Wedding Traditions: Why Is the Wedding Ring Worn on the Left Hand?

We're uncovering the history behind the age-old custom

Updated 07/31/19
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Photo by Sara Lobla

If someone asked you at age six, "What finger does the wedding ring go on?" you probably knew the answer. It's pretty common for most people, particularly in the United States, to sport their wedding ring on the left ring finger. But why is the wedding ring worn on the left hand in the first place? And do brides and grooms absolutely have to? Here, the story behind left hand ring placement and whether or not you have to follow this custom. Plus, we've done you one better and also uncovered the traditions behind engagement and promise rings. Remember that when it comes to all things wedding, we here at Brides are always here to lend you a helping hand (theory) or two.

The Wedding Ring

The story of why the wedding ring is worn on the left hand can be traced back to ancient times (really!). In that era, the Romans believed that the vein in the ring finger (the fourth finger) on the left hand ran directly to one's heart. Because of this belief, they called that vein the "vena amoris" or vein of love. Naturally, to solidify a union based on love, they'd place the ring on that finger that housed the vein of love to signify the romance the newly married couple shares. A pretty adorable physical representation of two hearts being connected, don't you think? Unfortunately, our modern-day understanding of biology suggests that all your fingers have vein connections to the heart. But, screw science! If you want to designate the fourth finger vein from the right on the left hand as the most special of veins, power to you.

On the other hand (ba dum tsst!), you're welcome to wear your wedding ring on the right. In doing so, you'd be following the example of many central and northern European couples.

The list includes:

  • Norway
  • Austria
  • Denmark
  • Poland
  • Belgium (some areas)
  • Germany
  • Russia
  • Latvia
  • Bulgaria
  • Ukraine

And while contemporary Greek couples living in Western cultures often slip rings on the left, Greek brides and grooms have historically worn right-handed wedding rings. Orthodox Christians too customarily wore bands on the right.

In India, the left hand was once considered both unclean and lucky, so wedding rings were worn on the right. But nowadays, either hand can be a home for wedding baubles.

Engagement Ring

Since Western cultures have accepted the above-mentioned age-old wives tale to be true, the newly-engaged have also taken to wearing the engagement ring on that left ring finger. Interestingly, many of the people in Europe who choose to wear their wedding rings on the right hand's ring finger, still wear their engagement ring on the left and then transfer it over.

Our fiancé and fiancée friends over in Colombia and Brazil often wear bands as engagement rings on their right hands, and after completing their vows, move rings to the left hand. In Germany and the Netherlands, they may do the opposite — positioning engagement rings on the left hand and then wedding rings on the right.

Today, especially within same-sex marriages, men have begun wearing engagement rings. "Same-sex couples sometimes choose to use the ring finger on the right hand for engagement and wedding bands since it's similar, but not identical to the heterosexual practice, according to GayWeddings.com. "Others, however, embrace the traditional practice of using the ring finger of the left hand. We have also known of folks who have used other fingers; some have chosen the same finger and other couples have each picked a finger and not matched."

Swedish brides can wear unique wedding ring sets, made up of an engagement ring, wedding band, and the ring of motherhood.

If you've decided to wear both (or all three) rings on the same finger, you're now wondering about stacking. Are you ready for us to insert another sweet, sentimental explanation here? Married duos conventionally wear their wedding bands closest to their hearts, meaning they're the bottom stack, below the engagement ring, pushed towards the base of you knuckle. If you want to honor this on your actual wedding day, the the most popular strategy is to switch over your engagement ring to your right hand right before your walk down the aisle. Now your spouse-to-be can slide your band right up your left finger, and you can then you can top back off with your engagement ring right then during the ceremony, or later on. There are brides who, either in an an attempt to save themselves some trouble or enact another "marital bond" metaphor, have the wedding and engagement rings soldered together into one jewelry piece.

Promise Ring

The actual "promises" of a promise ring take many different forms. Commitment is the general idea here, but whether that commitment is to an upcoming engagement, abstinence until marriage, forever, or just the immediate future varies. But in any case, now there's an indicator, a few steps up from a high school class ring, to the outside world.

The practice of promise rings could also arguably be traced back to ancient Roman times, when "betrothal rings" were made out of inexpensive iron. Next up in history, came the "posie rings" of England during the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries. These round tokens sometimes had short love-poem inscriptions on their insides or outsides.

As we've noted, the contemporary ring's purpose and design spans the spectrum. An article from EngravedStyle.com, says the most common sentiments signified by a promise ring nowadays include:

Pre-engagement

Purity/Chastity Purposes

Exclusive Monogamy

Friendship

Personal Promises (Reminders to the wearer of a promise or commitment he/she made to a personal cause or goal)

"Now, on which finger does a promise ring go?" you're asking. As always, there is no rule. But one line of thinking may be that whichever finger you've designated as your "engagement and/or wedding ring finger" holds the greatest significance. Is your promise ring commitment worthy of said designation, and are you alright with it most often being mistaken for a different type of ring? if not, choose another digit.

No Ring

Finally, let's talk about wearing the rings in the first place. This is yet another situation in which it's completely up to the personal preferences of you and your spouse. Rings are a nice way to symbolize your union, and they've got those "endless" and "no beginning and no end" circle metaphors making a solid case for them. But you've got options! You might only want an engagement ring and not a wedding band. Perhaps you'd rather use another piece of jewelry, like necklaces or brackets, as ornaments for your union. Or if you're seriously committed to an expression of permeance and self-sacrifice, some couples may make like some celebs and get a tattoo on their fingers to signify your marriage. But know that in this instance, you'd better be confident in your designation of the vein/finger/hand that will bear your display of commitment when it's no longer a simple slip-on, slip-off kinda thing.

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