Universally, a wedding is about three C's—ceremony, commitment, and celebration—but so much of the experience depends on who and where you are. Take a walk down someone else's aisle for a change—with our Weddings Around the World series that explores marital traditions all across the map. This stop: France. We called upon French wedding planners Mylène and Geoffrey for a complete breakdown of what you should expect if you have the pleasure of attending a French wedding anytime in the near future, along with French bride Vanessa Monnet.
Meet the Expert
Mylène and Geoffrey are the destination wedding planners and designers of White Eden Weddings, located in Cannes. The couple, who is married in real life, specialize in organizing and coordinating weddings in the South of France.
Though a few of the more dated traditions are pretty much defunct (thankfully, most brides are no longer forced to drink the mysterious contents of a chamber pot brought to them by their guests for the Pot de Chambre ritual), there are still many lovely displays of France's romantic history that modern couples choose to incorporate into their wedding day.
Before we delve into the French customs and traditions, here are the answers to some frequently asked questions:
- How will the newlyweds say their vows? The words "I do" in the context of a wedding don't directly translate in French. Instead, couples respond to marital prompts with "Je le veux" which means, "I want it." There's something about this connotation of desire versus compliance that feels poetic, romantic, and very French, non?
- What should I wear to a French wedding? The guests' attire at French weddings is "classic," says Mylène. "Women wear dresses and men wear suits. Sometimes the to-be-weds ask for a specific dress code—either a level of formality, like black tie or white tie, or a specific color or theme." Women may opt to wear a hat or fascinator.
- Should I bring a gift? Very few French couples have registries, and most just ask for money. Many weddings have an un livre d'or or "guestbook" set up with an adjacent box for donations. If the couple does have a registry, it is called a liste de mariage, but they are uncommon.
Read about the many French wedding customs and traditions below, and don't be surprised if you come across one or two that'll make you say, "Je le veux."
Fiançailles translates to "engagement," and it's quite a large deal in French culture. "The proposal is usually a big event, in the context of a romantic trip somewhere symbolic," Monnet says. "Ours was in the desert of Atacama in Chile." After the ask, French couples may plan an engagement party for the families, close friends, and future witnesses. "This bringing together of families is an important tradition that most French couples respect," says White Eden Weddings.
A trousseau is a collection of the bride's personal laundry and linens, that was once provided to her and her new husband for her wedding day by her parents. In the United States's adaptation, a trousseau also included bridal accessories, jewelry, lingerie, toiletries, and makeup that were all stored in a wooden hope chest. Since many French and American couples now live together before the wedding, it's no longer as relevant. Brides may have a lingerie shower or bridal shower to receive those types of gifts, or Monnet compares it to our contemporary understanding of a registry. "Nowadays it is called a liste de mariage," she says, though she mentions again they're uncommon, almost always online, and "instead of linens, couples will ask for things like cash contributions to a fantastic honeymoon."
It used to be customary in small French villages for the groom to collect his bride-to-be from her home prior to the ceremony with a sort of a caravan. The procession was led by musicians and the bride with her father, while the groom and his mother followed at the very back. Before entering the chapel, children would stretch out white ribbons to block the bride's path, forcing her to cut them to pass through. The tradition was supposed to symbolize the bride overcoming obstacles married life might send her way. In contemporary times, Monnet speculated that the ritual may have evolved into the cutting of a heart in a white sheet for the bride and groom to go through together, as she and her now-husband did at their reception.
As the famous saying goes, "two weds are better than one." Kidding, but French couples do typically have two ceremonies—a civil and a symbolic service—over the course of two days. "The civil ceremony is still very important in the French spirit," White Eden Weddings tell us. "Firstly because it’s the only ceremony that makes the marriage official." Often times, the civil ceremony is held the day before the rest of the wedding celebration with only close family and witnesses attending. "They keep it very intimate and simple," says WEW. "The 'real' wedding is the day after and has more meaning whether it's at a church or just a more symbolic, secular ceremony." The number of church ceremonies is decreasing as people in France and around the world have fewer religious ties, but Mylène and Geoff also think it has something to do with stateside brides. "We think symbolic ceremonies are becoming more and more important as a result of American influence," they say.
Instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen, French couples have témoins or "witnesses" that stand next to them during the ceremonies and sign the wedding registry. They can be any age or sex, and usually wear what they please. Monnet chose her three sisters, while her groom chose his brother, sister, and best friend. However, WEW says more and more couples are opting to have bridesmaids and groomsmen in the more Westernized sense these days.
This term refers to the act of the groom and his mother escorting each other down the aisle. "French people are usually very shy and don't like to parade," explains WEW. "To be honest, we know more than one mother who would've been very angry if her son had tried to opt out." The father of the bride accompanies his daughter in the same fashion.
Reception or Repas de Noces
In French, the reception or "wedding meal" is called repas de noces, and as we've hinted throughout—it's a very good time. The number of attendees typically falls in the 200-300 range, and they're here to party; French weddings can go as late as 7 a.m. the following morning!
Recently, French brides have become increasingly concerned with reception decoration, according to WEW. "French couples used to pay more attention to the atmosphere and dining, but now it's becoming a trend to have very elegant styling," they explained. "Everything from long wooden tables with rustic tableware in the middle of a lavender field to refined floral arrangements in a gorgeous château."
Le Vin D'honneur
The cocktail hours (yes, hours) of the wedding usually lasts 2-3 hours instead of the American, British, or Asiatic standards of 1 to 1.5 hours) are the most important time of a typical French wedding day, WEW tells us. "After the ceremony, it's an occasion to gather everyone around for quality food and drinks—mostly wine."
"The first thing French couples absolutely want to have is French food and French wine," says WEW. "As cliché as it seems, French people are proud of their gourmet heritage and don't want to miss any opportunity of expressing it." (For WEW weddings lately, that's meant lots of local wine trucks—especially in the South of France). Just be careful not to fill up on hors d'oeuvres during Le Vin D'honneur—a hard charge considering you probably won't sit down for dinner before 9 p.m. Late-night onion soup was a must-have for generations past, says WEW, "It was supposed to be served at the end of the party, very, very late—like 4 or 5 a.m.—before guests left to go to sleep, but it's slowly disappearing."
Surprise! (Joking). Of course the champagne is flowing at French weddings. We'd heard mention of a French couple or two taking off the top of a bottle with a saber in a ceremony called "Sabrage," but WEW was dismayed to hear this. "Never!" they told us. "In France, Champagne is not entertainment; it's a beverage you savor."
"The entertainment has become really important," says WEW. "In the French culture, you literally can't be bored at a wedding." For their part, WEW has brought in aquatic shows, live cooking demonstrations, and sketch artists. It's also common for close friends and family of the newlyweds to perform some personalized bit for the couple. While Monnet has seen guests become everything from slideshow prompters to magicians to musicians, at their wedding, the groom's best friend strummed guitar and they ended the night with a fireworks show.
This worldwide practice is still a thing, WEW tells us. "It's a tradition that the bride and her father open the ball, and then the father gives the bride away to the groom during this first dance, and the bride and groom finish it together." For everyone else, the dancing starts around midnight and as we've said, can go until the wee hours of the morning.
The traditional French wedding dessert is a pyramid of caramel-covered profiteroles, and is still very popular today. Interestingly, WEW also get lots of croquembouche requests from destination wedding couples who choose France as their location. "We had a couple from Singapore who wanted a gigantic croquembouche for their cake cutting," they recalled. "That was before they realized a croquembouche is not a cake you can actually cut."
Popular guest favors for French weddings include customized candles, dragées (see below), or a sample of something local—such as a small bottle of olive oil or dried lavender, says WEW. Monnet says, "In our case it was little lavender bags as a symbol of Provence," but she's also seen little pots of honey, local souvenirs, and cookies.
French wedding festivities often include a Sunday brunch or lunch. Monnet and her husband hosted a picnic on the Sunday following their wedding, writing in the invite the French equivalent of, "It is important for us to be surrounded by the people we cherish the most. We would be really happy if we could be together and toast!"