(asked by nobody, I just thought it was a good day to talk about it and clarify a few things)
There are a lot of misconceptions about what is Bastille Day or rather about how it is celebrated in France.
Here are a few debunked misconceptions, details revealed, traditions explained (or not).
I hope I’m not forgetting too many. If you find some I forgot, the comments are here for this. Thanks in advance.
Bastille Day is the French Independence Day
Well, yes and no. But mostly no.
Bastille Day can be roughly seen as the French Independence Day in the sense that these two holidays (I’m talking about the US Independence Day, but I assume it can apply to other Independence Days from other countries) are roughly equivalent in importance, symbolism, etc.
These two holidays are the “Nation’s Holiday” in their respective countries.
But this is pretty much where the comparison stops.
First and foremost, It’s not the French Independence Day simply because France never was a colony and thus never had to become independent (one can argue that France was a colony of Rome 2000 years ago, but I’ll respond that France didn’t exist at all at the time, it was just the geographical area that was a colony (or rather several) of Rome).
And also, Bastille Day is not really seen and celebrated by French people in the same way that Independence Day is by Americans.
If you don’t know the answer to this question, I think it’s time for you to open a French History book.
And to answer it in one line: it celebrates the day when the French Revolution “officially” started by the storming of the Bastille which was the “royal prison” at the time.
Oh and by the way, the Bastille fortress is long gone (it has been destroyed shortly after the storming), so please when you go to Paris and go to Place de la Bastille, don’t make a fool of yourself asking where the fortress is (don’t laugh, I have been asked that question once, and I have overheard people in the subway thinking about visiting it).
But, when you’re there, if you look carefully, you’ll see the outline of where the fortress used to stand back then (hint: it’s near the end of rue St Antoine and boulevard Henri IV). Also, on the platform of the line 5 of the metro, you’ll find the outline too (the strange yellowish line on the floor) as well as a part of the “contrescarpe” (no idea how to say this in English, sorry).
Why do French people look at English speakers in a funny way when the latter wish the former a “Happy Bastille Day”?
Well, for two reasons. The first one is that Bastille Day is not really a day where you wish or greet. It’s just there and you celebrate it or not. The second reason is that, unless the French person knows English, they’ll have no idea what “Bastille Day” is, as it’s an English appellation.
In France it has two names:
-The official one which is “la Fête Nationale” which can be translated by “the National Holiday.”
-The usual one which simply is “le 14 juillet” (aka July 14).
What do French people do on that day?
A bunch of things. First of all, as it is in July, it takes place during the kids summer break, which means that a bunch of French people are on vacation on that day, and in that case they might not even celebrate it at all (I rarely celebrated it when I was a kid as I usually used to go on vacation in July with my parents and I was either out of the country or at the beach on that particular day).
Another important thing is what French people don’t do on that day, and that is a barbecue. When July 4th is usually an occasion to get together with family and friends and have a barbecue, no such thing in France. Whether you celebrate it or not, this is not a holiday that involves food and/or special gatherings (yeah, a French holiday not involving food, it does exist).
Don’t get me wrong, of course, you’ll always find people that’ll have a barbecue on that day, but they’re not having it to celebrate July 14, they’re having it because it’s summertime and it’s a day off.
So, what is it that they do?
First, in the morning, there’s the big military parade on the Champs-Elysées (and possibly smaller ones in other towns) and French people have this tendency to watch it on TV. Tourists that happen to be in Paris go see it too, but I doubt that many Parisians bother (personally, this year (that is this morning) I went to the Carrousel Gardens to watch the planes but this was a first, and I’m not a Parisian even if I currently live here).
After the parade, the President usually hosts a garden party in the Elysées Gardens, but as it involves only about 500 people, it’s not exactly part of “what French people do on that day.”
During the day, nothing special happens, people do whatever they do on a day when they don’t work during Summer.
At night two important things happen (you’ll note that in some towns, these things take place on the 13th at night actually):
-the ball. (as in “dance” not as in “football”)
Let’s start with the ball
It’s one of July 14th strongest traditions. Balls are organized in pretty much every city, town, village of France and people get together and dance. In big towns and cities there are several in different parts of the town. A few years ago, I was under the impression that this tradition was dying out, but I couldn’t be more wrong, after doing my homework, I can tell you that it’s alive and well.
I’m not sure what are the origins of this tradition, but I think it goes with the imagery and mythology of the Revolution and the myth that the people were so happy and relieved that they were now free from the King’s oppression that they spontaneously started to dance together all over town (of course, that’s a myth).
Also, you might have heard of the “bal des pompiers” (the firefighters ball).
I’ve heard of it too… a couple of years ago when I spent my first July 14 in Paris.
Apparently in Paris, the Bastille Day’s balls are very often organized by the neighborhood’s firefighters (and they’re also used as fund raisers). It’s apparently a very vivid tradition in Paris, but it’s by no means a French one. I had never heard of such a thing before moving to Paris (I’m not saying it’s only in Paris, but it’s definitely not everywhere in France).
In other towns, the balls are usually organized by the municipality and/or non-profit organizations.
Maybe the most popular of Bastille Day traditions and celebrations. Almost every town that’s big enough to afford it will have fireworks either on the 13th or the 14th. And they’re hugely popular. Whether it’s a big city or a small town, it seems that almost everyone who’s in town will go see them.
And apparently in Paris, it’s also a tradition for teenagers to be really annoying and blow up as many firecrackers as they can (but sometimes I wonder if this tradition doesn’t limit itself to my street).
Ok, I think I went through the main things about Bastille Day.
If I forgot any, do not hesitate to tell me.