2016-05-26 / Editorial

Norman’s Attic of Memories

The weddings of yesteryear
By Norman Beaupré

How many among you remember the weddings of yesteryear? I mean the grand and sumptuous weddings and their many parts or accessories?

Accessories, because with the grand weddings were multiplied so many steps and obligations that were added on to the grand celebrations of family weddings. I mean to say that the grand Franco-American weddings that were ours. They were part of our heritage and our traditions that were rooted in “Québecois” values and were passed on to us from generation to generation. The reception of sacraments such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, marriage and holy orders were all events that were worthy of celebration. However, marriage and weddings surpassed all other celebrations.

First of all, there were what was called then the “frequentations” of the young women and men and they had to be approved by the parents of the young woman. That was understood. Sometimes even by the pastor. These frequentations usually happened during evening get-togethers or on a designated evening after the work day. They were usually held in the young girl’s home. One reads in a publication on the traditions of Quebec that: “Generally, when one of the parents gets up to wind the clock that’s the signal for the young man who is courting the girl to leave.” After a few months and sometimes an entire year of courtship, the young couple were betrothed and the young fiancée got what was called then an “alliance,” a diamond ring or a ring with some semi-precious stone if the young man could not afford the expense of a diamond, and then they both fixed a date for the wedding in church with the approbation of the pastor, for banns had to be published on three consecutive Sundays preceding the date of the marriage ceremony. It was understood that the betrothed couple would live separately and follow the rules and conduct of chastity until they were officially wed in church.

Then came the preparations on the part of the fiancée: the trousseau, the cedar chest, the beautiful handkerchiefs with tatting just like fine lace in all kinds of colors, the nice undergarments made of silk or fine cotton recently purchased, nightgowns of satin or silk (if the fiancée could afford such luxuries), sometimes nice dish towels made of linen or fine cotton all embroidered by hand, and perhaps some embroidered furniture scarves with lace as well as other articles made by hand. The trousseau and the cedar chest were quite a thing. Then the fiancée would buy herself a special trousseau of dresses, hats, shoes, gloves and a matching ensemble just for the wedding trip or the honeymoon. The young bride would really look swell, as my mother would say. A few weeks before the wedding, as wedding gifts arrived at the paternal home, those who wanted to see the trousseau were given a long glance at it with commentaries by the fiancée often including those of a mother with a watchful eye. And, yes, one must not forget the beautiful hangers stuffed with cotton and covered with nice satin.

After all of the preparations came the prenuptial dance given in a large hall where the invited guests – sometimes there were hundreds of them – all got together to dance and have fun. Ours were people of pleasure; they liked to have fun. There was, of course, the grand march with the future bride and groom at the head of the march with lines of people trailing them arm in arm. Finally, at the end of the dance, we presented the fiancés with a satin purse filled with dollars that the bridesmaids usually collected just for them. Following this pre-nuptial dance there was the bridal shower when the future bride was presented with kitchenware so that she would have a good start in her own home. Today, the gifts are large and so much more expensive.

Finally, came the day of the wedding so anticipated by all. The weather was a very important consideration for future brides and grooms, for rain and bad weather can spoil any celebration, especially a wedding. We thus had recourse to the Blessed Virgin Mary to obtain nice weather. The bride-to-be oftentimes hung her rosary on the clothesline outdoors overnight to obtain fine weather the next day. Tradition or superstition? I know very little of it, to tell the truth. The marriage took place in the parish church where the bride lived. The bridesmaids – up to four, six and even eight, including the maid of honor, were selected by the fiancée as well as the colors of their gowns. The groom-to-be was in charge of the witnesses, usually the two fathers, and ushers. He was responsible for the flowers most of the time, the bridal bouquet for the bride, the corsages for the mothers and the boutonnières for the men.

The long and grand carpet had been placed on the floor of the central aisle of the church. The organ began its harmonious music while the priest waited at the entrance of the sanctuary with the two small doors of the balustrade or altar rail wide open so as to admit the bride and groom. Two prie-dieu were placed for them. After the exchange of vows and the sharing of rings, the mass began. After communion, the priest gave his special benediction to the newlyweds. Once the ceremony was over, everyone then followed down the aisle and went out the front doors to stand side by side on the church steps for the photographer take the wedding photo with almost everyone standing near or behind the bride and groom. This photo, as well as others, would be sold at the reception to invited guests. We all have, I believe, wedding photos that we did not really want to purchase but had to because it was hard to refuse on account of the importance of family and friends.

Then, while the newlyweds and the wedding group went to the photographer’s salon to obtain the official photographs, the guests went either at the paternal home or to a large hall to eat a prepared breakfast meal (it was breakfast since the wedding occurred early in the morning, oftentimes at 7 a.m.]. It took a long time for parishioners to convince Franco-American pastors to put the marriage ceremony on another day than on Mondays, but with time it happened. Usually, the breakfast meal for those who could not afford a costly meal consisted of chicken sandwiches, pickles, all kinds of picklings, perhaps a coleslaw of some kind and other offerings. Right in the middle of the main table was placed the wedding cake with two or more tiers and the miniature bride and groom surrounded by white tulle or some other decoration at the very top. After having cut the wedding cake, the bride and groom passed the task over to women servers who went from table to table or chair to chair to distribute pieces of cake. Quite often, some ladies would wrap their pieces in a paper napkin and place them in their purses, for later, they said. The married couple would then go and change their clothes for the wedding trip or their honeymoon. People waited for them to wish them “Bon voyage.” The groom still had his boutonnière on while the bride wore a corsage on her shoulder. They both left with joy in their eyes and in their hearts. Such a grand celebration became beautiful souvenirs for them and their families as well as for the many friends. Later on, it will be the arrival of the newborns and the baptisms that follow.

Dr. Norman Beaupré is a native of Biddeford and he taught more than 30 years at the University of New England. He obtained his doctorate in French Literature from Brown University and has traveled extensively in France and in several other countries. He is the author of 20 published book, in French and in English. His last book is a novel in English, “The Fallen Divina – Maria Callas.”

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