Wedding season is upon us so you may be clutching your faire-part ready to head off to your first French wedding. I’m a bit of an expert in French weddings (in my head I’m saying that in a Peppa Pig voice). OK, “expert” is a massive exaggeration but I’ve been to a few now and have noticed quite a few differences from the weddings I’m used to from back home. So, to prepare you, here are some of the ways that the French do weddings differently.
1. You have to get married in your local town hall.
To a Brit or an American, getting married on a zoo or on a roller coaster hardly raises an eyebrow any more. Try telling a jaded Anglophone that you got married in orbit in the middle of a space storm and it’s unlikely to get them to look up from their stupid smartphone. What will really make them sit up is learning that in France – a land famed for romance – couples are forced to go through an civil ceremony in their local town hall. Why? Because the separation of the Church and the State does not allow a legal ceremony took take place in a church/synagogue/mosque/what have you. Signing a register at the side of the alter (or after you’ve got off the rollercoaster) just doesn’t cut it in France.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, the bride and groom must get married in the town hall in the area in which they reside. This is where I would have to get married. Seriously.
OK, the majority of town halls in France aren’t brutalist-design nightmares but the location and the person who will be conducting the ceremony is a postcode lottery. It could be a twinkly-eyed avuncular figure marrying the couple, or a bored penpusher mumbling through the vows like a telesales agent reading his sales pitch to the 200th client of the day.
Since 2013, couple have been allowed to marry in the town hall of the town in which either set of parents live, thus avoiding the situation where couples living in, say Paris, have a civil ceremony one week, then the religious one the next in the home town where they grew up. I went to one such wedding in 2011. That’s two days, two ceremonies, two receptions, and two outfits.
The second problem is that many couples also want to have a religious ceremony, and getting guests from the town hall to the church to the venue can be a logistical headache. To circumvent this, sometimes only very close family and friends are invited to the civil ceremony; the rest go to the church then reception.
Like most French bureaucratic procedures that would send Anglo-Saxons into a spiral of head-banging frustration and depression, French people accept this with an admirable resilience. “C’est comme ça !”
2. No bridesmaids or best man.
Magenta dresses, fake tan to cover strap lines and flesh squeezed into a dress chosen to suit the bride’s other cousin – oh, the joys of being a bridesmaid! But don’t be afraid of being asked to spend big money on a dress you’ll wear once before burning it in a bin along with pictures of your ex because bridesmaids (and ushers) are not a thing in France. The only people following the bride up the aisle while wearing frou-frou dresses and a disgruntled expression are les desmoiselles d’honneur, usually children related to the couple. Without that weight of obligation you are free to celebrate the nuptials of your loved ones in the ugly dress of your choosing.
There are other adults involved in the ceremony, however. These are the witnesses, a maximum of 4, who are usually the close friends/relatives of the couple. No costumes required.
3. The horns, the horns!
After the ceremony, some members of the party driving to the reception venue beep their horns repeatedly for the length of the drive. As the owner of two fine ears, I don’t like this one. You’re happy, we get it, don’t make the rest of us suffer.
In 2012 one wedding party took this to a whole other length by stopping their cars on the autoroute to celebrate, causing an enormous traffic jam and generally annoying everyone. Just typing this sentence is making me so angry. Let’s move on!
4. The wedding cake is a towering mass of cream buns that would impress even Mary Berry.
(Two things: 1. I love her dress and 2. Don’t they look happy? Awww.)
No three-tiered fruitcake covered in royal icing here. The traditional wedding dessert is a croquembouche – a tower of mouth-sized choux pastries filled with crème pâtissière and held together by hardened caramel. It can be decorated by spun sugar, sugared almonds, chocolate, macarons – people can get pretty creative. The idea is very much to have a wow factor. The entrance of the croquembouche is often the pinical of the evening, its arrival signalled by dimmed lights, music and even indoor fireworks. That the staff actually manage to dismantle the damn thing and serve it to the guest is something of a miracle. Beware shards of brittle caramel that could cause serious dental mayhem.
5. French wedding reception are long. Really long.
Let’s say the wedding service(s) finishes at 4pm. You’ll travel to the reception venue which where you’ll be served champagne and nibbles. But don’t expect to sit down to dinner before 9pm, probably closer to 10. If you get to dessert before midnight then that’s an early finish to the meal. Compared with a British wedding where dinner might start at 6 and be done by 8, French wedding dinners are a marathon. The quality of food, unsurpisingly, is excellent.
6. The couple’s friends may well put on a skit.
Inbetween courses some guests may shuffle, embarrassed, into a specially cleared area and launch into a performance that probably seemed like a good idea when it was first suggested a few weeks ago but which, in the moment, they’re clearly regretting.You see, it’s a French tradition for those close to the newlyweds to do some sort of personalised bit for the couple. It might be a specially written song, a dance routine, a slide show of dorky old photos, a game. Yes, there may be occasions when you wince at the bumbling poetry recital by an accountant from Nîmes but these are performed with love, so it’s generally charming and really rather sweet. I have even performed a small (but dramatically vital) role in a short film that was shown at such an occasion. Still haven’t seen my Oscar nomination in the post but I’m sure it’s on its way…
7. French people can party hard
Lacks licensing laws in comparison with Britain means that French venues can stay open late into the night. And they do. Long past the point that most British people would be tucked up in bed/unconscious in a bus top/sobbing in a taxi queue, French people are on that dance floor, making moves to some of the worst Euro music you’ve ever heard. Re. Spect. One wedding I went to, they opened with singing and dancing that easily equalled the most frenzied British wedding’s finale. They opened with that. “They’ve peaked too soon,” I thought. I was wrong – so wrong. “How are they alive and still dancing?” I said, hours later as we crept away like beaten weaklings. Seriously, if you’re going to a French wedding, get some rest beforehand, pace yourself with the alcohol, eat often and dance like it’s your last night on earth.
8. Post-wedding lunch/breakfast
This is arguably my favourite thing about French weddings because it involves my two favourite things: 1) food and 2) not staying up late (I have two small children, I like to sleep).
If the couple have hired the reception venue for the weekend then guests are usually invited to a late breakfast or lunch the following day. As well as the usual delicious bread and pastries, expect leftovers and cake. And very probably someone will pop open more champagne. And look, we’ve still got some red leftover, let’s open that too! Much more relaxing than the previous day, plus it sends you off in a good mood with a full stomach. And if French people have hangovers after drinking and dancing till 5am, I have never spotted one. Iron constitutions, these people.
9. Remember, it can get hot.
Most weddings take place in the summer and that’s where there’s a major difference with the UK. Because it can get hot, very hot. I went to one wedding in a vineyard where it was 43 degrees out. Consider loose, natural fabrics for your wedding outfit (I hadn’t) and don’t forget the suncream (I had). Sunburnt skin is never a good look but especially not when you have 12+ hours of wedding celebrations ahead of you.
Can you think of any other French wedding traditions that surprised you? Maybe you were married France and decided you wanted to do celebrate it in your own way, shocking the locals? I’d love to know. Let me know in the comments.