Look to these Gallic customs for a unique, chic wedding.
Many brides and grooms try to have something unique about their wedding that their guests will remember. One easy way to achieve this is to look to other traditions from around the world.
While we’ve reported on wedding traditions from Ireland, the Philippines, Poland, and even royal weddings, we haven’t shared the different customs of couples marrying in France. So I spoke to a good friend who has averaged at least eight weddings a year, all across Europe, over the past 35 years and she shared her thoughts on the traditions of Catholics who marry in France.
Some will be familiar to you, while others are very particular to the French. Maybe you’ll find one to incorporate in your own nuptials or share with someone you know.
1It’s not just about the bride!
There is none of this Bridezilla business in the majority of French weddings. The emphasis is actually on the two families uniting, and the groom and his family play an equally important part in the whole ceremony and its preparations.
In fact, right from the moment of the engagement, or fiançailles, the couple ensure family members are aware of their intentions long before notifying their friends. Often the two families will try and spend a weekend together to get to know each other once the engagement has been announced.
2The civil wedding
In France, couples need to have a civil ceremony in the town hall, or mairie, where one of the two live or were born. While this legal obligation at the mairie means they are technically married, Catholic newlyweds would only consider themselves truly married once they’re married in the Church. This is often on the very same day; however, I have friends who were legally married a year before their actual marriage due to COVID. They didn’t consider themselves husband or wife, nor did they wear any rings, until they said their vows before God.
3Witnesses, and a few more witnesses!
In America most brides are accompanied by a number of bridesmaids, but in France this is not the case. You might have a few flower girls throwing petals on the floor before the bride follows them to the altar, but more importance is placed on the witnesses.
It is customary for both the bride and groom to have at least two witnesses each. Normally these are old school friends. In many cases, however, the couple will have three of four witnesses each, which leads to some very interesting events later on in the celebrations (we’ll get to that soon!).
4La voiture balai
The “broom car” is used to ensure everybody gets to the chosen venue correctly. It follows the newlyweds as well as the guests and will literally sweep up any stragglers. The car is decorated with pots and pans and makes a real clatter-bang, so it cannot be ignored.
5The reception dinner
In traditional families, the reception dinner can be a very large affair. I once went to a wedding where there were over 1,500 guests, as the parents of the couple had large families and a huge circle of friends.
As you might imagine, the meal is very important in French receptions and the couple often select a menu that reflects the region where they are marrying. They do not have a traditional wedding cake, but rather a croquembouche, roughly meaning “mouth bite.” This is like a mountain of choux pastries that are individually filled with a cream filling and caramel is used to stick it all together.
Instead of favors, newlyweds often give five little dragées. These are sugar-coated almonds that represent fertility, happiness, health, longevity, and wealth.
6Celebrating in style
Couples might opt for a champagne tower; however, in families who appreciate good wine, there is another lovely tradition. When a child is born the parents may stock up on wine from that year. Bottles of it are served at key points in their life, such as baptism, Holy Communion, and then their marriage. Of course, the focus is on choosing a wine that only gets better with age!
Unlike anglophone weddings, the speeches in a French wedding are very different. Typically the bride and groom do not say anything, although this is not always the case. However, remember all those witnesses? Well, this is their time to shine. They might do a skit about the couple, and they definitely have lots to say. Other family members join in, too, so it can last for hours!
8The wedding armoire
Traditionally, a bride would have a chest or cupboard, called an armoire in French, filled with linens that the bride and her mother might embroider the couple’s new initials on. Sadly this tradition seems to be dying out, but it is a real labor of love.
You might be surprised to hear that the French don’t necessarily adhere to a strict dress code for all the guests. If the groom, close male family members, and witnesses are wearing traditional morning dress, other male guests are not obliged to wear the same. This is quite useful in keeping the wedding costs down, as they can wear a regular suit for the whole day.
10The mother and the groom
Finally, the mothers have a symbolic role to play in a French wedding ceremony. Typically in English weddings, the groom arrives with the guests and makes his way to his place in front of the altar before the bride arrives. In France, however, the groom is escorted to the altar by his mother before the bride makes her entrance. It’s almost as if she is saying goodbye and handing him over to his bride, just as the bride’s father gives her away.