French Wedding Traditions  and Customs

Some of early French wedding traditions have persisted today, transplanted to other parts of the world and influenced modern wedding ceremony  as it is known today.

§                     French Wedding Costume
§                     Bridal trousseau and wedding armoire
§                     Wedding procession
§                     Wedding ceremony
§                     Wedding reception
§                     Garter (La jarretière)
§                     Chiverie (Le Charivari)

French Wedding Costume

During the medieval and renaissance periods, wedding dresses were basically more elaborate versions of contemporary dresses and did not require any distinctive coloring. The bride’s best dress was transformed into a wedding dress, embellished by jewelry, embroidery, laces and small bits of finery such ornamental tags, bow knots, tassels, ribbons, beading etc. In fact, up until the late 19th century, brides wore just about any color for their wedding, including black if the intended bridegroom was a widower. The white wedding dress as a token of the bride’s purity and innocence, is a relatively new concept. In biblical tradition, the color white symbolized joy whereas blue represented purity.

The French custom of the all-white wedding gown had been introduced with Ann of Brittany, daughter of Francis II. She wore white at her third marriage in 1499 to Louis XII of France in 1527. However, it did not come into popular vogue before19th century.. Along with the impact of neo-classic fashion, brides from French aristocracy and bourgeoisie are reported to wear all white dresses, trimmed with golden or sliver embroidery.  Major social weddings such as described by the gazettes, from then on, were always seen in white.The elaborate styling of modern wedding gown is attributed to Empress Eugenie, her wedding to Napoleon III in 1853.

Bridal trousseau and wedding armoire

French term, « trousseau » literally refers to a bundle of linens, clothing. The trousseau usually  would contain clothing for Sundays, everyday dresses, lingerie and embroidered linens she had prepared with initials of her future family..

According to French tradition, wedding armoire, also known as hope chest is used for the bride's trousseau. It is hand-carved with symbols of wealth and prosperity by the father of a future bride and is given to her when she is still an adolescent. As she grew up, she would fill it up with her own wardrobe and take it with her to her new home.

During the 18th century wedding armoires were manufactured by craftsmen and offered to the newlyweds as a wedding present. Over the years the trousseau has evolved to denote the special outfit she will wear after doffing her gown and take with her on her honeymoon. Also the concept of trousseau has given rise to the modern bridal shower, designating all the chief household articles to raise her future family.

Wedding procession

Still practiced in small villages today, it is a traditional French custom for the groom to call on his future bride at her home on the morning of their wedding. The groom escorts her to the wedding chapel in a procession, headed by musicians, followed behind by the bride with her father, guests and the groom with his mother at the end of line. It is also customary that French village children blocked the bridal couple’s route with white ribbons which the bride must cut.  In Brittany beggars plaited a hedgerow briar across the newlyweds until bribed to remove .All these symbolic obstacles are created for the wedding couple to overcome together and thus to signify their common path in a new life.

Wedding ceremony

In a church filled with incense and flowers, the couple stands beneath a silk canopy. A predecessor of the veil, a square of silk fabric,"carre'," is held over the head of the bride and groom as the couple received the priest's final blessing. They were designed to protect the couple from descending malice. The same veil is used for the baptism of their new born child.

Outside the church, rice or wheat as a symbol of prosperity and fertility, is showered over the couple.In Southern parts of France, wedding guests toss dragées and coins at childrens waiting on the doorsteps of the chapel  Dragées, dated as early as Roman Empire, are French delicacy, almond covered with chocolate , sugar or nougat. As symbol of happiness and festivity, they accompany all major French ceremonies. As the bridal couple leaves the chapel, they walk through flower arch or over laurel leaves scattered in their path.

The custom of using fragrant flowers as decorations ,bridal bouquets and adornments has been popular for centuries. Fragrant flowers were believed to ward off evil spirits and helped freshen up atmosphere before the invention of perfumes and deodorant. The popular orange blossoms represent fertility and prosperity

Wedding reception

During the Middle Ages, wedding guests would bring small cakes and stacked in a pile, as high as possible, in the center of a table.  If the bride and groom could kiss over them without knocking them over, it was thought to symbolize a lifetime of prosperity.  The traditional French wedding celebration cake, known as croquembouche or today's common term, "la pièce montée" was invented by a French chef at the end of 17th century.  The cake is made of small, creme-filled pastry puffs piled in a pyramid and covered in a caramel glaze and spun sugar.

At the traditional French wedding reception, the newlyweds toast each other from an engraved, two-handled cup (la coupe de mariage), usually a precious family heirloom passed down from generation to generation.

Garter (La jarretière)

The tradition of garter is originated from the ancient Jewish society where fidelity was symbolized by the ribbon worn by the bride on her wedding day. Tossing of the bride’s garter became popular in 14th century. In France, it was a best man who was in charge of stealing it off from the bride or the groom who would take off garter and sell it into small pieces to wedding guests.  Or it is said to be the bride who would throw her garter to the guests before sometimes unruly drunken mob tearing it off from her.  

What is in common, though, a belief that pieces of brides attires would bring good luck to whoever caught it. There is no such tradition in the Maritime Provinces.  Today the bridal bouquet toss gets to less trouble for her instead.

Chiverie (Le Charivari)

Chiverie is the wedding night prank to interrupt the wedding couple at night by a crowd clanging pots and pans, righing bells and horns.  The bride and groom were expected to appear in their wedding clothes and provide treats for their tormentors.

According to French tradition, it is used to be practiced for widows or widowers who were getting remarried or the grooms coming outside of the village.  The groom had to pay fines, called « la peloto » by inviting all the young men from the bride’s village for refreshments.. It became widespread in Europe and later in the New World.  In rough pioneer settlements, the « shivaree », as it came to be called, was very popular  and often elaborated into a ritual humiliation of the bride and groom.

Editor's note: Information provided in this article is gathered from diverse resources, both French and English. You are welcome to write to us with any comments, suggestions and feedback.