Everybody loves a wedding, and French people are no exception. But a big fat French wedding may not be exactly what you are used to.
After living in France for 10 years, I have been to a wedding or two (or twenty). I’ve been to so many including my own, I’ve lost count. So what better way to compare typical French wedding traditions than to go through a few basics.
Frequently asked Questions
First off, here are a couple of questions that I get asked a lot:
a) What should you wear to a French wedding?
Most guests tend to stick to formal attire, with men usually wearing suits, with or without a tie depending on the level of formality.
Women will wear short cocktail dresses for the wedding ceremon(ies) and may change to a longer dress for the evening party. Some women may choose to wear a small hat or fascinator for the daytime ceremony, but it is not required.
No color is forbidden, except of course the cardinal rule of not wearing white and not trying to upstage the bride. Nothing too clingy or lowcut, and of course the makeup should be tasteful.
b) Should you bring a gift?
The gift registry is called Liste de Mariage in French, but these days most guests give the newlyweds money.
The amount to give is usually the amount that you estimate the couple has spent on your invite (food, lodging, etc.).
There will usually be a wooden box at the dinner reception to slip in your envelope with a cheque, along with a livret d’or for guests to leave a note.
c) How do you say wedding in French?
The word for wedding in French is “les noces“, but you can also say “mariage” as in “je vais au mariage de Geneviève et Pascal“.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s have a look at the details, shall we? Allons-y!
1. The Couple
To get the ball rolling (literally), we start off with the couple. There is no concept of dating in France, as we think of it in North America. After a few kisses and a “sleepover”, and both parties usually consider themselves to be in a relationship. There is no big discussion as to whether they are boyfriend-girlfriend.
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These days most French couples live together for many years and even have children together before popping the question. Living together in this manner, without any formal arrangement even has an official legal status: the Concubinage.
So as you can imagine, the pressure is not the same as a more traditional engagement and wedding.
2. The PACS
In France, if you are not keen to get married, there is a legal status called the PACS. With nearly as much paperwork, it provides many of the protections of marriage but is much easier to dissolve.
For this reason, many French couples decide to PACS instead of getting married, especially if one of the parties is more reticent than the other.
3. The Marriage Proposal
If the couple has managed to convince each other that they want to get married, we now come to the official wedding proposal. The proposal is usually an understated affair where the groom tries to catch the bride off guard with something sweet, but not too elaborate. Most importantly, French proposals are usually discreet.
This means no proposals at the Eiffel Tower (too crowded), no proposals over the Jumbotron at a football (soccer) game, or anywhere else where there will be an audience.
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4. The Ring
French people don’t like to flash their wealth, we had a revolution in this country where heads were chopped off for being too ostentatious. So that means no big ring. (I apologize if this is disappointing.)
Some people do, of course, wear big rings but it is not the norm. Parisiennes taking the metro to-and-from work every day, and working long hours will not want to flash around a large ring walking home in the dark. (Unfortunately, Paris has a big problem with petty theft).
There is also no benchmark of “spend 2 months salary on a ring”, or the same pressure from the De Beers marketing campaign to get a diamond. I know many a French bride who has gone with another stone like a sapphire or a ruby instead. Better yet, how about an antique ring from great-Grandma?
5. No Facebook announcement
You may be sensing a trend here when I say discretion is the name of the game for a French bride and groom. The obligatory photo of the ring and couple on facebook is considered gauche.
Instead, the bride and groom will discreetly let family and then close circles of friends know, gradually telling everyone. (French baby announcements are made the same way, there are rarely any announcements on social media.)
6. The Fiancailles
Once the couple is engaged, they may choose to have a special dinner called les fiancailles (pronounced fi-an-sy) where the immediate families of the bride and groom will meet. It is usually held at a restaurant, so that both families can meet on neutral ground, without anyone having to cook a fancy dinner.
The fiancailles is not as big as it once was since many couples have been together for a long time before deciding to tie the knot.
But these days the tradition of having a big dinner is coming back in style. It is considered an occasion to félicite (congratulate) the bride and groom and plan the next steps for the wedding.
7. The Faire-Part (Invitations)
Once the planning is set, the bride and groom send out the faire-parts (which literally means take part, i.e. the invitations). The invitations are usually made out of cardboard in a series of small envelopes, specifying when and where the wedding is to be held.
Interestingly, R.S.V.P. stands for rendez-vous s’il vous plaît in French, meaning “let’s meet please”. However, RSVP is not a common term in French, and most French people will have no idea what it even means!
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8. No Engagement party or Bridal Showers
You may have already guessed, if you are having a fiancailles (and even if you are not), there is no giant engagement party or bridal shower. There is enough to organize as it is, so we don’t need more, do we?
9. The Bachelor and Bachelorette Parties
At last a big event, the bachelor party! As you may have heard me say before there are no big birth announcements, no graduation parties, no kid pictures on Facebook in France, etc. So finally we have a big celebration.
The “enterrement de vie de jeune fille” meaning the “burial of the life of a young girl” is usually a big weekend event. (The male equivalent is “enterrement de vie de garçon“.)
It usually is planned by the friends of the bride and groom and involves “kidnapping” the Marié(e) to whisk them away for an exhilarating weekend of games, drinking, and laughter.
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10. The Banns
Now to the serious stuff: the paperwork. There is a long list of the paperwork that the couple must provide to get married, after which the local town hall will publish the wedding banns.
French marriages can only be legally officiated at the local town hall (the Mairie) where the couple or their parents live. There is no choice here, you must be a resident to get married in France, which is why it is nearly impossible for tourists to get married here.
The wedding must be officiated by the Mayor or his/her deputy. As such, many French couples decide to have two ceremonies: one civil ceremony at the Mairie, and a 2nd religious ceremony later.
11. The Dress
And now for the star of the show: la robe de mariée (meaning “the wedding dress”). Again, the name of the game is discretion. There is no “say yes to dress” style Kleinfelds, where the bride is expected to spend 20keur on a dress.
Usually, the bride will have one gown for the Mairie ceremony, and another for the church and evening reception. The French bridal style tends to be light and airy, rather than heavy brocade and pastiche gemstones.
12. The Groom’s Suit
Unlike English grooms who tend to pull out all the stops with morning suits, top hats, and tails, French grooms usually wear less formal but nonetheless elegant 3-piece suits. A top hat is not the norm, but may be added if the groom is going for a theme.
13. The Ceremony at the Mairie
The civil ceremony in front of the Mayor tends to be a small-ish affair. If the bride and groom plan to have a larger wedding later, they may only invite close family and friends to witness the Mairie ceremony.
The couple is given a timeslot to show up at the Salle des Mariages at the Hotel de Ville (the building of the town hall). The timeslot could be at anytime of the day, the couple does not get to pick.
There is no limit on how many people are invited to the civil vows, and the occasion is quite festive, especially if the couple is not doing a separate ceremony later. There are some beautifully elaborate Hotel de Villes across France (think Versailles-lite decoration), and most French couples are happy to have their official ceremonies there.
The mayor will give a speech talking about the sanctity of marriage, the legal obligations, will ask if the couple are ready for the challenge. Once both parties say “Oui”, the couple is pronounced officially married.
Once married, the couple is given a Livret de Famille by the mayor, which is a little booklet in which all future children will be recorded. The French bride does not change her name, but instead acquires a 2nd surname, which is now noted in the Livret.
Note: Same-sex marriage has been officially allowed in France since 2013.
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14. The Témoins (Witnesses)
Instead of bridesmaids and Groomsmen, the civil ceremony requires the bride and groom to pick between 2-8 témoins, meaning “witnesses”. This is a legal obligation testifying that the bride and groom are not married to anyone else, and are fit to be joined in holy matrimony.
Unlike North American bridesmaids and groomsmen, the witnesses do not wear identical outfits (considered gauche), and can wear whatever they want.
The couple can indicate a particular theme or style to be followed, but the witnesses are not expected to shell out money for a bridesmaid dress or suit that they will never wear again.
15. The 2nd Ceremony Venue
With the legalities out of the way, it is time to party! I have been to a couple of French weddings where the civil ceremony was in the morning, the church in the afternoon, and the wedding reception in the evening.
Some couples, on the other hand, choose to have the 2nd ceremony on a completely different day, perhaps even a few months later.
The second ceremony doesn’t have to be religious, a newer trend in France is to have a “cérémonie laique“, which can be held in a fancy French château, a garden, the beach, etc.
For the 2nd ceremony, whether or not it is in a church, the bride and groom usually keep the same témoins (witnesses) to give speeches and poetry readings, and generally provide support.
16. The Cortège
Le Cortège, otherwise known as the rest of the wedding party, usually includes the father of the bride, the mother of the groom, the witnesses and their partners, and any flower children and ring bearers.
A general theme may be suggested to all the participants in terms of outfits, but the cortège does not need to match one another. (I have never seen a cortège that matches.)
17. The Jeunes Mariés (Newlyweds)
Now that everyone is properly married, it is time to cry out:
Note, the term young is generous, even older newlyweds are referred to as “les jeunes mariés!“
Upon exiting the Mairie after the civil ceremony, or the church after the religious ceremony, the newlyweds are showered with rice or flower petals, which are considered symbols of prosperity and luck.
18. The Photographs
After the official ceremonies, come the photographs. Usually there are several group photographs taken with family and various sets of friends. The photos are rather formal (think graduation-type photos), with a few oddball photos thrown in.
The bride and groom then go off to take their own private photos while the rest of the guests head off to the place where the wedding reception and the rest of the festivities are going to be held.
19. The Voiture Balai
Once all the guests are at the location of the evening reception, the bride and groom usually show up fashionably late in a fancy car (after taking their private photos).
The car is called the “voiture balai” or “broom car”. It doesn’t have to be a car of course, a horse carriage or scooter is equally de rigeur.
20. The Vin D’honneur
With the bride and groom are back, it is time to get started on the wedding apéro, also known as the vin d’honneur (wine of honor). Usually in the late afternoon or early eating, this is usually a stand-up affair outdoors involving copious amounts of apéritifs and hors d’oeuvres.
It is usually a lovely occasion for the guests to mingle with each other and talk to the bride and groom before the big sitdown dinner.
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21. The Champagne
This wouldn’t be a wedding in France if there were not large quantites of champagne. This is not for the New-Year’s-Eve-style toast that we have with champagne during the vin d’honneur, but simply as a pre-dinner drink.
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22. The Invitées (Guests)
Now prepare to be shocked because the main reason to have a vin d’honneur (other than bridging the gap between the photographs and the dinner) is due to the fact that not all guests are invited to dinner.
As a way for the wedding party to keep costs down, while still inviting everyone they would like to have, some guests are only invited to the vin d’honneur, after which they leave.
The traditional French wedding involves inviting a lot of guests from childhood, distant relatives, and other people that the couple may not have seen for years. (Work colleagues, however, are rarely invited.) Along with their partners and children, the average number of guests can easily range from 100-400 people.
Guests know what portion of the wedding they are invited to (1st ceremony, 2nd ceremony, vin d’honneur, reception dinner) based on the faire-part invitation they received.
Limiting les invitées in this manner is also a great option for guests with young kids, who may not make it through a 4-hour dinner late into the night!
23. The Repas de Noces (Reception Dinner)
And now the main event, the repas de noces! Once the uninvited guests leave, the remaining family and friends make their way to their dinner tables.
Usually the bride and groom will then make a big entrance with music playing, while guests will stand up and cheer while waving their napkins in the air. If you’ve read my posts on a typical dinner and the French Christmas dinner, you know that at a wedding, the meal is going to be lonng. It is a good thing all those guests got to stretch their legs earlier at the vin d’honneur.
The bride and groom often add additional entertainment such as magicians or sketch artists to go from table to table to entertain between courses.
24. The Speeches, Videos, and Powerpoints
During dinner is also when the witnesses, siblings, and other close friends of the bride and groom give their speeches and prepare home videos and powerpoints to celebrate the newlyweds. Embarrassing photos, old annecdotes, and other funny stories are bound to come out during the speeches.
There may also be small games played between the courses, such as jeopardy where the bride and groom have to guess each other’s favorite items, quirks, etc.
25. The Cake
It is now the end of the meal, so time for dessert. Instead of elaborate cake, weddings in France usually have a doughy pastry pyramid called the croquembouche or la piece montée. This literally translates to bite in the mouth and is made out of small choux pastries.
Croquembouches are usually quite large and beautiful, but they are not the easiest to cut into. Some couples decide to have a small cake that they can cut into, or just scoop up the top of the croquembouche to feed each other. I’ve also seen macarons used for the piece montée, rather than the croquembouche.
There is also usually an array of small desserts is on the side, along with more bottles of champagne.
26. The Dancing
Since dinner goes on for so long, the dancing doesn’t usually start until around midnight. The party usually goes off long into the night till 5-6 am.
The newlyweds have usually planned for a shuttle bus to go back and forth transporting guests back to their hotel lodgings, when they wish. No drunk driving please.
27. Dragées and other Party favors
As part of the dinner table decorations, small party favors are usually assigned to each seat. Dragées, which are a type of sugared almonds, are offered in a small packet inscribed with the names of the newlyweds. The dragées are offered in a packet of 5, for the vows of fertility, happiness, prosperity, health and longevity.
Along with the dragées, a small souvenir is also offered to the guests such as a bottle of artisanal jam or a sachet of lavender from Provence.
28. Overnight Stay
Unless the wedding reception is in a big city like Paris where most of the guests live, most guests will usually stay nearby. If the venue is a large château or farm, many of the close family and friends will be offered lodging directly at the wedding venue.
Younger guests will be expected to double up and share rooms, and it all makes cozy fun sleepover.
29. Sunday Brunch
Since most guests usually stay overnight, a brunch is held the day after the ceremony around noon. Not too early a start, remember the guests have had quite a party the night before.
All sorts of viennoiseries will be on offer, such as croissants, pain au chocolat, etc. along with the usual suspects like tea, coffee, juices, etc. Small games such as pétanque may also be set up nearby.
Guests are free to leave whenever they want, and head back home once they have eaten their fill and wished the newlyweds well.
Note: the North American trend of “trash the dress” has not caught on in France, so don’t expect to see French brides running diving into a pool!
30. The Lune de Miel (Honeymoon)
With everyone married, it is time for the honeymoon. Most French couples tend to go for just a couple of days away immediately after, before going on a larger honeymoon later in the year.
A way to save money and recover after that big fat French wedding!
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