Marriage for French-Canadians played an important role within the church and local society during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Marriage ceremonies were similar to other festivities—they usually took place in January or February and involved large gatherings of family, friends, and social acquaintances. Often lasting multiple days, the celebrations were filled with dancing, food, and ceremony. Invitations were rarely needed.
As with all cultures, there were many traditions involved in a wedding. Two traditions of note in French-Canadian weddings were the “Sock Dance” or the “Trough Dance.” One of the earliest references to the “Sock Dance” is from an 1826 letter from Joseph Papineau to his brother in Montreal. Hearing that their other brother André was hoping to marry a young woman, he mentioned that the woman’s older sister would have to “dance in her stocking feet.” This was because the older sister was unwed at the time, and it broke the convention that the eldest should marry first. This dance was considered to be a “punishment” for the older sibling for not being married. Whether they were male or female, they would have to dance alone in brightly colored socks on the day of the wedding.
The “Trough Dance”—which involved dancing in a trough—was similar and served the same purpose: to “shame” you for being single. While both traditions can be traced back to Europe, they still carry on in French-speaking areas of North America today. It sounds quite humiliating, but nowadays this tradition is usually somewhat jocular and taken in good humor. For more reading about this custom, check out this great article, Dance of the Unwed Older Sibling, by Jean-Pierre Pichette.
The presence of family was not merely a matter of custom, it was crucial to the event. The amount of witnesses at a wedding was indicative of a couple’s social status within their city or town. On rare occasions, a wedding might be limited to a small number of guests, but normally it wasn’t considered a private matter. Weddings were a communal act. They were also not always viewed for the sake of love and affection. When looking for a partner, people were advised to look for qualities of kindness, good temperament, and patience. While economic matters were not the sole consideration for marriage, it was commonplace to find that people married within their social class.
Franco-Americans also share much of this rich and vibrant history. Even if the reasons behind modern day betrothal have changed, other traditions still hold strong. The closeness of family, importance of community, and the joy of lively celebrations continue to this day. Although you can still find unwed siblings dancing in a trough or in colorful stockings, it is no longer thought of as a public shaming. Perhaps some even take it as an excuse to dance shamelessly. As all things must, these traditions have adapted and changed. Perhaps because of this, the traditions can continue, keeping these wedding practices alive and well.
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Writers — Erin Best & Emily Meader.
Editor — Ben Meader.
Media Sources — University of Southern Maine Franco-American Collections, Ancestry.com, and YouTube.