Have you ever wondered about how modern engagement ring traditions, like getting down on one knee, began? Let’s take a look at 8 traditions involving engagement rings – some still current, some lost in time – and consider how they might impact your dream proposal.
1. Getting down on one knee
If there’s one enduring symbol of proposing with an engagement ring, it’s surely the romantic image of the proposing partner getting down on one knee and ‘popping the question’.
Now, most of us don’t adopt this pose very often in day-to-day life, unless perhaps we’ve stopped in the street to tie an errant shoelace. So why is it so fundamentally entwined with the action of proposing with a ring?
This particular tradition, like so many of our concepts of love and marriage, dates back from chivalric history.
Knights in medieval times would adopt the pose of getting down on one knee before their lord or lady, as a gesture of loyalty, respect, and humility, and it’s also associated with penitence before God or a religious figure.
As such, when a chivalrous knight was proposing to his lady-love (and pledging his loyalty and undying love to her), it was only natural to get down on one knee in order to do so.
2. Keeping the ring a secret
Associated with the previous point is the tradition of keeping the ring, and the proposal itself, a secret from the lady, and surprising her with it at a romantic or opportune moment.
This particular tradition doesn’t have quite such a long history, because in pre-modern times it would have been nothing short of scandalous to propose marriage with an engagement ring without consulting the woman’s family first.
Secrecy seems to have become commonplace in the early 20th century, however, and then something of a cinematic trope in the golden era of Hollywood movies – another major influence on the way we see romance and engagement today.
Of course, this is one tradition that is fast dying out. Marriage proposals are increasingly discussed and planned in detail between couples, and fewer and fewer proposing partners want to hazard a guess at their partner’s ring size!
3. Having an engagement ring reflect your salary
The tradition that an engagement ring should cost at least two times the proposing partner’s salary has become something of a thorny issue in recent years, as it seems to prop up outdated ideas of male financial responsibility in modern relationships.
However, it is a tradition that many still consider significant, despite having little historical basis beyond the first half of the 20th century.
Ultimately, getting the right ring for your partner is what’s important, not the price tag, and attitudes regarding this tradition are changing to reflect that belief today.
Read more – How much do you spend on an engagement ring?
4. Bachelor’s Day on the 29th of February
The 29th of February rolls around every four years, and all around the world, it comes with its own traditions – some of which are quite bizarre.
In the UK and around many parts of Western Europe this day is known as ‘Bachelor’s Day’, a day on which women are ‘permitted’ to propose to their male partners, most commonly with an engagement ring.
Now, this doesn’t seem like such a topsy-turvy idea in the 21st century (after all, plenty of women pop the question to their partners without so much as a raised eyebrow nowadays), but in centuries past it would have been scandalous on any other day of the year.
The tradition supposedly dates back to the 5th century, in a deal struck between St. Brigid and St. Patrick of Ireland to address the often long time periods women were waiting to be proposed to.
Interestingly, there’s a forfeit associated with this particular tradition…
Should the man refuse the proposal of marriage he is supposed to buy the lady a new pair of gloves or a fur coat, in order to compensate for her disappointment!
5. Beyond gold and diamonds
When most of us think of engagement rings, we tend to immediately conjure up images of sparkling diamonds set in a yellow or white gold band.
It’s not surprising. The classic diamond solitaire ring remains the most popular type of engagement ring sold today and has set the standard for what most people expect from their proposal.
However, diamonds have only really been the gemstone of choice for engagement rings since the 1940s, although there is some historical precedent for diamond engagement rings prior to that.
In the mid-15th century, Archduke Maximillian of Austria dazzled his betrothed, Mary of Burgundy, with a diamond engagement ring, and so rings of this sort became popular amongst European royalty across the next centuries.
The earliest known examples of engagement rings, which come from across the Roman Empire, were made from ivory, wood, and iron, although the nobility also had a fondness for gold jewellery.
Today, those looking for the perfect engagement ring have a plethora of precious metals and gemstones to choose from, meaning there’s a perfect ring for every couple.
Read More – Does an Engagement Ring Have to Be a Diamond?
6. Which finger?
In the UK, the USA and many Western countries, a ring worn on any finger other than the fourth finger of the left hand, or the ‘ring finger’, is just a ring.
Why does it matter which finger an engagement ring is worn on, and where does this particular tradition come from?
We must turn to the Egyptians for this particular piece of romantic history. Ancient Egyptians would wear their engagement rings and wedding bands on the fourth finger of the left hand because they believed, rather beautifully, that within this finger ran the vena amoris, or the vein of love, which connected the finger directly to the heart.
Biology has long since complicated this theory… but it’s a lovely one, nonetheless, and it’s one that wields its influence to this day.
Read More – Engagement and Wedding Rings On Which Finger?
7. An exception from Chile
There are, as you might expect, plenty of interesting variations on how engagement rings are worn around the world.
In Chile, for example, both men and women have always worn engagement rings (a tradition which has only really taken off in the UK and western Europe and USA in the past couple of decades), but wear them on the ring fingers of the right hand, not the left.
On the day of the wedding, the ring is symbolically moved from the right hand to the left hand, to represent that the engagement has been recognised by God and the gathered friends and family in matrimony.
8. Papal origins
While betrothal and engagement rings have a history which stretches back to Roman and Ancient Egyptian cultures, they were worn sporadically, and there was no formal requirement for a ring to be involved in marriage proposals.
That all changed in 1214 when Pope Innocent III introduced a papal law for ‘all of Christendom’ which stated that a couple who wished to marry had to observe a waiting period, ensuring that all involved agreed with the marriage and the legal and spiritual contract it represented.
This waiting period was to require the wearing of an engagement ring; a Christian adoption of a pre-Christian symbol of commitment, demonstrating publicly that the lady was betrothed and no longer available for other proposals.
Interestingly, the same law stated that marriages could only be officiated in a church in order to be binding; a tradition which continued for many centuries that followed.
Do you know any other engagement ring traditions?
There’s no denying the symbolic impact of an engagement ring, which represents a wish, a promise, the fulfilment of dreams, and a future of romance and companionship.
As such, it should come as no real surprise to find that engagement rings have long since been surrounded by no shortage of traditions, superstitions, and examples of folklore. Some of these have fallen by the wayside as a result of an evolving social landscape.
But no matter where you stand on this particular spectrum, it’s always fascinating to take a deeper look at some of the traditions that continue to impact our attitudes and behaviour towards items of jewellery.
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