updated 6 July 2021
What is Bastille Day without the skies being lit up with fireworks? But what is this about? What are we celebrating? To be honest, even some French people seem to debate this. So let’s see if we can shed some light on this.
What is Bastille Day?
Bastille Day is one of the most important days in the French calendar. Not to be missed. Not to be messed with. The 14th of July is celebrated from the 13th. Confused? You shouldn’t be. The 13th of July marks the date for many Bal des Pompiers (Firemen’s Balls), where the public gets to dance the night away in the many casernes (fire stations), throughout the country.
Did you know, like our French Cooking School in Paris, that the bal des pompiers also started in Montmartre? Reliable sources, (the ministry of defense’s website), state that it all started in 1937 when upon returning from the war, were followed by some very happy residents congratulating them and basically reveling in that all so bohemian atmosphere. The firefighters asked their superiors if they could open the doors of their fire station to the public to allow them to visit and continue the festivities. And so a tradition was born. You may not know it but the Paris firefighters are the only firefighters in France who are military. Merci Napoleon? There has been a ball ever since (and now just about everywhere), with the exception of the period around WWII.
So back to the 14th of July
The 14th of July has been celebrated in France since 1880. But the story starts, of course, with the Bastille and its storming by the angry citizens in 1789. The Bastille has long since lost its primary role of being a prison. In fact, when it was stormed, there were only supposedly, 7 prisoners in total. It was the symbol of the Bastille and what it represented that pushed the people to the brink.
Post the siege, citizen-led militia groups were created in every town in France following the model of the Parisian national guard. The main objective of these groups was to stand against any threats, particularly during the Great Fear (La Grande Peur).
Federations of local and regional national guards were created in the south of France and later spread across the country. LaFayette, who had been named commander of the Parisian guard by Louis XVI, wishing to mark this union in the books for prosperity, requested that a national holiday be declared The Assemblé accepted it. 14 Juillet was marked as a celebration of the unity of all the French.
You can just imagine the pomp and circumstance that ensued with this celebration in 1790. Picture LaFayette riding in on a white horse, very proud of himself. Legend has it that even Louis XVI himself was in attendance. And who did you have marching through the streets but all those newly federated guardsmen, unified under a common cause? So it wasn’t about the people in the end – well not exactly.
Fast Forward to the 1800s
Several dates were proposed by the republicans to mark an official French national holiday. There had been several revolutions and uprisings between 1789 and 1880. Rise and fall of monarchs. Abolition of slavery. Universal suffrage . . . Which event would be considered THE EVENT? In the end, it had to be the 14th of July. As the Elysée site puts it: It was the day that the French people stood up for themselves (ok the Parisian but the world thinks France is Paris, no? ). The people took matters into their own hands and became masters of their own destiny.
So we end up celebrating both July 14 1789 & July 14, 1790 (the celebration of federation created as a result of the prior year’s actions). It was on July 6th, 1880 that the Fête Nationale entered into law as a national public holiday. And like the two dates that gave birth to this event, you will find the military parade and the popular festivities that follow (or precede), it. A non-religious holiday for all French citizens to enjoy. And while other notable events in French history have added their signature to the festivities of the Fête Nationale (1919, 1945, 1958 & 1959), 1789 still remains etched into everyone’s minds.
And now for the fireworks.
If you ever miss the LIVE fireworks in Paris on 14 Juillet, you can enjoy them here on replay, thanks to France 2. Here’s a scene from fireworks past.
sources: Wikipedia, Gazeta du Sud (photo), Elysee, Defense.org
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