I’ve just been invited to next year’s wedding of a distant cousin of my wife. It will take place in Rouen. The invitation, which has been graciously accepted, has inspired me to write the latest article for this blog.
French weddings are curious affairs. They can literally take place over 3 days. The first day is for the civil wedding, which takes place at the Town Hall and is conducted by the Mayor (if you’re lucky or important) but most usually an acolyte who reads from a book and doesn’t really get involved much in the preparation of the whole thing. Town Halls can have several weddings in one day. It’s real purpose is to record the act of marriage into the French administration, whereby a book is created that all married couples must keep for fear of guillotine if they lose called a “livret de famille”. Every time you have a child, the Town Hall where the baby is born faithfully records the new arrival in this book and you use it to prove your civil status when an ordinary passport or ID card won’t do.
Most often, a civil wedding takes place the same day as the religious wedding, one after the other. Sometimes the civil wedding takes days, weeks or months before the religious one. It really depends on the couple and there are no official rules for these types of French weddings.
French civil weddings only (ie no religious weddings afterwards) are for atheists, mixed-religious couples, gays and lesbians since 2013, and those couples that just don’t want the expense or stress of preparing a huge, traditional religious one.
I got married in both a civil and religious wedding and as I’m an Anglican I had to do a fair bit to convince the local Catholic priest of my good intentions. I had to attend a few preparatory meetings with him and my wife-to-be and also write down the official reasons for wanting to marry in the “House of God” as in Catholic law a wedding is one of the sacraments. To be honest, I wasn’t very spiritual or religious before all this, so I really used the opportunity to explore my faith.
Anyway, our French wedding didn’t take place in Paris, where we lived. We did it in Provence in late August. We held the civil wedding on the Friday with those guests that were coming early and a BBQ that evening, then the religious on the Saturday and had the big reception that night.
The religious ceremony itself was where my wife walked down the aisle (late as usual) and I had to lift the veil. I think my exact words were “My God, you look fucking beautiful” which was both blasphemous and probably a little silly with all the video cameras faithfully recording everything from various angles.
Luckily, I said it in English and the extremely old priest (a different one from the preparation) didn’t hear nor understand my expletives. The church was absolutely boiling because it was high summer and we had the doors closed, so after about 10 minutes I turned around in my heavy woolen wedding outfit and made a sign asking my cousin to open them. He did, and the whole congregation sighed in relief.
Meanwhile, the priest was oblivious, and I can’t remember much of what he said now. What most people DO remember is the fact that his robe nearly caught fire as he was so close to the candles.
You don’t say the equivalent of “I do” in French weddings. You say “Je le veux”, as in “I want it”. So you’re stating your desire for something rather than your acceptance. Is this significant? I’ll leave it for you to decide.
Much like in mass, there is less singing than in English weddings. “Ave Maria” is a big hit. There is a communion for the bride and groom, and signatures of the registry at the end with the obligatory photos.
French weddings have “témoins” or “witnesses” rather than best men or maids of honor. So you can have several “temoins” all with the same responsibilities. As I never like to do things like other people, I chose my brother and my best friend in France for the civil wedding, and my brother and my best friend in England for the religious. Nobody seemed to mind. My wife just chose her sisters. So that way everyone is happy and no one feels left out.
The trip from the church to the reception is always noisy. There is usually a long queue of cars with ribbons attached to them and they all beep and honk away to let everyone know what’s happening.
The receptions are the best bit. A DJ is guaranteed and he always does cheesy 80 French hits that everyone knows the words to. Speeches aren’t necessary but champagne, and lots of it, is. There is a cake, that doesn’t have to be tiered, it could even have profiteroles with cream in instead of the crusty cake we’re used to. It is tradition for the bride’s father and the bride to start the dancing with a waltz and then the groom takes over. As I’m a hopeless dancer, I made the DJ change the track to Oasis’ “Whatever” and so I got away with making a fool out of myself in front of the cameras again.
Both sets of parents can chip in for the cost of the whole shebang, but it is tradition for French weddings to take care of all the food and drink as well as the lodging for some of the close relations.
The next day, Sunday, is usually for brunch for those people that are left over. So the bride and groom don’t go off traditionally in a car the night before as in England or the US. They tend to thank everyone and bask in the glory, change into comfortable clothes after getting no sleep and slink off for the honeymoon when the timing is right.
So here are a few bits of how French weddings are different, I hope you liked the article. You can find out more here too on French wedding traditions.