Celebrate Freedom on Bastille Day: July 14

The annual international celebration of French freedom from tyranny occurs on Bastille Day on July 14

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?

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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. 

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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
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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.

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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
Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Longfellow-Evangeline State Historic Park, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

Worth Pondering…

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

The History of Mardi Gras Traditions

What was Mardi Gras like in 1898?

Fat Tuesday, last day before Lent’s forty day fast;
Mardi Gras magic exudes from every pore,
Elaborately costumed krewes toss beads off floats,
Give rise to fanciful celebrations of the dead,
Historic carnival steeped in Catholic doctrine.

—Sterling Warner

Mardi Gras is a Christian holiday and popular cultural phenomenon that dates back thousands of years to pagan spring and fertility rites. Also known as Carnival or Carnaval, it’s celebrated in many countries around the world, mainly ones with large Roman Catholic populations. Mardi Gras is traditionally celebrated on Fat Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, and the start of Lent. This year Mardi Gras is February 21 which means the season will last a little more than six weeks.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mardi Gras is one of the many worldwide celebrations that recognize Fat Tuesday—the last day before Lent which historically was characterized by giving up meat, sweets, and other delicacies. Originating in medieval Europe, by the 17th and 18th centuries the festivities had become an annual event for the French House of the Bourbons.

On March 2, 1699, French-Canadian explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne Sieur de Bienville arrived at a plot of ground 60 miles directly south of New Orleans and named it Pointe du Mardi Gras when his men realized it was the eve of the festive holiday. Bienville also established Fort Louis de la Louisiane (which is now Mobile) in 1702. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1704, Mobile established Masque de la Mobile, a secret society similar to those that form the current Mardi Gras krewes. It lasted until 1709. In 1710, the Boeuf Gras Society was formed and paraded from 1711 through 1861. The procession was held with a huge bull’s head pushed along on wheels by 16 men. Later, Rex, The King of Carnival, would parade with an actual bull draped in white and signaling the coming Lenten meat fast. This occurred on Fat Tuesday.

New Orleans was established in 1718 by Bienville. By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, Louisiana’s governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, established elegant society balls which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today.

King cakes at Ambrosia Bakery, Baton Rouge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The earliest reference to Mardi Gras Carnival appears in a 1781 report to the Spanish colonial governing body. That year, the Perseverance Benevolent & Mutual Aid Association was the first of hundreds of clubs and carnival organizations formed in New Orleans.

By the late 1830s, New Orleans held street processions of maskers with carriages and horseback riders to celebrate Mardi Gras. Dazzling gaslight torches or flambeaux lit the way for the krewe’s members and lent each event an exciting air of romance and festivity.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1856, six young Mobile natives formed the Mistick Krewe of Comus invoking John Milton’s hero Comus to represent their organization. Comus brought magic and mystery to New Orleans with dazzling floats (known as tableaux cars) and masked balls. Krewe members remained anonymous.

In 1870, Mardi Gras’ second Krewe, the Twelfth Night Revelers, was formed. This is also the first recorded account of Mardi Gras throws.

Mardi Gras costume display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newspapers began to announce Mardi Gras events in advance and they even printed Carnival Edition lithographs of parades’ fantastic float designs (after they rolled, of course, themes and floats were always carefully guarded before the procession). At first, these reproductions were small and details could not be clearly seen. But beginning in 1886 with Proteus’ parade Visions of Other Worlds these chromolithographs could be produced in full, saturated color, doing justice to the float and costume designs of Carlotta Bonnecase, Charles Briton, and B.A. Wikstrom. Each of these designers’ work was brought to life by talented Parisian paper-mache artist Georges Soulie who for 40 years was responsible for creating all of Carnival’s floats and processional outfits.

Mardi Gras arts and crafts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1872 was the year that a group of businessmen invented a King of Carnival, Rex to preside over the first daytime parade. To honor the visiting Russian Grand Duke Alexis Romanoff, the businessmen introduced Romanoff’s family colors of purple, green, and gold as Carnival’s official colors. Purple stands for justice, gold for power, and green for faith. This was also the Mardi Gras season that Carnival’s improbable anthem, If Ever I Cease to Love, was cemented, due in part to the Duke’s fondness for the tune.

The following year, floats began to be constructed entirely in New Orleans instead of France culminating with Comus’ magnificent The Missing Links to Darwin’s Origin of Species in which exotic paper-mache animal costumes served as the basis for Comus to mock both Darwin’s theory and local officials including Governor Henry Warmoth. In 1875, Governor Warmoth signed the Mardi Gras Act making Fat Tuesday a legal holiday in Louisiana which it still is.

Madre Gras display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like Comus and the Twelfth Night Revelers, most Mardi Gras krewes today developed from private social clubs with restrictive membership policies.

What was Mardi Gras like in 1898? Arthur Hardy who publishes an annual guide to the New Orleans celebration searched for decades to find out, looking for a film of the parade that year that was only rumored to exist. He finally found it nearly 5,000 miles away at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The footage which was recently shown at the Louisiana State Museum is the oldest-ever film of New Orleans. “This probably, in Louisiana film history, is the most important find,” said Louisiana film historian Ed Poole.

Mardi Gras arts and crafts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Footage from the 1899 Mardi Gras shows that while Mardi Gras parades from over a century ago are in many ways similar to today’s, the festival has certainly evolved. For instance, while modern revelers often dress casually (and sometimes wear very little clothing at all), parade-goers in 1898 donned formal attire and carried parasols. People riding on floats were not throwing beads or coins into the crowd and no police or barricades were present for crowd control.

Mardi Gras parade © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the flipside, one tradition from 1898 has since disappeared: The traditional revelry of boeuf gras or fatted ox was once a live bull. The film shows an actual bovine perched atop one of the floats. This tradition ended in the early 20th century when officials decided it was “no longer tasteful.” Today’s parades opt instead for a papier-maché version.

It’s certainly grown and changed a bit but at its core, Mardi Gras is the same.

Mardi Gras costume display © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Future Mardi Gras Dates

February 13, 2024

March 4, 2025

February 17, 2026

February 9, 2027

February 29, 2028

February 13, 2029

March 5, 2030

Worth Pondering…

It’s a great party, and anyone who doesn’t enjoy Mardi Gras is not of this world.

—Franklin Alvarado

10 Things You Might Not Know About Mardi Gras

Everywhere else, it’s just a Tuesday

Mardi Gras. Two little words with an infinitely large explanation.  For different people, it means different things—an event, an idea, a day, a way of life, a piece of history, a state holiday, or a million parades, and countless memories. Think you know Mardi Gras? That it’s all about booze and beads? Think again! 

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Of the hundreds of Louisiana festivals, none tops Mardi Gras. Spectacular parades, unbelievable costumes, music, dancing, food, drink—take your pick of places to indulge and enjoy. The biggest celebration occurs in New Orleans but nearly every community in the state and beyond has its own version of the annual party. Wherever you go, you can find the style that best suits you, including tons of family-style celebrations.

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What is Mardi Gras? Do you know the meaning of krewe? Or where to get one-of-a-kind beads? Here are 10 things to know about Mardi Gras to make your Carnival the best!

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1. Carnival is a Season; Mardi Gras is a day

Sure, we all do it. “Yea, I’m going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras!” we say when we’re actually going to see parades the weekend before Mardi Gras or the weekend before that. Technically, “Mardi Gras” is the last Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and ushers in 40 days of best behavior during Lent, and “Carnival” is the season that begins on the Feast of Epiphany.

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Mardi Gras 2022 falls on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. The official start of Carnival Season is Twelfth Night, January 6.

A krewe (pronounced the same way as “crew”) is an organization that puts on a parade and/or a ball for the Carnival season.

Bonus Fun Fact: Mardi Gras is a legal holiday in Louisiana and has been since 1875 when Governor Warmoth signed the “Mardi Gras Act.”

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2. Your Dog Will Love Mardi Gras

Dogs just want to have fun! And that’s what they get at their very own parades in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, the Louisiana Northshore, and more locations! These animal-dedicated parades show off the fun and revelry from our furriest of friends and do they look cute.

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New Orleans’ French Quarter goes to the dogs at the annual Krewe of Barkus where dogs and their owners dress up in cute, crazy costumes.

Related Article: Joe Cain, Moon Pies & Mobile Mardi Gras

Shreveport goes to the dogs (literally) at the Krewe of Barkus and Meoux Parade. Head to Old Reeves Marine to see the pups strut their stuff and feel free to bring your own. The cuteness of this parade will have you telling everyone “Happy Mardi Paw!”

Start planning your dog’s costume for the celebration.

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3. Mardi Gras Is for Families

There are many activities and Mardi Gras parades that are family-friendly. In New Orleans, there are a few favorite family parade-watching spots which include St. Charles and Napoleon Streets. As you explore the state, you’ll find that many Louisiana cities host huge Mardi Gras celebrations with brightly colored floats and marching bands that are perfectly appropriate for the whole family.

Lafayette goes big with its Mardi Gras festivities and two of the family-friendly highlights are the annual Children’s Parade and the Krewe of Bonaparte.

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4. The Best Ways to Get Parade Goods Aren’t Always Obvious

Sure, you could say, “Throw me something, mister!” or you could stick your cute kid on your shoulders but if you really want to test your suitcases’ weight limit, head to the end of the parade. You’ll be showered by effervescent float-riders with a single goal: chuck all bags of beads off before they get off the float themselves.

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5. You never know what they’ll Throw

Bathroom humor never grows old, as evidenced by the irreverent joy of Krewe of Tucks riders including the King’s Throne (a giant toilet) float! The screaming crowds line the street begging for their bathroom-themed throws including monogrammed toilet paper, sunglasses shaped like toilets, mini-plungers, and more.

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In Shreveport, you’ll love the Krewe of Highland who throw a new surprise each Carnival season. The first of Krewe’s famously unusual throws began with candy canes in its founding year. Over the years, throws have included recycled beads, rubber chickens, Beanie Babies, and food, from spaghetti and meatballs in Ziploc bags to pickles, hot dogs, Capri Suns pouches, Ramen Noodles, MoonPies, and even coined money. The throws are as exciting as the floats from which they’re thrown; every year brings a new surprise to parade go-ers, screaming, “Throw me something, Mister!”

Anyone can come home with beads. Only those “in the know” get miniature squirting toilets and dinner.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The Best Parades Aren’t Necessarily the Biggest

You can’t get any smaller than ’tit Rex, New Orleans first and only MicroKrewe. A group of artists, business people, teachers, workers, and bon vivants founded ‘tit Rəx in 2009 in a response to the super krewes constantly setting records for floats, throws, and extravagance.

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‘tit Rəx takes an opposite approach focusing instead of on massive floats that take up entire blocks, the ‘tit Rəx floats are made from shoeboxes and found objects that look like full-size floats. Carnival throws are handed out by krewe members rather than tossed, since—in keeping with the theme of the parade—they are so tiny.

Related Article: How to Celebrate Mardi Gras in 2021?

The parade’s name comes from the Cajun abbreviation of petite, used as a prefix before the name of the smaller or younger of two people who share a first name.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Why They Throw Beads at Mardi Gras?

Legend has it that in the 1880s, a man dressed as Santa Claus received such fame throwing beads, that other krewes followed suit. Makes sense, seeing as, before that, krewes threw any manner of items including food and dirt. Today, krewes buy plastic beads en masse which parade-goers prefer over dirt! Locals still love to see throws of tiny glass bead strands which are rare and seemed to have phased out in the 1960s and 1970s.

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8. The Weight of Revelry

Think your suitcase is heavy? Officials estimate upwards of 25 million pounds of Mardi Gras items get tossed from floats. In fact, locals like to visit the Arc of New Orleans and recycle their beads for next year. It is a 67-year-old non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the independence and well-being of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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9. Royalty is Often Top Secret

Ever see the term “Mystic Krewe” and wonder what that means? Many Mardi Gras Krewes use “mystique” or “mystic” in their titles, meaning krewes will not reveal the identities of their royalty until they’re presented at the royal ball. King, Queens, and Maids are often sworn to secrecy all year until they’re able to make their grand debut.

Mardi Gras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Mardi Gras is More Than New Orleans

When you hear “Mardi Gras” do you only think of New Orleans? Think again. Mardi Gras is celebrated around the state! Cajun Mardi Gras (yes, there is a Cajun spin on Mardi Gras) can be found in the Lafayette and Eunice area. In Baton Rouge, parades roll many weekends before and during Mardi Gras. Plan to experience some family-friendly Mardi Gras fun in Alexandria, Lake Charles, Monroe, and many other locations throughout the state.

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Be sure to explore the small cities and towns of South Louisiana such as Houma and Thibodaux as every region has its own way of celebrating the carnival season.

Related Article: Cool-As-Hell Louisiana Towns You Need to Visit (Besides New Orleans)

And don’t forget where it all began in America. In 1703, the tiny settlement of Fort Louis de la Mobile celebrated America’s very first Mardi Gras, 15 years before New Orleans was established.

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Now that you are well versed in Carnival knowledge, it’s time to plan your trip to visit the Bayou State and “let the good times roll.”

Worth Pondering…

But, after all, if, as a child, you saw, every Mardi Gras, the figure of Folly chasing Death around the broken column of Life, beating him on the back with a Fool’s Scepter from which dangled two gilded pig bladders; or the figure of Columbus dancing drunkenly on top of a huge revolving globe of the world; or Revelry dancing on an enormous upturned wine glass—wouldn’t you see the world in different terms, too?

—Eugene Walter, The Untidy Pilgrim