As spring turns to summer and the setting sun casts a rosy glow over Paris, our American heroine munches contentedly on the rest of the carrot cake she made for her French in-laws (7 of them!), and naturally her thoughts turn to weddings.
Not just any weddings, mind you. French weddings.
I've had requests for information about what to wear, say and do at a French wedding and decided to compile a little dossier as the big season begins.
Let me begin by saying two things.
1). I love weddings. I'm a bit biased, because my wedding was probably the happiest day ever in the history of the world. Trust me, I'm a historian.
2). A French wedding is not a sprint, but a marathon. You'll want to spend a good bit of time preparing. The day will be extremely long and tiring, your feet will be killing you at the end and your dodgy knee might act up. You will alternately bond with the strangers around you and/or kick them. At the very end, you may find yourself being sick or limping around wearing a silver cape that someone threw on you. Most importantly, you will finish dazzled and thrilled, and will delight in sharing photos and tales with friends for years to come.
Very generally speaking, the French wedding industry is not as developed or vast as the American or British one. French brides I've spoken to are at once in awe and shocked at the amount of detail and money that goes into an average American affair. A larger percentage of the budget will be allocated towards food and drink, with much less emphasis on things like limos, bridesmaid dresses, favours and formal invitations. Surprisingly, you might find that the French wedding you attend is less formal that one in the US, even if the venue is extremely grand. The French weddings I've been to, while lovely and highly enjoyable, suprised me by the lack of interest in these details - some of it refreshing, some of it disappointing ("You splurged on a huge poofy dress but didn't get your roots done?").
Invitations typically arrive 2-3 months before a wedding and wedding websites are becoming more common. Some French couples have a formal engagement ceremony called a fiancailles. The couple might exchange rings - this is why you occasionally see French men wearing two wedding bands. This is often just for immediate family, but you might be invited to one.
A typical wedding-day timeline:
- Many French weddings begin midday and finish in the early hours of the next morning. Your invitation may specify that you are only invited to certain parts.
- In France, only the town/city hall (mairie) can perform legal marriages - unlike in the UK, Ireland or the US, where members of the clergy legalize marriages by signing a license. Everyone who gets married in France does so at the mairie, and has, if they wish, a religious ceremony after. The mariage civil oftens takes place in the morning of the wedding, but could take place a few weeks or days before the "real" wedding. Don't be offended if you aren't invited to the mariage civil: some mairies are quite small... and some are quite ugly, too. You're not missing much.
- Religious ceremonies: most people who profess a religion in France are Roman Catholics and most churches are centuries old, so you're in for a treat. Even if it's warm outside, you should probably bring a shawl or jacket for this part, because 12th century stone churches stay quite cool inside. A Roman Catholic wedding typically lasts an hour and features readings, music, an exchange of vows and a homily from the priest. (Tacky alert: there may be a collection so have some change or a 5 euro note handy. The guests pay for the church).
- After the final ceremony, be it civil or religious, there is always a vin d'honneur: a cocktail reception where champagne is served. The vin d'honneur is open to anyone who has attended the ceremony - in theory, that could mean locals in the village or work colleagues who aren't invited to the dinner. It can be held in a space next to the mairie or church, or it can be at the chateau where the reception is being held. (Note that chateau means castle, but don't be overwhelmed: it is also used to mean "place where reception is being held." It may be more like a nice 19th century home or manor house).
The vin d'honneur may last 2-3 hours, so pace yourself (remember: champagne = bubbles = alcohol moving quickly to your head!) and make sure to nibble. Right now verrines are all the rage in France: appetisers served in tiny glasses. If anyone can figure out how to maneouvre salmon tartare out of a plastic shot glass with a 2-inch plastic fork while holding a coupe de champagne, please enlighten me.
- Le diner: usually a sit-down affair, occasionally a buffet. Again, pacing is important. I went to a wedding where the mass was at 2pm, the vin d'honneur began at 4pm, we were seated for dinner at 8pm and we finished eating a little after midnight. The pros: the food is probably going to be great, with 5 or 6 courses and wines to match each one. The cons: even if you're sitting with people you know and like, 4 hours is a bit tough-going. Which is why there are....
- Les jeux! To faire une petite pause between courses, sometimes games are organised. These could be musical chairs, hide-and-seek, duck-duck-goose... very, very funny, until someone gets hurt...!
- Le disco! This may begin at midnight or later; there may or may not be a first dance from the couple. French people are, in my experience, not good dancers, but after 9 hours, 6 courses and a few bottles of wine, I'm no Ginger Rodgers, either. This is also the moment where that high-cultured French facade crumbles and they reveal that they, too, like insipid pop music. Party on.
- Stop the music! It's time for la piece montee: the wedding cake, really a pastry and not a cake. This is a tower of chou pastry puffs filled with cream, held together with caramel and installed on a nougatine base. Absolutely delicious. A conic shape is traditional, but I've also seen more "creative" bakers do windmills, lighthouses, and... uh, what is that?
- Will it ever end? Who knows. I'm not aware of a cue for when to leave a wedding. Back in the day, the bride and groom left first; now it seems they are usually the last to leave. You can leave when the meal is completely finished, which may be well after midnight. Just make sure to say goodbye to the couple and their parents before you go.
- Note the possible absence of the following: the speeches, the first dances, the receiving line, the Achy-Breaky-Heart.
What about gifts?
Wedding registries are becoming more popular in France. The Galeries Lafayette department store chain is probably the leading one, and you can buy from their website (which, until very recently, had hilariously bad photos of the gifts, maybe from when they sent an intern around the store to take photos on his phone?).
Cash is also acceptable, or a check sent in the post. If you are (rightly) nervous about leaving an envelope of cash on a gift table, give it to one of the parents.
And finally... What to wear?
Whatever you want. That's what French people seem to do.
Okay, snark over. Study your invitation: are you attending the wedding of a couple named Segolene de France de Paris and Stanislaus Sarkozy-Bettencourt-Royal, held at Notre Dame with a reception at Le Crillon? Then beg, borrow or steal a metallic pastel Prada dress with matching jacket and hat (over 40s) or Chloe dress (under 40s).
Otherwise, don't panic. I am convinced that France is moving towards a single transferable dress code. The French don't go out in pajamas, old sweats and flip flops, but nor do they really dress up. It's the tyranny of smart casual. People wear the same clothes to work, to dinner, to the market and to the boulangerie in the morning. At one summer wedding I attended a lot of the women were wearing linen shift dresses with flat sandals - nice but not dressy. Dresses and pantsuits are fine; jeans are not, and anything you could wear to the prom would be OTT. It is perfectly acceptable to wear black - in fact, all of the French women who came to my wedding wore black, except for my mother-in-law, who wore white.
Exception to the smart casual rule: one of my informants tells me that hats are having a big moment, so if you go weak for a brim this could be your big chance to bust out.
Last thoughts: think about how you are getting home and plan ahead for a taxi or designated driver. I ended up walking home from a wedding once at 4am, not having considered how that cute little village wouldn't have cute little taxis just idling outside the reception.
Have a great time, and come back and tell me all about it!