worn their rings on the left hand. England’s vast colonization spread this tradition to many parts of the globe.
Rules of Engagement
The concept of the engagement ring didn’t occur until 1215 AD when Pope Innocent III declared that there must be a waiting period between the engagement and the wedding to test the devotion of the couple to each other. However, it was only the nobility who were able to afford both an engagement ring and a wedding band. When wearing an engagement ring and wedding band on the same hand, the wedding band traditionally goes on first and the engagement ring second. This originally stemmed from an old superstition that once the wedding band was put on it must never be taken off. These days the wedding band is put on first so that it is closer to the heart.
Rings for All
While the Western part of the world has a long tradition with the wedding ring, many other parts of the world didn’t wear one at all. Traditionally, in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism there was no ring included in the wedding ceremonies, although they had other symbols and/or jewellery they would wear. Today most cultures have added engagement and wedding rings to their rituals due to the influence of globalization. The hand these countries choose to wear their rings on often ties in to their traditional beliefs. In India they wear them on the right hand because that hand is considered auspicious and the left hand unclean. In China the woman wears her rings on her right hand and the man on his left, because the woman is the one who runs the household and the right hand exerts more influence.
And the Answer Is…
So to the question of which hand does your wedding ring go on, the answer is it depends on where in the world you live. As I live in Canada, everyone I know wears them on their left hand. But if I lived in Russia then they would most likely wear them on their right hand. Also, in most societies, both men and women wear a wedding ring, while engagement rings are still mainly worn by women. Despite these traditions, in today’s society there are no longer strict rules and if someone wants to wear their engagement ring or wedding ring on a different finger or hand, then they should do what feels right for them.
Photo credit: Jeremie Dupont