A Cajun Wedding: The Traditions
Note: newer traditions have been displayed in italics.
A popular south Louisiana witticism holds that there are three ways one can become a Cajun: “by blood, by marriage, and by the back door”. Since marriage is a common option of becoming a Cajun, many wonder how a typical Cajun would describe a traditional Cajun wedding. In short, Great Food, Great Party, Great Times! Cajuns’ great love of food, flavor, culture and tradition are embedded deep in their roots and the marriage ceremonies. With the younger generation and changing times, the traditions of early Cajun weddings have shifted some but there are still favorites that live on.
In times past when the favorite mode of transportation was the horse and buggy and many Cajuns lived in remote locations, Cajun villages and communities had to wait weeks or months for a member of the clergy, justice of the peace or judge to come by to perform a wedding ceremony. To solve this problem, a couple would gather their family and friends hold hands and jump over a broom. This was legal and binding until the wedding ceremony could be performed. Another old tradition was the morning after the wedding the new bride and groom were awakened noisily by family and friends and had to cook breakfast for their guests.
Wedding traditions such as these are quickly going by the wayside. Although the crazy activities of the day keep each wedding unique….like the idiot groomsmen who gets lost at the bar while everyone else waits for pictures….or the maid of honor who gets in a car wreck on the way to the church….or the preacher who shows up late….or the grooms parents who get there two hours late and hold up the ceremony because they have the license and have a reputation for not being anywhere on time…. But in between the old and the new, certain basic traditions still live on although some have taken a modern turn.
Since religion is of great importance to the Cajuns, many weddings are performed in the sanctuary of the church. The bride in traditional times was escorted down the aisle by her father. More modern times sees the bride being escorted by both the mother and father as both had a hand in raising the daughter.
If it is a Catholic wedding, a rose is presented to the Blessed Mary. The bride and groom then greet both set of parents and give a rose to the mothers or step mother after the ceremony, that way the parents can be first to congratulate the newly married couple.
Following the ceremony the bride and groom, parents and wedding party greet the guests at the entrance of the reception hall. This doesn’t happen as much anymore…usually as the newly married couple leave the church the bride and groom will greet guests leaving...At the reception entrance, of course, is the guest table registry with the pen de flume (feathered pen). On the entry table, you will also see a side by side picture of the bride and groom at a younger age (from age 2- 7). Most wedding receptions now show the picture of the bride in her gown displayed on a large easel. Most of the bride’s pictures are now taken prior to the wedding date.
The reception table also displays rice or bird seed wrapped in tulle with ribbons for guests to throw at the bride and groom when they leave the reception. More recently, rice is not as popular…. Rice was kicked out by the reception halls several years ago due to the clean up mess. So with bird seeds the birds benefit by having food to eat and no one has to clean up…We also see more these days delicate looking plastic bubbles bottles with ribbons…. So pretty to see the bubbles when the bride and groom are leaving and the children enjoy these immensely.
I also read where someone suggested giving pralines as favors with a copy of the recipe on a little tag. The recipe becomes the memoir of the wedding. This could easily turn out to be a great new tradition. Or give a miniature Tabasco bottle with your favorite Cajun recipe attached to it.
Since the wedding cake is considered the brides cake, we certainly could not leave out the groom. On a table separate from the wedding cake table, the groom has his cake. Tradition had the groom’s
cake as being a German chocolate cake. The godparent of the groom usually cuts the groom’s cake in the groom’s honor. A sister or aunt who has not served in the wedding could also be asked to assist in that honor. On the groom’s cake is depicted the groom’s favorite hobby like duck hunting, playing golf, working offshore, hunting alligators or a job interest or career such as a pilot in the military. More recently the big thing for the groom’s cake is to have it baked in the form of the activity and airbrushed to perfection….like a duck or deer….an armadillo for a Texas groom has been seen.
At the reception, the first formality is taking portraits at the bride’s cake with the wedding party, toasting, cutting the bridal cake, and groom’s cake. The bride and groom share the “first bite” of cake while sometimes one or the other pretends to stuff the cake into the others face. Although I have seen one or the other actually stuff the cake into the other’s face causing the first post-marriage discussion. The first layer of the wedding cake is kept and frozen so as to be enjoyed by the couple on their first anniversary. Newer tradition has the top layer of cake decorated with a small bouquet of flowers that the bride throws later in the reception instead of the bouquet she carried down the aisle… Sprinkled on the bridal, reception and groom’s tables are napkins that have the name of the bride and groom and the date of marriage. Also, some receptions have matches provided with that information on it and are usually white with silver embossing. The best man and maid of honor each make a toast to the bride and groom and then off to first dance.
Cajun music is integral to Cajun culture. Intertwined with popular music, Cajun Music is performed and played at almost every celebration from Proms to Weddings. Clear off the dance floor; we are now off to do the wedding march. The wedding march was generally the first “dance” where the bride and groom led the wedding party in a circle march around the dance floor. (This is a very old tradition here!) This however may only happen at 10% of weddings now….
Traditionally, no one dances until the Bride and Groom have their first dance together as a married couple. After the march, the bride and groom dance the first dance alone, together on the dance floor usually to their favorite slow song. Then the bride and groom dance with the respective parents including their own and the following dance the couple is joined by the rest of the wedding party.
No wedding could be complete without Cajun French music and dancing – two of the favorite Cajun pastimes. Music is provided live by a Cajun Band. The band usually has a French accordion, steel guitar, violin, drums and the ever popular washboard. French music is primarily waltzes, two-step and the jitterbug. Most of the younger crowds have a DJ (disc jockey) available for dancing and singing.
Some of the guest will sing along in Karaoke style when their voices improve after much drink. But still played are the old French waltzes for the “old timers” of the group. “Old-timers” are said to come to life when dancing at such events. Smaller children are encouraged to dance along with the adults. It is not uncommon to see children dancing with their parents or other younger children. Then everyone of the younger crowd has to dance or roll on the floor to the song “Shout” by the Isley Brothers/Beatles.
After the groom dances with his new Mother-in-law and the bride with her new Father-in-law, others may dance with the bride, but only after they pin money to her veil or wedding gown. This can create an instant nest egg for the honeymoon trip. In the new age wedding, a dance can now be had with the groom if money is pinned to the lapels on his suit.
If it is not possible to get a Cajun band, purchase the CD named – “Cajun Dance Favorites 16 Selections” produced by Swallow Records in Ville Platte, Louisiana. It is a collection of the most requested Cajun songs. The Cajun Wedding Song, a waltz “Je Suis Tout Pour Toi” is a typical first dance. The French words translates to, “I am all for you.” The next three most popular would be Jolie Blonde, La Valse de la Vie (The Waltz of Life), and The Back Door although all the songs on the CD are really great Cajun songs.
One of the funnier moments at Cajun weddings happens when there is an older sibling has not yet married. He or she has to dance barefoot with an old broom or mop signifying the other sibling has “beat them to the altar”. Now the broom or mop is decorated as the male or female partner of the bachelor sibling.
A feat not only reserved for the Cajuns, the bride throws her bouquet with her back turned to a group of unmarried women attending the wedding. The bouquet is thrown and a fight ensues to see who can get the bouquet. The bride will then sit on the best man’s knee while the groom takes the garter off the bride’s leg. Then the garter is thrown to a group of unmarried young males. The customary picture is then taken of the “winners” with the bride and groom. Legend has it that they, the winners, are the next in line to get married.
Of course most people know Cajuns for their food. As food is a central force of the Cajun people, there is never a wedding without lots of Cajun goodies. Although most people think “insanely spicy!” when they think of Cajun food, we prefer to think of our cuisine as more seasoned than peppered.
Food for the wedding was prepared by the great cooks in the family however many weddings are now catered still serving authentic Cajun cuisine. A popular meal is crawfish etoufee, gumbo or jambalaya but the most common food served is boudoin or boudin balls, crab, shrimp or crawfish dip, the cheese fish, cold shrimp dip, Swedish meatballs, brisket, stuffed tongue and chicken salad sandwiches, the watermelon basket with the cut-up melon, honeydew, grapes and strawberries; the cut out red cabbage filled with dip for the raw vegetables and BEER! The food never seems to run out.
Ah wait, the bride and groom are leaving the reception? Not before the good friends have painted wedding slogans with white shoe polish all over their get-away car. First stop for the newlyweds – the carwash! The laughter, the camaraderie, the joy of getting the old and young together, seeing and kissing our old aunts and uncles, grandma and grandpa’s once again – the priceless feeling of being one family – a family united to share the joy and love for the newly married couple.
Cajun weddings can be summed up in two very popular Cajun phrases – Laissez les Bon Temp Rouler (let the good times roll) and Laissez-faire (let him do “have fun”) – So now let everyone pass a good time!
Editor’s Note – A special thanks to Jeff Nemetz, of Jeff Nemetz Photography Abbeville, Louisiana for his input to this article.