If you have the pleasure to be invited to a French wedding in the coming months or if you think about getting married in France, here is a guide to better understand the French wedding traditions!
Fiançailles means “engagement”. The Fiançailles time starts with the proposal and of course with the positive answer of the future bride! On this occasion, French couples usually organize an engagement party to introduce the families before the wedding or simply celebrate the good news..
To get married in France, a civil ceremony at la Mairie (town hall) is compulsory. This ceremony is short, administrative and formal. Usually, French couples choose to complement it with a religious ceremony, often in the local church, or a secular one. This is the “real” wedding that gathers family and friends for a tremendous party. The civil ceremony can take place the same day as the party or weeks, months and even a year before.
The cortège (the wedding procession) is part of the ritual of the religious ceremony. Entering the church follows a protocol setting the order in which everyone enters: once all the guests are seated, the groom at his mother’s arm will walk down the aisle, followed by the bride’s mother at the groom’s father’s arm, then the témoins (witnesses), a children procession and finally the bride at her father’s arm.
The French have no bridesmaids and groomsmen but they have témoins (feminine : témouines) that literally mean « witnesses ». Témoins stand respectively alongside the bride and the groom during the ceremonies but they can be different from one ceremony to another. They sign the wedding registries and can be given a specific role such as reading a text. They are usually friends, sisters or brothers.
For the exchange of vows, the two rings are generally brought on a small cushion by one or two children, like young cousins.
At the end of the religious ceremony (or the civil one if there is only a civil ceremony), all the guests leave the church (or the town hall). When it is the turn of the newlyweds, guests shower rice on them as a symbol of fertility and prosperity for the couple. More and more, rice is banned by local authorities and replaced by flower petals.
Once the ceremony is over, the bride and groom are the first to leave – usually in a beautiful vintage and decorated car – to the reception venue. Guests’ cars follow, they are decorated too and honk. This noisy and happy line is closed by a last car named the voiture balai (broom wagon). This car checks that no guest is lost.
To start the party, the vin d’honneur (cocktail) is an opportunity for the bride and groom to thank their guests for having witnessed their union. The cocktail usually lasts 2-3 hours to give guests enough time to chat. French couples like to organize this cocktail outside when the weather makes it possible. Couples, and their parents sometimes, tend to extend an invitation to the vin d’honneur to a much larger crowd than the dinner.
During the cocktail, unmarried women stand in line. The bride, her back to them, throws her bouquet. The woman that catches the bouquet is expected to be the next to get married. You can imagine that all the unmarried women wait for this impatiently. In some regions, ribbons are used as a form of lottery to award the bouquet.
No French wedding without Champagne! This beverage that adds sparkle is a must-have. Guests drink Champagne during the cocktail and the dinner (at the first course and dessert).
The repas de noces (dinner) follows the cocktail. It is a seated-dinner that starts around 9:00pm and lasts several hours. For sure, delicious French cuisine and French wines (red and white) are expected. It is the perfect time as well for some lovely speeches by parents, witnesses, friends and siblings.
According to the tradition, around midnight, the bride and her father open the bal (ball) followed by the groom and his mother. The bride and the groom then dance together before inviting the guests to join them. This first dance is usually a waltz.
The French don’t have tall wedding cakes but a pièce montée that could be described as a pyramid of vanilla cream filled balls covered with caramel. It’s delicious! It’s usual to eat the pièce montée as well as the dessert after opening the ball.
The newlyweds love offering a small customized gift to their guests: a small bag of dragées – pretty sugar coated almonds – with the bride and groom’s names and the wedding date. The tradition has evolved during the last years and often the newlyweds prefer offering something local like home-made jam pots or a small bottle of olive oil.
Less formal than the wedding reception, a brunch, lunch or picnic is the perfect way to gather the guests again and to continue to celebrate the wedding the day after. It is as well another opportunity for the newlyweds to spend more time with their guests.
The voyage de noces is the French honeymoon. Some couples leave on vacation just after the wedding and some others months after. They usually choose incredible and expensive destinations.