Sacré bleu! Celebrate the toppling of the long-standing French monarchy symbolized by the storming of a fortress and political prison in Paris on Bastille Day on July 14. Nearly a dozen countries around the world organize events and parties to commemorate the day. How will you celebrate Bastille Day?
History of Bastille Day
Bastille Day is commonly known in Franceas Fête Nationale or the National Celebration. However, the English-speaking world has taken to calling it Bastille Day to honor the moment in 1789 when a mob of French revolutionaries charged into Paris’ Bastille, a major point in the French Revolution. The first celebration can be traced back to July 14, 1790, exactly one year after the Bastille fell. Since then, it has continued to grow and parties are held around the world.
Bastille Day marks the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille in Paris and later the monarchy. Originally constructed as a medieval fortress, the Bastille was eventually used as a state prison. Prisoners who were directly sent there under orders of the King would get no trial or right of appeal. At times they included political prisoners who spoke against the rules and laws set by the ruling king. Detained citizens awaiting trial were also held at the Bastille. Despite plans to demolish the building in the late 18th century, the Bastille had come to represent the Bourbon monarchy and its harsh acts.
During the unrest of 1789, on July 14, a mob approached the Bastille to demand the arms and ammunition stored there and when the forces guarding the structure resisted, the attackers captured the prison and released the seven prisoners held there. The taking of the Bastille signaled the beginning of the French Revolution and it thus became a symbol of the end of the ancient monarchical régime.
The holiday is known as Fête Nationale in France and officially became a holiday in 1880. From the beginning military parades, fireworks, speeches, and public displays were a part of the celebrations reveling in the downfall of monarchical rule. The slogan Vive le 14 juillet! (Long live the 14th of July!) is associated with the day. Former French colonies and countries with friendly relations with France also started observing the holiday. French Polynesia, in particular, adopted the holiday into its own culture with dancing, singing, and entertainment performances held throughout July.
Bastille Day timeline
- July 14, 1789: French revolutionaries storm the Bastille in a victory both strategic and symbolic
- July 14, 1790: Fête de la Fédération takes place on the one year anniversary of the storming of the Bastille to celebrate French unity
- July 6, 1880: The first Bastille Day Ball takes place and becomes an annual tradition from this year onwards
Traditions of the day
Bastille Day is more than just a historical holiday; it is a celebration of French culture. Large-scale events take place all over the country and some other parts of the world with meals, parties, and fireworks.
The annual military parade on the morning of July 14 is a patriotic display of French solidarity. The national flag of France is displayed everywhere and while candy is not thrown during the parade it does in some aspects, resemble the American Fourth of July parades.
It wouldn’t be a French holiday without a completely lavish, delicious meal. In some areas of France, it is a tradition to have a picnic on Bastille Day while in other regions families enjoy an elaborate meal at their homes in the middle of the day. If not a picnic, these meals are enjoyed in gardens or backyards to enjoy the pleasant weather. The menu is generally lighter with less cream and butter and more fruits and vegetables.
Bastille Day by the numbers
- 2: Number of towers in the original construction of the Bastille
- 75: Height in feet of the original two towers
- 8: Number of towers after the building was turned into a rectangular fortress
- 55: Number of captives held at any given time by Cardinal Richelieu in the 17th century
- 7: Number of prisoners freed after the storming of the Bastille
- 5: Number of years that aristocrat Marquis de Sade was jailed in the Bastille
- 60 francs: Amount of money donated to families of the revolutionaries by Thomas Jefferson
- 91: Number of years it took for Bastille Day to become a national holiday
- 6,300: Number of soldiers marching in the 2022 Bastille Day military parade
- 25: Number of helicopters at the 2022 Bastille Day military parade
Bastille Day activities
Celebrate Bastille Day in Paris: If you’re fortunate enough to spend Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale) in Paris, you’ll get to experience the biggest summer celebration in the city. Festivities kick off with a military ceremony followed by a huge military parade down the Avenue des Champs Élysées and flyover by military aircraft. You can gather on the Champ de Mars with a blanket and picnic to relax and enjoy free concerts before the fireworks, attend one of the popular Bals des Pompiers (Firemen’s Balls), cruise down the Seine River while enjoying dinner and fireworks, or visit one of the many museums open for the occasion.
Find a party near you: In the United States, more than 50 cities have established some form of an official Bastille Day celebration. Some of the largest are found in New York, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and New Orleans—all of which have large pockets of strong French influence. In Montreal, Bastille Day is celebrated with a large public festival called L’International des Feux Loto-Québec.
Watch a documentary: The storming of the Bastille set in motion a chain of events that not only shaped the course of French history but had a profound impact on the forms of government that emerged in the 19th century. Take some time to learn about the wars, treaties, and shifting borders that all arose after the French Revolution by watching a documentary on the topic.
Throw your own party: Can’t make it to any of the biggest Bastille Day celebrations? No problem! Throwing a French-themed party is easy. If you’re not into the cliches and stereotypes you can have a more authentic experience by serving what the Parisian locals actually drink. Citron Pressé on a hot summer’s day anyone?
Honestly, what’s not to love about champagne, cheese, haute couture, and Edith Piaf? Even if you disagree (mon dieu!), there’s much to fete in today’s lineup.
No dictator, no invader, can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand.
—J. Michael Straczynski