Don’t Lose Your Head Celebrating Bastille Day!


Are you ready for it? The holiday with parades and fireworks, and everyone is sporting the colors red, white, and blue? No, it isn’t the Fourth of July. It’s le 14 Juillet; in English it’s the 14th of July, more familiarly known as Bastille Day. This Sunday the French will storm the streets to commemorate the storming of the Bastille and the birth of their republic. Let’s celebrate with them!

First of all, we should know exactly what we are celebrating. Le 14 Juillet is the French equivalent of America’s Fourth of July. It is France’s national day, formally called la Fete Nationale. For those who have forgotten their world history, July 14th is the anniversary of a mob (no, not the godfather’s mob, a peasant mob) assault on the Bastille back in 1789. The taking of the Bastille marked the start of the French Revolution leading to a new form of government for France. Out with the monarchy!  And off with the king’s head in the process.

So what exactly is the Bastille? “Bastille” originates from the French word for stronghold. The Bastille of Bastille Day fame was a prison in Paris originally built as a medieval fortress. The structure, which had eight towers and was surrounded by a moat, had enough space to hold 50 prisoners. In 1789, the Bastille was known for holding political prisoners on the outs with the royal government headed by King Louis XVI. The prison became the symbol for the Bourbon monarchy’s harsh and oppressive rule of French citizens.

The regular (not royal) French citizens were suffering from severe food shortages at the time. Seemingly oblivious to his subjects’ difficulties, Louis XVI lived a lavish lifestyle in Versailles. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was not too popular either. She was seen as arrogant and uncaring. If she didn’t utter the famous words attributed to her, “Let them eat cake,” she was thinking thoughts along those lines. Personally, I don’t believe Marie Antoinette was quoted correctly. She spoke French after all; she would have said something like “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” according to historians.

So what’s a ticked off group of hungry, angry French citizens to do? A flash mob! No, not the modern flash mob. A mob of them went marching over to the Bastille to hunt for gunpowder, which causes a flash when a gun is fired. Serendipitously for the seven prisoners being held at the time, the attack on the prison allowed for them to be set free. The governor of the prison was also set free–of his head–by the menacing mob.

King Louis XVI was informed that a revolution was underway. He probably shook his head at the audacity of these peasants. Well, they were audacious all right. A mere week later, on July 21, 1789, the king was beheaded by guillotine in front of a Parisian crowd. The revolutionaries were acting like animals and could have been singing “Louie Louie” for all we know. Louis’ wife, mean old Marie, lasted a bit longer. She was spared for almost three months but was ultimately beheaded by guillotine in the same location that her husband lost both his head and his life.

Bastille Day was not declared a French national holiday until July 6, 1880. Today Bastille Day is a French national holiday; schools and businesses are closed in honor of the big day. Although the holiday is French in origin, observances of the day are not just held in France. French territories such as French Polynesia, Martinique (in the Caribbean), French Guiana (in South America), and Wallis and Futuna (an island group in the South Pacific) celebrate Bastille Day as well.

Even Americans take note of Bastille Day with a number of cities, such as New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Milwaukee among others, conducting Bastille Day celebrations. In St. Louis, the Chatillion-DeMenil Mansion holds an annual Bastille Day festival complete with a reenactment of the beheading of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Hopefully dummy figures and not real actors are placed in the guillotine….

Bastille Day celebrations in France typically begin on Bastille Day Eve with dances. A giant dance party, the Bal du 14 Juillet, is traditionally held in Paris on the evening of July 13th at the location where the Bastille once stood and was stormed. The dance has a different theme each year, and attendees wear costumes and enjoy live music. Nothing like remembering mayhem and bloodshed to put you in a mood for a party, huh?

A huge military parade starts in Paris at 10:00 a.m. on the morning of July 14th. Broadcast on French TV, the parade is led by the French president (currently Emmanuel Macron) and features French jets flying overhead. The French Foreign Legion brings up the rear. Proceeding down the Champs-Elysee, the parade wends its way from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde, the largest square in the French capital. Fittingly, this square, covering 21 acres situated along the Seine River, was the site of many public beheadings during the French Revolution, including Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The Bastille Day military parade has been conducted annually since 1880 and is the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe. Since World War I, the Champs-Elysees has been the venue for the parade. Nevertheless, during the German occupation (1940-1944) General Charles de Gaulle headed the celebration in London.

Apparently Bastille Day has no traditional food associated with it, but the French do enjoy partaking of food on this holiday. Afternoon picnics outdoors are a popular way to celebrate. The French can indulge in wine and cheese indoors or out. It wouldn’t hurt to serve cake just to stick it to the memory of Marie Antoinette, right mes amis?

Bastille Day ends with a bang–literally. Actually, there are lots of bangs heard. These sounds are produced by the huge fireworks show put on by the City of Paris.

I somehow doubt the revelers on France’s national day are thinking  about the rabblerousers storming the Bastille when they see fireworks bursting above them. Maybe the French aren’t so different from Americans. Confess. You weren’t really think about American history while watching bombs bursting in air on July 4th, were you? Let’s not lose our heads, figuratively, when it comes to celebrating a national day. Use that brain in your head to remember what the holiday signifies.


Were you aware of the historical significance of Bastille Day? Would you attend a Bastille Day celebration if one were held in your area? What’s the proper way to celebrate a country’s national day?














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