With This Ring...
Two simple gold bands. Out of all the lace and pearls, ribbons and bows, bells and hearts and winged cupids, the most potent and most fundamental symbol of marriage remains a simple band of gold, worn without ornamentation on the third finger of the left hand.
A wedding band is a potent symbol of marriage. It sends an unmistakable message about our marital status, as anyone who has taken a discrete glance at the left hand of an attractive stranger will tell you. When worn as part of a pair, it symbolizes the bond two people share, the solid, enduring, endless bond that connects them even when they're apart.
Screenwriters and tv writers know the potency of wedding rings. Distraught couples who break up on tv invariably make a dramatic production out of removing their wedding rings. Widowed characters and the unhappily divorced are often seen clutching their partner's wedding ring as some sort of cherished talisman. Any time a writer wants to make a statement about a character's feelings for someone, be they married, divorced or widowed, the wedding ring is usually the symbol of choice. It taps into something fundamental we all recognize - a wedding ring means marriage, and marriage means the most profound love we're capable of.
The wedding ring has been around for centuries, and is unique in its universality. Practically every culture on earth seals marriage with an exchange of rings, and although the practices may vary somewhat, the sentiment and meaning is certainly there. Some European women wear a ring on their right hand, some Scandinavian women wear three rings, one each for engagement, marriage and motherhood. Jewish brides have the ring placed on their index finger, since that is the finger with which they point to the Torah as they read. Early Puritans refused to wear wedding rings because they considered jewelry frivolous, yet in Colonial times, couples exchanged "wedding thimbles" - a useful and practical gift, and therefore acceptable - but after the wedding often cut off the bottoms thereby creating rings. Whatever the culture, whatever the century, people have recognized the importance of sealing their unions with rings.
But why the third finger of the left hand? There are many theories as to why this particular finger came to symbolize marriage. Both the ancient Romans and Egyptians believed that a vein - called the vena amoris in Latin - ran directly from that finger to the heart. In medieval England, a bridegroom would slide the ring part way up his bride's thumb, index and middle finger, saying "In the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost" as he passed each one. He then put the ring on the next available finger - the third finger of the left hand. This practice was finally formalized in the 1500's when Henry VIII's son authored The Book of Common Prayer, which gives us our modern Protestant wedding vows and decrees on which finger our wedding rings should go.
The practice of men wearing wedding rings is relatively new. Up until the middle of the twentieth century, it was mostly only women who wore wedding rings, perhaps a throwback to the days when women were regarded as property, or perhaps a harmless custom akin to women wearing engagement rings that their husbands do not. When World War Two broke out and many young men faced lengthy - often permanent - separations from their wives, men began wearing wedding bands as a symbol of their marriages and a reminder of their wives. It was pure romance, a gesture of love and affection that has happily survived into modern times. While some men still do not wear wedding rings, the vast majority of men do, voluntarily. Perhaps the men that gladly wear wedding rings today understand what a rare and precious thing it is to be married, and are more than happy to show the world they've found the woman of their dreams.
So what does all of this mean? Are wedding rings merely a hazy traditional custom that we've held on to out of deference to our ancestors? Many couples today choose to flount tradition in various ways. Some women wear their engagement and wedding rings on another finger, some couples choose silver or platinum rings, some women replace the traditional gold band with ornate, jewel-encrusted rings, worn several at a time. Some people don't wear rings at all but tattoo elaborate designs around their fingers, as Pamela Anderson Lee did.
While personal style will always be a factor and personal choice must always be respected, I maintain that some thought ought to be given to the fact that your wedding ring is a symbol of marriage. It is not jewelry, or rather, it shouldn't be. Wear whatever elaborate or expensive rings you wish on your other fingers, but consider that the ring you wear to symbolize your marriage shouldn't be garish or overworked, or a way in which to show off your husband's wealth. The desire for pretty diamonds and dazzling precious gems has overshadowed the simple beauty of a plain gold band, especially when that band represents so much more than any diamond ever could.
A wedding band is not something you should "trade up" for something better when your finances become more stable, either. Women who carefully fold away their wedding dresses with a tear in their eye have no problem tossing their rings aside when a shinier new diamond becomes available. "With this ring, I thee wed..." is the vow we make. We should honor that part of our vows as much as any other.
I maintain that your wedding band is far more precious than any photo album or fancy dress. Even if you can't wear the ring you were married with, for whatever reason, it ought to be kept as a special reminder of your marriage, for as long as you are married. It's up to you whether you hold onto rings from other marriages but be warned if you do: a wedding ring is a very potent symbol. You risk detracting from the meaning of the band you wear now if you still have the band you wore then. That ring will be a constant reminder of the other person you called husband or wife, and can do nothing but hurt the man or woman who currently holds that place in your life.
If you could keep only one thing from your wedding day to symbolize your love for your husband or wife, only one item to represent your commitment to each other, your ability to weather life's storms together, your trust and faith in each other, your mutual admiration and delight in each other...what would it be? Would it really be the photo album, the dress, or even the shiny engagement ring?
Or would it be a simple, beautiful, elegant band of gold?