A few months back, when I started getting questions about the differences between French and American weddings, I thought, I’ll have to write an exposé on all the differences I can drum up. But, much as I’d like to claim proficiency in all things French, I’m still an All-American girl who will have to learn these things as she goes along. When Nicolas told me wedding cakes aren’t white in France, I decided I’d be better off turning the reins over to someone who’s actually been through the process of making her very American idea of a wedding compatible with a traditional wedding en France.
That’s why today I am ravie to share a guest post from a real American gal turned French Madame! I’ve been reading “Madame’s” writing since I discovered her blog, appropriately called Becoming Madame, last year. She writes about French culture, tradition, literature, and about the art of living in Paris. (Obviously, we have a lot in common!) Because she is much more of an expert on the subject than I am, having been married to a Frenchman for several years now, I’ve asked her to enlighten us (read: me) about all the ins and outs of French weddings, from her perspective.
I’m looking forward to hearing what you think, and I highly recommend checking out Madame’s blog. Un grand merci, Madame!
Saying ‘I Do’ in France
by The Author of Becoming Madame
When my husband proposed to me, I had already been living in Paris for two years. Naturally, upon the offer of his hand in marriage, surprise and thrill and sheer excitement swaddled me in an enchanted haze of happiness, as it does with anyone, I suppose, who’s on the brink of that particular new chapter in life.
I had, by then, completed my self-imposed French immersion and was relatively comfortable in my belief that I understood French life – its customs, its quirks, and its charms. Having lived in France during those first years almost exclusively enveloped in Paris’ expat community, my boyfriend, a Frenchman down to the very last follicle on his head, was my window into real French life. Through him I was privy to the idyllic and mesmerizing world of a French yesteryear in the form of histraditionalFrench family with roots stretching back further than I could fathom. And now I was going to be a part of it.
Once I became a French fiancée, the buffer my boyfriend had proved throughout our courtship was removed and the veil lifted. I was left face-to-face with the beloved French traditions and customs I thought I had conquered; I found myselftête à tête with the wishes and expectations of my to-be belle-famille.
Not knowing any better, I naively began planning an American wedding in France. Little did I know that a wedding in North America is not a French mariage. Sure, the general elements are all present: there was to be a lovely, old, stone church; an onslaught of dust colored roses; candles everywhere; a three-tiered cake; a big white tent; a French lace gown for me; and a tuxedo for my fiancé. I’d had the picture of how all this would look in my mind’s eye ever since I was in high school. The location had changed several times over the years, granted, but the images of my wedding remained net and wrapped in romantic clouds of lace and candle light.
The reality of marrying into a large, traditional, French family truly dawned on me as I sat with my future mother-in-law, a pad of writing paper strategically placed between us, discussing how she saw the event coming together: les procédures, les formules, les traditions familiales. As I sat in a dazed confusion before her, French words incoherently flying over my head, a weary thought passed through my mind: Was this going to be my wedding, the wedding of which I’d always dreamed? Are there really that many rules?
My own mom being four-thousand miles away left me rather alone to coordinate the planning. True enough, my fiancé was present; but save for a few enlightened exceptions, I find that men are much less interested in “the wedding” than women. The former having accomplished their part by organizing a romantic engagement, now pass the baton onto their feminine halves to work out the celebratory details. My case did not deviate from this norm.
Now, I don’t want to alarm any new fiancées who might be marrying into a French family. Much of the color of my experience hails from the history and traditions of the family into which I married. And I say that with the utmost love and respect. Now that a few years have passed, we can all look back on the wedding planning ordeal and share a good-hearted chuckle about it all.
It wasn’t always so funny to me, though. I can remember periods of stress and trepidation, frustration and even a little anger. I’m sure many brides in every part of the world go through a little of this, too. Yet there are a few particular reasons why the Frenchness of my wedding led to moments of acute panic. Certain parts of the French wedding experience are just not the same as they are in North America. Here’s what I mean:
Let’s start at the beginning. In France, the engagement is celebrated by les fiançailles, a form of engagement party, which is traditionally when the man presents the woman with her ring and when the parents meet each other for the first time. After a big meal all together, the engagement is blessed at a Mass before the congregation and the two families.
A couple of these details might strike you as quite unlike the North American custom:
Firstly, the ring is given at the fiançailles and not at the proposal. Although my husband opted for an American style proposal (to my delight), his mother was less than pleased that I was already wearing my engagement ring before the fiançailles transpired. Indeed, the French tradition is for the man and women to decide they want to marry, for the man to ask “Veux-tu m’épouser?” “Will you marry me?” If she agrees, he then asks her parents (very traditionally, the man asks her father while he is wearing white gloves). The engagement is then announced to the respective families and the couple go out together to buy a ring. Interestingly, the French call our ‘man on one knee, velvet box in hand’ proposal a “Hollywood proposal.”
Secondly, the engagement is blessed during a Mass. This is one of those details I mentioned that occurs with more traditional families. Obviously, if the couple is not going to partake in a religious ceremony or they are not religious at all, then this part would not play a role in the fiançailles.
My own fiançailles was a wonderful afternoon at my to-be parents-in-law’s property where the wedding would take place a year later. My family came over for the celebration and met my fiancé’s family for the first time.The whole event was a charming, if unexpected, prelude to the wedding itself.
If I was pressed to name the most significant difference between North American style weddings and those in France it would be a matter of tone. What do I mean by tone? With North American TV shows like Bridezilla and hundreds of wedding websites, a couple dozen glossy bridal magazines and thousands of professionals ready to aid the North American bride create her dream day,weddings have become more of a show, a cabaret of sorts, a service industry cash cow, more of a production than a family celebration. Although the wedding industry is inevitably coming to Europe, and to France in particular, it hasn’t reached the borders quite yet. Thus French weddings remain more low key, family-oriented affairs akin to a family reunion, more in tune with what weddings were in North America 50 years ago.
Although set in the grounds of gilded chateaux or under billowing white tents in vineyards or on rolling lavender hills in Provence, French weddings embody several degrees less of the theatrical hoopla than their North American counterparts, which is an aspect of French weddings that I greatly respect. The original meaning of the ceremony is not overshadowed by efforts to impress or outshine or dazzle. As is the case with most of French culture, the order of the day is good old-fashioned enjoyment. And because French weddings are so much more down-to-earth, in a sense, they cost a fraction of what a similar event would run State-side. Stretch limos, for instance, are rare in France. Couples tend toward renting or borrowing antique cars or a shiny sedan. Lovely flowers are arranged on the tables and there are cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and music at the reception. But the component parts add up to a totally different equation. It’s all much less ‘done.’ As my mother-in-law explained to me at one of our early planning sessions: “A [French] wedding is about the coming together of two people and by extension two families. The party that follows is a celebration of that union and must not be dwarfed by the whims of la mode.”
My wedding, by the way, was far too ‘done’ for the likes of my belle-mère even with my sincerest efforts to follow her lead and dial down most of my ideas. In the end, it became abundantly clear that the essence of what she perceived to be a proper, respectable wedding, and what I had grown up learning to desire as a wedding, were simply not the same.
Wedding planners exist in France, but as you can imagine they are rare. The industry is a budding one and the quality of services and their expertise vary greatly. I hired a planner for my wedding to overcome three very specific obstacles:
(1) I was living in Paris while I was trying to plan a wedding in Dordogne (something akin to living in NYC and planning a wedding in Kansas);
(2) Being an American, I had no contacts in France for caterer (les traiteurs – I didn’t even know the word for a caterer back then), tent rentals, florists, bands, photographers, church musicians, etc. And I didn’t know how to deal with the totally new vocabulary that comes with planning any wedding, but especially when doing so in a second language: fabric types and colors, flower names, tent types, candle shapes, ribbon fabrics – you’d be astonished how much there is to learn when you plan a wedding, even in your own language!
And (3) I needed a buffer to mediate between me and my belle-famille in terms of our rather variant ideas on how the day would progress.
After a long search, I ended up discovering a fabulous bilingual wedding planner in Bordeaux who decreased my stress level by a percentage very worthy of her commission.
The second most pronounced difference between North American and French weddings is the fact that in France you are obligated to marry twice. In fact, all weddings take place at the City Hall first and then if the couple wish to do so they can marry in a church. The separation of Church and State with respect to French weddings is absolute. The two ceremonies are not combined as they are in the Anglo-Saxon traditions. It does not matter when you marry civilly as long as it is in advance of your religious wedding. You might recall that the Prince of Monaco was married back in July 2011 twice – once civilly, once religiously. Many French brides decide to have the civil ceremony the morning of their religious wedding. I chose to have mine the evening before so as to follow the North American tradition of not seeing my groom before I walked down the aisle on the day of the religious wedding.
As there are two weddings in France, there is also twice the paper work.
For a civil marriage, you must supply the City Hall with all types of ID and proof that you aren’t already married. A pamphlet of all required documentation is available at the Mairie where you plan to get married. Remember, in France you have to be domiciled in the place where you plan to get married civilly. I refer you to a post I wrote all about the procedures of getting married in France. (Look here for more detailed information.)
To be married religiously in a Catholic church in France, you are required to meet with the priest of the church where you are getting married and he may request that you undergo a certain number of pre-marital sessions with your fiancé(e). My husband and I enrolled in a 14 session pre-marital course that I was quite weary of at first but thoroughly enjoyed in the end. In these meetings, we met several other young couples from our parish who have now become great friends.
“You may kiss the bride!”
Or not! In a Catholic French wedding, the priest does not say “You may kiss the bride” at the end of the ceremony. The picture that you and I have grown up imagining with the congregation clapping as the officiant smiles upon the embracing newly-weds, is not a little French child’s bridal fairytale. In fact, the bride and groom do not normally kiss until they exit the church and are standing before the waiting congregation on the church steps.
For my wedding, I was prepared to sacrifice a great deal in order to appease my belle-famille – compromise, yes, compromise –so that the celebration would prove meaningful not only to me and my family but to my husband and his family as well. However, the kiss was non-negotiable. I had my heart set on this particular Anglo-Saxon tradition which proved a real exercise in my most profound negotiating skills. The priest who married us felt that any change to the normal French wedding program was sacrilege, and right up until the week before the wedding he held on to his refusal to say those five little words: “Vous pouvez embrasser la mariée.”
Le tenu du marié
I’d always pictured my fiancé waiting for me at the altar in a tuxedo with a white rose pinned to his lapel, cummerbund and bow tie in place. But that’s not how it works in France. French grooms have a choice between a jaquette (most common for country weddings) – what we in North America would call a Mr. Darcy suit – or a habit (most common for city weddings), which is what a chef d’orchestre wears with white bowtie and tails. The traditional French groom also accompanies his jaquette or habit with a top hat and white gloves. Tuxedos in the North American sense, as was explained to me by my father-in-law, are appropriate for a Parisian Ball or if you were, say, invited to dine with the President of the Republic. Save for those two elegant occasions, tuxedos are left to the waiters of chic French restaurants and they are by no means appropriate outfits for a groom. Being a musician, my husband chose the habit for himself and matching jaquettes for our fathers and his temoins.
The Wedding Party
Speaking of les temoins reminds me of yet another marked difference between French and North American weddings. In France, groomsmen and bridesmaids do not exist. Instead, the French have les temoins who are friends or family members chosen to be witnesses of the ceremony for the bride and groom. The gender of the temoins is of no importance. A groom’s temoins may include his sister just as easily as his best male friend. Naturally, as there is no wedding party, there is no procession up the aisle by paired-off groomsmen and bridesmaids. The groom enters the church just before the bride and escorts his mother up the aisle. A Best Man and a Maid of Honor also play no role in a French wedding. There are, however, les enfants d’honneur, akin to our flower girls and ring bearers, except that their job is to tend to the bride’s train.
I must admit that I changed almost all of these rules for my wedding. I chose my sister as my Maid of Honor and she walked up the aisle on the arm of my husband’s brother (one of his temoins) who stood by his side at the altar. I engaged our two nieces as flower girls and two of our nephews as ring bearers.
Given the absence of a wedding party, it follows that the North American Rehearsal is also not a part of a French wedding. Yet, since I introduced many of the associated North American elements to my French wedding, we planned a Rehearsal for the day before the ceremony.
Salon du mariage
The Salon du mariage is the one exception to what I previously mentioned about French weddings not being all about pomp and circumstance, hoopla and excessive preparedness. In fact, it is one of the benefits of planning a wedding from Paris. Posters for these Salons, which are held around the city at various times of year, begin popping up on billboards in early spring. Thousands of to-be brides flock to these expositions to sample caterers, secure a band or a photographer, sign up for their ‘liste de mariage,’ try on dresses, order invitations, pick out wedding bands and select a florist. My husband and I enjoyed walking through a few of these Salons as fiancés. They are a particularly useful resource for couples planning their wedding themselves and, shall we say, a rite of passage for all French brides.
One the questions most asked of a newly married couple in North America is “So, what was your wedding song?” This question purports to acknowledge our tradition of the couple’s First Dance and the chosen melody that will forever be ‘their song.’ This is not a part of the French wedding tradition. Rather than the couple warming up the dance floor with their First Dance or perhaps more à la mode these days with some sort of choreographed dance routine, the French begin the dance portion of the wedding with a Father-Daughter waltz. After a few minutes dancing with this daughter, the father of the bride hands her over to her husband and the couple finish off the waltz as man and wife.
If you ask a French couple what their Wedding Song was, they will assume you are talking about the musique d’entrée which is a song chosen by the couple to be played when they enter the reception. The French tradition is that guests rise to their feet at this moment, clap their hands and twirl their napkins over their heads.
In a wave of international compromise, my husband and I combined the two traditions. We forewent the musique d’entrée, began the dance portion of the evening with a waltz to which I danced with my father who handed me to my husband. Then later in the evening, we cleared the floor and danced to our Wedding Song.
Finally, a word on French wedding cakes. If you are anything like me, when you think of a wedding cake you picture a tiered structure likely with white creamy decoration, laden with fresh flowers, perhaps even a little ribbon, and topped with a small statuette of a bride and groom. By now, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that this does not describe a French wedding cake. And what’s more, it is not easy to find a pastry shop, even in Paris, that will readily make you one. If you do find a volunteer, they want to charge you almost as much as if you were having the darn cake shipped from home in a refrigerated plane! No, I exaggerate, but only a little. I found a wonderful shop in Bordeaux that made my ivory tiered dessert for me and with Butter Cream icing, to boot, rather than the more traditional French almond paste.
The traditional French wedding cake, by contrast, is called une Pièce Montée and is made of small, golden, cream-filled balls called les choux mounted with caramel glaze into a triangular tier shape. Cutting the cake in France, as you can imagine, takes on a different meaning.
By way of conclusion, I will leave you with a short etymological tale which I found rather enlightening on the differences between French and North American weddings as well as a chart of the main cultural contrasts.
One of my future brothers-in-law asked me while I was in the process of planning my wedding what the difference was in English between the words ‘wedding’ and ‘marriage.’ “In French,” he said, “le mariage seems to signify both of your English words. We don’t make the distinction.” How insightful and astute his question was, indeed! Quite tellingly, in English we have a whole separate word for the celebration of the marriage, whereas in French the celebration and the lifelong commitment are all wrapped up in one seven-letter word.
Main Differences between North American and French Weddings:
North America France
|Combined civil and religious ceremony
||Two separate ceremonies
|Lots of hoopla!
||A whole lot less hoopla!
|Tuxedos for grooms
||Jaquette or habit for grooms
|Rehearsals and Rehearsal dinners
||No Rehearsal or Rehearsal dinner
|Wedding parties (groomsmen/bridesmaids/ flower girls/ ring bearers)
||No groomsmen or bridesmaids, les temoins of either gender instead, les enfants d’honneur
|“You may kiss the bride.”
||The kiss is on the church steps after the ceremony
|Knee and ring proposals
||Mutual decision proposals, ring bought together
|Couple’s first dance and wedding song
||Father-Daughter Waltz begins the dance
|Tiered wedding cake
||La Pièce Montée
For the translation from Marie-Amelie click here: Continue reading