Wednesday, October 28, 2015

French Wedding Customs

Photo of the French Countryside by X-Javier. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When I think of France, I think of refined elegance, romantic interludes, and stunning architectural wonders. I think of rows of airy lavender bushes, fields of dainty wildflowers, and happy children wearing white sundresses or knickers. I picture a serious people committed to their customs and traditions. And I remember that the French do things well, with dedication and discipline. All of this beautiful imagery is a fitting backdrop for a discussion of French wedding customs.

The seriousness comes into play right from the start. According to NY Magazine, the French do not play the field as we Americans are wont to do. The moment a man and woman sit down for a drink, a contract of relationship has been sealed. These relationships can last a moment or a lifetime, but the French are serious about commitment.

This does not meant that engagements happen immediately. In fact, a relationship can go on for years without a proposal. In the event that a proposal is imminent, however, the first step is not to buy the ring. Instead, the first step is for the man to ask his sweetheart's father for permission to marry his daughter.

With his consent, the man then proposes marriage to his sweetheart in private. No public announcement is made, no public spectacles are filmed for YouTube. The French are nothing if not subtle. Rather, the couple begin the process of telling each of their family members in person of their betrothal. Following the family announcements, a series of small dinner parties are arranged with their friends. The couple pops a bottle of champagne and announces their news in the intimacy of a home dinner setting.

Once the announcements have been made, the families of the bride and groom come together for the fiancailles, a special meeting with the parents of the bride and groom, as well as other important family members, where the ring is formally presented. Prior to this, even if the ring was presented at the proposal, the bride-to-be has not worn it yet. After this night's events, with the blessings of their family members formally extended, she may wear the ring in public.

From here, the wedding is planned. Every wedding must begin with a city hall ceremony, since the separation of church and state is regarded as sacrosanct in France. The city hall wedding is the only officially recognized union of a man and woman. Many French brides and grooms attend to their civic wedding right before a church wedding, necessitating two guest lists.

City buildings are typically small, so only a handful of people will be invited to this first ceremony. From there, the couple may walk or ride together to the church for the more elaborate, all-white affair. Yes, weddings in France are decorated all in white; white flowers, white dresses, white candles, white everything!

There is one spot of color allowed, and that is in keeping with the French tradition of the four elements: something blue, something new, something borrowed, and something old. The spot of blue symbolizes fidelity and purity between man and wife, the something new celebrates the new beginnings for the couple, the something borrowed symbolizes the happiness that others share in the event, and the something old reminds the bride and groom that their marriage not only links two individuals, but two families with all their traditions and heritage.

In smaller villages and towns, the couple will walk to the church. The bride walks with her father, led by a band of musicians, and guests and family members are allowed to walk behind them in procession. The groom and his mother tarry at the very back of line. Village children will flock to the procession bearing white ribbons which they stretch across the road in front of the bride. She is expected to cut the ribbons as she passes, symbolizing her resolve to break through any barrier between her and her intended.

Once they arrive at the church, the groom walks down the aisle first, leading his mother to her seat at the front. Next come the les enfantes d'honneur, the flower girls and boys, and then the father of the bride escorts his daughter to her fiance's side.

The couple may stand before the priest, or they may be seated in red velvet chairs as they exchange their vows. The priest may invite a few close friends to raise a silk canopy (carre) over their heads before giving the couple his final blessing. At the end of the ceremony, the priest will make no formal announcement, nor will he call for the groom to kiss his bride. The couple's first kiss is reserved for the top of the outer stairs, beneath a happy shower of wheat and rice (symbolizing prosperity and fertility).

From here, the wedding party makes its way to the reception venue, where a towering pyramid of cream-filled pastries drizzled in honey and nuts stands in as the wedding cake. Champagne and wine are served before, throughout, and after a formal dinner. And it is from here on that the traditionally acknowledged refinement of the French seems to fly out the window.

If there is one thing the French do irreverently, it is weddings. The hoopla begins with a presentation, typically a PowerPoint which includes numerous embarrassing photos of the bride and groom in their awkward teenage phases. Family members and friends may sing a song or two, and the couple will drink from le coup de mariage, a special heirloom toasting cup with two handles that is handed down from generation to generation.

And then, the DANCING begins. The French love to dance, and this portion of the party may last from midnight until 4 or 5 the next morning! During this raucous stage of a French wedding, many pranks can be played. For one, the jaretere (garter) may be extracted from the bride's thigh (hopefully by her new husband) and offered for sale to the highest bidder. The bride might throw her bouquet into a crowd of marriageable young ladies, toasts will be made, and more jokes will be played. Ribbons and umbrellas are held up over the couple as they dance, elevating the gaiety and reminding the couple of the covering their friends and family offer them as their new life together begins.

The final joke of the night is le charivari. While the party may last until well into the next morning, the newly wed couple will surely attempt to sneak away at some point, hopefully unnoticed, to their honeymoon suite to enjoy their first night alone together. If they are unsuccessful at sneaking away, they may soon hear a loud ruckus in the hallway. Arriving outside the couple's door, a group of drunken revelers will begin loudly banging on pots and pans, making a riotous racket until the couple appears at the door. At this point, it is expected that glasses of chilled champagne and sweet treats will be offered in exchange for a promise of peace and quiet for the rest of the night.

And from there, their first day begins with married bliss in the peaceful quite of a Provencal sunrise.

~Angela Magnotti Andrews, Staff Writer

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