20 April 2011

American vs. French Weddings


Somewhere, between work, traveling, enjoying spring in Paris, and settling into my new love nest, I forgot I was getting married.


Not really, but it sure has felt that way.  I’ve had my dress for a while, and we have the venues lined up (mayor’s office then Frenchy family beach house).  But until around two weeks ago, that was about it.  I started panicking, stressing, because my American mind that had watched so many other friends get married had been trained to think that everything involved with a wedding had to be done so far in advance.  Logging on to my Knot page made me break into a cold sweat, as I saw a reproachful reminder that I had at least 130 things left to do before my wedding, and it seemed as if at least half were overdue. (I know that the Knot page goes above and beyond suggestions, so that calmed me down…)

We had to do something about this.  The wedding wasn’t going to plan itself.  So we headed to Fab’s hometown and crossed our fingers that we could still find a caterer, a photographer, a florist, a DJ, and get a marriage contract worked out.  Oh and we had to finalize our bilingual wedding invites. Eek!

Once we finally got going, it wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be.  We had actually already spoken to a caterer who was willing to do our Franco-American themed food (you know, hamburgers vs. foie gras, Maryland crab cakes vs. terrine de saumon, cupcakes vs. pâtisseries).  This group was great and super fun, so I think we’re gonna be alright on the food side.  We found a photographer who is incredibly friendly as well.  Still workin’ on the DJ thing…who thought a DJ would be harder to find than a photographer ?  Ikea saved us on the decoration front.  And the florist ?  “Come see me about 10 days before…”  *Really?!?*

All of this planning, along with questions from my non-French guests got me thinking.  Self, what are the differences between a French and American wedding ?  I’m no expert, but hopefully I can lay it out there for you folks based on research, bridesmaid experience and harassing married friends of mine.

Organization

In the US, most of my friends have their wedding ceremony in some sort of religious temple or other significant spot (museums, farms, beach, National Park).  There is either a religious figure who presides over the ceremony or a Justice of the Peace.  The ceremony generally follows the same general outline, and then you head to the reception.  Overall, I would say an American wedding lasts around 5-7 hours for guests.  With regards to the State, you go get your marriage license before your wedding date, and it’s done, unless you choose to go to the courthouse.

In France, you must get married in the local Town Hall first.  The Mayor or one of his Deputies must preside over the ceremony, which takes about 15-30 minutes.  The French Constitution is read, listing what duties a couple needs to do once they are man and wife.  You promise to uphold it, and you are done.  This is generally reserved for close friends and family.

If you want, you can have a religious ceremony, but this isn’t obligatory.  This is a more public ceremony, to which you can invite more people.  Following the ceremony, there is a vin d’honneur during which time champagne and other libations are served, as well as light hors d’oeuvres.  The couple makes the rounds and has a champagne toast.  I wish I had done my research before my first vin because little did I know that it can go on for 3 or 4 hours.  Unlimited champagne + light finger foods = drunk before dinner.

Dinner can be seated or buffet-style.  But it is generally a grand affair.  Food is how you impress people in France, so you generally eat well and eat a lot at a wedding.  During the dinner, family and close friends of the family get up to say a few words, and even do PowerPoint presentations about the bride and groom, full of funny pictures from their childhood.  Games involving the bride and the groom are also played.

The reception comes after, and sometimes doesn’t start until very late.  French weddings can easily last until the wee hours of the morning, even if the bride and groom have left the building.  In the USA, we generally like to tie things up around 10 or 11 PM.  The length of a French wedding can be shocking and exhausting if you aren’t prepared.  Traditional events, such as the garter and bouquet toss apparently exist, but I have yet to see it.

Frenchies tend to throw down in a château

Invitations

Just like in the US of A, invitations can be either formal or casual, name all the parents or just the couple getting married as hosts.  The options are endless.  I was a little shocked when Fab suggested that we needed to put the names of our grandparents and parents on the invites.  Given that we have a rather large family, I looked at him in disbelief and said we would need two invitations just to convey where the ceremony would be held !  The biggest difference in invitations between the US and France isn’t really how they are worded or designed, but who gets invited to what.

I went to a very traditional French wedding last June, where Fab and I were invited to the church ceremony, the vin d’honneur and the dinner/reception.  But I noticed as we were leaving the vin d’honneur that while we were headed to the dining hall in the castle, others were literally exiting stage right towards the parking lot.  I raised an eyebrow and pointed at those leaving, so that Fab would get my question without me having to vocalize.

“They were just invited for the vin d’honneur.”

“Wait…what ?”

“Yea, that’s how French weddings work.  Some people get invited to everything, others get invited to the vin d’honneur, some come for dinner, and some just come for dessert.”

My American mind had some problems wrapping my head around this.  We invite everyone to everything.  We don’t really discriminate between close friends and family (who get invited to everything) versus school friends (vin d’honneur or dinner/reception) versus business associates (vin d’honneur).  If we feel the need to invite you to an American wedding, you’re coming to the whole shebang.

Bridal Party

In American weddings, we like to include a lot of our friends.  And we're not talking about the passive inclusion, where they show up, watch you with loving gazes as you marry your partner, and then party hardy.  Oh no.  We like to put our friends up where the action is, make them dress up (flattery of said outfits is at the discretion of the bride...) and stand up with us in front of hundreds of people.  These are known as bridesmaids and groomsmen.  They can be heavily involved in the planning of the wedding, helping the couple when they have breakdowns over costs, color choices, disagreements with parents, etc.  Some people even tend to judge how cool they are based on how many weddings they have been in.  Being in the bridal party is for many people, a big deal.
In French weddings, the bride and the groom get to pick témoins (think maid of honor and best man) to witness their union at the mayor's office, as well as help with the dress and accompany the couple in and out of the place of worship (provided there is a religious ceremony).  They can also be active in the planning of the wedding, but I find it to be more relaxed.  I cannot honestly say I have seen many big bridal parties in France.  One or two people on each side...c'est assez.

Dress

In France, as in the USA, wedding attire is generally established by the time of the wedding ceremony, how traditional the ceremony is, etc.  My thought was that one really had to dress up in France because hey, it is the land of fashion, non?  But at the weddings I went to last year, women tended to wear either a business casual dress with either a scarf over their shoulders or a suit jacket, or even a nice pantsuit.  In planning my wedding, I have been asked two questions: 1) What is our color?   Because a great deal of my friends want to wear something blue (our color)…and they want it to match exactly (I have to specify the blue).  2) Hat or no hat?  Many women rock the big Kentucky Derby style hats still for a wedding.  In fact, often times, it is mandatory.  The one thing that I have absolutely loved at weddings is that women tend to wear these bright, colorful, iridescent sheen skirt suits that match their hat and their shoes.  It is darn impressive, as well as depressing, because I know I will never be that coordinated.

Bachelor/Bachelorette Parties

Back in January, I put a group together on Facebook to let my friends know when my bachelorette party would be.  My girlfriends promptly told me that my role in organizing ended there.  In France, the bride and the groom often times do not get any say in what their bachelor/bachelorette parties will be like.  You are told to show up somewhere, and accept what is planned.  When I heard this, I was shocked!  My other girlfriends back home at least got to suggest what they wanted to do, and generally people listened.  But I have come to terms with it, and I am anxiously awaiting my fun weekend in June!

In the summer throughout France, you start to see more and more crowds of men and women walking around, dressed in bright colors, with crazy costumes, and the bride or groom dressed to complete humiliation.  I have heard of people being dressed as chickens, transvestites, penises, rabbits…just when I think I have seen the craziest bachelorette or bachelor procession, I see something crazier the following weekend.  Oftentimes, the bride or groom are told to walk around with a basket full of condoms, candies, or various other trinkets, to pass out in exchange for money, kisses, or both.

Cake

In the U.S., we know how to do us a mighty fine wedding cake.  You can pick any flavor combinations you want, get as crazy as you want on decorations, and it is often traditional for the bride and groom to keep the top part of their 3, 4, or 5-layer confection and freeze it to eat on their first wedding anniversary.  There is often a groom’s cake (especially if you hail from the South), it is generally chocolate-based, and it reflects the groom’s interests.  The cake is my favorite part of the reception menu, and I applaud those brides who are awesome enough to think of to-go boxes for people (like me) who have a tendency to stuff 4 or 5 slices of cake in a napkin that is then carefully stuck in a purse.  My Coach bag thanks you.

Groom's Cake

Bride's Cake
In France, you can find a similarly tall wedding dessert piece, but instead of being made out of cake, it is made out of cream puffs held together by nougat.  This is called la pièce montée or the croquembouche.  Wedding cakes à l’américaine are becoming more and more popular in Paris, thanks to places like Sugar Plum Cake Shop.  But generally, you will find a dessert course at the wedding, followed by a serving of the pièce montée.


Pièce Montée

In the end, a wedding is what the couple, their friends, and family make of it.  I can sit here and write about what people think a wedding should be like in France or in the United States, but really it comes down to the individuals.  I have had friends have small ceremonies at the mayor’s office and then do a farm hoedown later.  I have been to weddings that are super traditional and conservative, full of religious imagery and rites.  I am hoping that my wedding will combine the best of both worlds, since I am not just marrying a person, but a different culture!      

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