Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Marriage as a Cultural Clue

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Both the United States and France have adopted the policy of separation of church and state. However, at very different moments in history, and with different goals in mind. The US, from its founding, was a haven for the free and open worship of any and all religions (such was the intention). The English and Dutch Puritans and the French Huguenots suffering in Europe for their faith found, in the new world, a land where their choice of religion did not mean their banishment or their death. The wars fought in Southwestern France (with a few memorable battles and slaughters occurring in Paris under the Catholic Queen Catherine de Medici in the 16th century) to bring the heathen Huguenots, Cathars and other Protestants back to the Catholic faith were vicious and devastating. Remember the phrase, "Kill them all, God will know his own."? This was by Arnaud Amaury in 1208, at the time the legate of the Pope, soon to be appointed Archbishop. He, in the name of a crusade against the Protestants on French soil, directed the brutal burning alive of Bezier's Protestant population hiding in their church, seeking the safety of God beneath his rafters.

France did not adopt the national tradition of separation of church and state till the end of the 19th Century. The goal then was not to liberate the minority religions to practice freely and openly, but to weaken the hold of the Catholic church on the French people. Quite specifically, religion was removed from the schools, and concurrently, public education was made mandatory for all children. Up till that time, the teachers of the upper classes, the flame holders of knowledge were the priests and nuns. Be they private tutors to the wealthy, or benevolent tenders of their bourgeois or peasant parishes, it was men and women of the cloth who taught the French their letters.

Jules Ferry (1832-1893), a prominent French politician, and notably the Minister of "l'Instruction publique," saw and understood that as long as the education of the French was in the hands of the army of the Pope, the French people's first loyalty would be to the church before their country. Over a hundred years later, the overwhelming laicity of the French and the pitifully small numbers that attend Sunday morning mass, are a testament to the success of his mission.

Today, we live amidst the intended and unintended results of these choices. Many have read of the French banishment of the Muslim head scarves (also yarmulke head caps, and large crosses) from public schools. Whereas in the US, Muslim girls have the freedom to wear their scarves if they so choose, even their burkas, and certainly yamulkas were on the heads of many of my friends the weeks of Yon Kippur and Passover; in France, they must be removed before crossing the threshold of the establishment, thus removing any outward show of religious faith in this most public of buildings. One country seeks to permit, finding unity in allowing such a diaspora of traditions, the other seeks cultural integration through a forced adoption of the habits of the host nation.

Personally, I have known Muslim women who preferred wearing their veil full time to continuing their schooling, as well as women who quite easily adapted to the law, removing their veil as they walk into class. It is slowly becoming an issue that touches only the most religious and strict of the French Muslim population.

However, I wished simply to introduce this notion, as it affects other subjects: in particular ceremonies, and in this article, marriage.

Numerous differences between our countries have touched me, personally or tangentially, in France. The importance, or lack there of, of marriage is one of them. JP was quite definite back when we started going out that he would never marry me, no matter our relationship, as he had not married the mother of his children. Erick, at the age of 45, had never been married, nor ever thought to be before meeting me. He acceded to my request and/or need that our union be consecrated. I was of the opinion/belief that you just don't put children on this earth till you are married. You can perhaps imagine that my subsequent experiences and discussions have been eye-opening to say the least.

In France you can only be married by a public official, in most cases the Mayor of your town. If you choose, you can also be "married in the eyes of God" by walking across the town square to your local church and there receive the priest's blessing. But, for the nation, the marriage ceremony of the church has no weight. In the US, we must file our papers with the city, but, we can then be married in a ceremony of our choosing, by any representative of a religion, be he your local pastor, an Indian Shaman, a Buddhist priest, or, the captain of a vessel at sea. A friend sent off the papers to begin his own religion a while back, and we joked on the phone that I'd call him to marry me one day. And legally, wacky though that may seem, I believe he could have.

What this perhaps chaotic freedom offers or protects is a reverence for the ceremony. Or at least so in my mind. If you are free to design your ceremony, have it at the edge of a volcano, or in your own home, re-write the texts (though generally we all include the "will you take this man... will you take this woman..." parts), you can own it. Its importance is thus reinforced. In the US, a wedding ceremony is personalized, and the words we wish to speak aloud, the sentiments we share weighted and uplifted by the act of ceremony. Coming from a sentimental family, I must say that my mother weeps at every wedding she goes to, and I too have tears that come to my eyes at the beauty of a pledge of union and a shared leap into the future.

My sister was married this weekend. It was a second marriage, with the children of both former unions present to share in their parents' coming together. It was relatively traditional in that it was held in a church and my sister wore a white dress. But, after that it was very personal. She and her husband chose the music. A minister she's known for years spoke carefully prepared words of support and encouragement to a woman he has accompanied through times of joy and pain. He personally welcomed her new husband as a man he has come to know and respect.

I've been to a few marriages in France now. I respect that the choice to come together officially is powerful, no matter the country. But, I've always been somewhat disappointed by the tone of the mayor as he unites a couple--just one of his many day's duties. He recites the same text, no matter the two individuals before him. It is an official text that is required by the Nation. Thus diverging wouldn't be appropriate or perhaps even legal. The wedding guests crowd the room at the Mairie (town hall), overflowing into the hallway or stairwell or not as the case may be. The bride is often dressed to the hilt (we girls love this princess moment), and there are official witnesses present. The ceremony is a 15 minute affair (though often the wait is long on a June Saturday as anyone marrying in town must do so in the same way). If we then go to the church to have a second ceremony, as happens in a good number of marriages (family tradition requires this), we then step into the ancient world of the Priest who does all, and a full hour's mass. This, for me, is made doubly painful by the often poor miking of the priest to amplify his voice in a stone chapel specifically designed to acoustically amplify the spoken or sung word. Why, in this 21st century, we feel the necessity of putting screeching and ear-deafening amplification in a tiny stone chapel whose vaults marvelously raise the voice all by themselves is beyond me.

These days, many French simply do not marry. The stamp of the State on their union, their family, their couple, is not necessary to them. My vintner never married the mother of his children. And many friends over the years have expressed to me that for them, a marriage certificate is just not necessary. My friends who have married are thus rare. In a number of occasions they've gotten married after having a first child (as if this were a test?). But, they are also unable to marry till they can afford the party. The ceremony is minimal. It is the party that is important.

And the party is all about food and dancing. This latter goes on all night, and no matter the age of the guest, from the smallest to the oldest, they are boogieing (or more aptly, dancing 'le rock') till the wee morning hours. The food begins with the "apéro" or apéritif hour: lots of nibblies, champagne, wines and more. This lasts at least a couple of hours. Then, the guests who were invited simply for the apéro and the ceremony depart, and the closer guests stay for the sit-down meal. It is a big deal to be invited as a guest to the sit-down meal, as sentiment aside, it could easily be costing the wedded couple from 75-100E/person.

My sister had a delicious and lovely, if tiny, reception back at her house, superbly catered. But, by 8PM many of us were on our way home (happily for me as I was still jet-lagged in spite of my late morning nap). We milled around her house chatting and nibbling. It was a warm moment that permitted the two families to get to know each other a bit, and for cousins to catch up. A night of dancing was not part of the program. It could have been, but, this was a small affair, and we joyfully participated in the very personal and intimate nature of the event.


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