French weddings today are all about infusing contemporary style with long-held customs. Though some 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 guests during 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. Some traditions date back centuries, like who stands with the couple at the altar and how many ceremonies take place (hint: it's two). You'll also find elegant décor, local French food and wine, and a celebration that is not taken lightly! From an hours-long cocktail "hour" to an all-night reception with over-the-top entertainment, wedding fêtes in France are for the books.
We called upon French wedding planners and designers Mylène and Geoffrey of White Eden Weddings along with French bride Vanessa Monnet for a complete breakdown of what you should expect if you have the pleasure of attending a French wedding.
Meet the Expert
Husband and wife Mylène and Geoffrey are the destination wedding planners and designers of White Eden Weddings, located in Cannes. The couple specializes in organizing and coordinating weddings in the South of France.
Before we delve into French wedding 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 into 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 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.
Learn all about French wedding customs and traditions below, and don't be surprised if you come across one or two that make you say, "Je le veux."
A Dramatic Fiançailles
Fiançailles translates to "engagement," and it's a big 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." Much like in America, after the ask, French couples 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," say Mylène and Geoffrey.
Témoins Instead of Bridesmaids and Groomsmen
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 gender, and usually wear what they please. Monnet chose her three sisters while her groom chose his brother, sister, and best friend. However, Mylène and Geoffrey say more couples are opting to have bridesmaids and groomsmen in the more Westernized sense these days.
French couples have two ceremonies—a civil and symbolic service—over the course of two days. "The civil ceremony is still very important in the French spirit," Mylène and Geoffrey tell us, "because it’s the only ceremony that makes the marriage official." Often, the civil ceremony is held the day before the wedding celebration with only close family and witnesses attending. "The 'real' wedding is the day after and has more meaning, whether it's at a church or just a more symbolic, secular ceremony," they say.
Livret de Famille
The livret de famille booklet is a civil registry that a mayor issues to a couple upon their betrothal. Used for legal purposes, it contains the couple's marriage certificate, birth certificates, passports, and other documents. The livret de famille legalizes the marriage and is both "mandatory" and a "strong symbol that literally shows you're now creating your own family, Mylène and Geoffrey. "It's used your whole life, and your children's names and identities will be added to it."
French Bridal Fashion
Traditionally, the bride will wear a simple white or off-white wedding dress, or la robe de mariée, with a train and veil, much like American brides. French bridal fashion, however, is very effortless, never showy, and always chic. French brides don't usually wear gowns with diamantés or other such embellishments; instead, they let luxurious fabrics take the lead. Hair and makeup follow suit, with French brides favoring simple, pared-down looks. They also keep accessories to a minimum.
Le cortège refers to the act of the groom and groom's mother escorting each other down the aisle. "French people are usually very shy and don't like to parade," Mylène and Geoffrey explain, but this tradition is taken to heart. "To be honest, we know more than one mother who would've been very angry if her son had tried to opt out." Similar to American custom, the father of the bride accompanies his daughter down the aisle once the groom has arrived at the altar.
It used to be customary in small French villages for the groom to collect the bride-to-be from home prior to the ceremony with a sort of caravan. Musicians led the procession alongside the bride and bride's father while the groom and groom's mother followed at the very back. Before entering the chapel, children stretched out white ribbons to block the bride's path, forcing the bride to cut them to pass through. The tradition was meant to symbolize the bride overcoming obstacles married life might bring. In contemporary times, Monnet says the ritual 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.
Le Vin D'honneur
The cocktail hour (technically hours) of the wedding usually lasts two to three hours instead of the American, British, or Asiatic standards of one to 1.5 hours. According to Mylène and Geoffrey, it's the most important time of a typical French wedding day. "After the ceremony, it's an occasion to gather everyone around for quality food and drinks—mostly wine." At the end of the cocktail hour, the newlyweds will make their entrance in the "broom car" or la voiture balai. "In our case, we arrived on a scooter, which had a little carriage at the back, but many couples will arrive in a horse carriage or vintage car," says Monnet.
Local Food and Wine
"The first thing French couples absolutely want to have is French food and French wine," say Mylène and Geoffrey. "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 White Eden Weddings, 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 like pâté, mini vegetable tarts, and French cheeses during le vin d'honneur—a hard charge considering you probably won't sit down for a dinner of things like beef bourguignon, potatoes au gratin, and coq au vin before 9 p.m. Traditionally, late-night French onion soup is served at the end of the reception before guests leave, usually around 4 or 5 a.m., say Mylène and Geoffrey.
An All-Night 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 to 300 range, and they're there to party. Dinner is served late, and the dancing usually starts around midnight and can go as late as 7 a.m. the following morning! Receptions typically take place at a beautiful chateau or other large event space. You'll also find lots of elegant styling, as French couples are paying more attention to décor these days, says Monnet.
Father-Daughter Dance Opener
In America, it's a tradition for the newlyweds to open the reception with their first dance together as a married couple. The father-daughter, though also traditional, takes place later on in the ceremony. At French weddings, however, "It's a tradition that the bride and her father open the ball," say Mylène and Geoffrey, "and then the father gives the bride away to the groom during this first dance, and the bride and groom finish it together."
Une Fontaine de Champagne
Of course, the Champagne is flowing at French weddings. The most common tradition is the Champagne tower, or the fontaine de Champagne. The Champagne tower consists of either flutes or coupes arranged in a pyramid shape (by a professional, of course). Champagne is poured into the topmost cups, allowing it to flow down into the cups underneath. The Champagne tower is so popular that it's been adopted at weddings all over the world.
La Coupe de Mariage
The coupe de mariage is an engraved, two-handled shallow silver cup passed down as a family heirloom that the newlyweds may use to toast each other for the first time. It's still a common wedding gift, as the couple can engrave it with their wedding date and, in the future, other important dates, like the birth of a child, but modern brides and grooms are less likely to toast with it at the wedding. Nowadays, "Couples usually just toast with regular Champagne glasses," say Mylène and Geoffrey.
"The entertainment has become really important," Mylène and Geoffrey say. "In the French culture, you literally can't be bored at a wedding." For their part, White Eden Weddings 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 a 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.
The traditional French wedding dessert is a pyramid of caramel-covered, cream-filled profiteroles, and it's still very popular today. The croquembouche—roughly translating to "crunch in the mouth"—dates back to the 1700s, and today, they come in all different flavors. It's not a cake you can cut and serve; instead, guests take three or four cream puffs each, so the pyramid's height depends on the size of the wedding. Similar to the American tradition of the couple feeding each other bites of cake, French couples will feed each other a few bites of the croquembouche after it's brought out at the reception. Mylène and Geoffrey get lots of croquembouche requests from destination wedding couples who choose France as their location, and the dessert is actually popularizing in other parts of the world, including the U.S., as an alternative to a wedding cake.
Les Dragées and Other Edible Favors
Popular guest favors include customized candles or samples of something local, such as a small bottle of olive oil or dried lavender, say Mylène and Geoffrey. Monnet says, "In our case, it was little lavender bags as a symbol of Provence," but she's also seen miniature pots of honey, local souvenirs, and cookies. One traditional favor you're more than likely to come across is a package of les dragées. The dragée is a candy-coated (usually in chocolate) almond and a very popular sweet at French weddings that are given to guests in small pouches. "This is still alive," say Mylène and Geoffrey. "At weddings, they are gifted to guests in fives—each dragée symbolizing the health, happiness, longevity, fertility, and wealth of the couple."