(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.
What does Bastille Day celebrate then?
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.
Nice explanation!! How about Picnics?? I saw TONS of happy picnickers where were were- mostly French and not necessarily expats/tourists (though I am sure there were plenty of those, as well). The weather couldn’t have been any better so it made for a perfect day… I’m kinda sorry now that we missed the parade and I’d like to go next year just to have seen it.. It was very impressive.. I don’t know of anything like that for 4th July in the U.S. (unless it’s in D.C.) Anyhow.. this was my second 14 juillet (and the BEST one so far, in France… just as good as any 4th of July I have spend in California!!! Hope you and Y had a nice time, too!! —Leesea
Yes… I do understand the “concept” of a picnic in France.. Alex and I have done many along the way on our road trips— Picnic can also mean that you pack a lunch and make a thermos of coffee and stop at the Aire for something to eat rather than to eat at a resto! I think that French LOVE to picnic - esp. in the Parc de Sceaux… Maybe you should come down here to the burbs and see how it’s done!! heheheheh!! ; )
By the way, YOU ROCK!! I just wanted to tell you that because you are just a wealth full of words and I really enjoy reading your explanations and comments!!
Thanks for the kind word…
I include Parc de Sceaux in “Parisian parks” regarding my previous comment.
Small correction regarding the Fête Nationale: it doesn’t actually celebrate the storming of the Bastille. Instead, it celebrates the 1790 Fête de la Féderation, which established the constitutional monarchy system in France, thus paving the way towards republicanism. The Fête de la Féderation happened to take place exactly one year after the storming of the Bastille (perhaps coincidentally, but more likely intentionally for the symbolism). However, la Fête Nationale technically celebrates the 1790 Fête, and not the storming of the Bastille. Not many people — French or otherwise — know this, but it’s true.
About picnicking: I don’t think picnicking in Parisian parks is a tourist invention, because you do see it depicted in many 19th-century paintings before the onslaught of mass tourism; most famously in Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe,” which allegedly depicts the Bois de Boulogne.
If you allow me, I feel some serious nitpicking in this comment.
Should I remind you that the Fête de la Fédération happened on a July 14 because it was the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, and that several more or less formal and more or less official events took place at various occasion on July 14 until the day was made official in 1880, and yeah, some lawmakers then used the “let’s celebrate the Fête de la Fédération, because it was a joyful day, whereas Bastille Day was bloody and violent” argument to have the vote passed.
Also I strongly believe that on such a day (nothing less than the Nation’s Holiday), what matters is what it represents for the people and not what argument was used by a lawmaker.
And as far as Constitutional Monarchy paving the way to the République, it’s quite a shortcut, don’t you think? Maybe you should ask Queen Elizabeth (or any other European Monarch) what they think about that)
Finally, concerning the picnic thing, I’m afraid you’ve missed the ironic tone in the message.
I was totally ready to visit Bastille, then was only greeted with the Opera House and a small plaque in the corner that reminded me of French history. Chalk it up to me being American.
Maybe you shouldn't publicize that too much…
Waiting for a friend in front of Opera Bastille I was asked by an Italian family where to find the Bastille fortress Even our close neighbors get confused!
So if it’s not appropropriat to say Happy Bastille Day.. how do you greet someone?
Or are you not supposed to greet at all?
I edited the text because I guess I was not explicit enough.
So in short, you don’t.
There is no equivalent to “Happy Bastille Day” in French, we don’t say “Happy this” or “Happy that” for every possible occasion like in English.
The only ones I can think of are Happy Birthday, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year (and Happy Easter for Christians). I may be forgetting one or two.