10 facts about bastille day
10. It commemorates the storming of the bastille – or does it?
Most people, including the French, associate the national holiday with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, widely considered to be the catalyst of the French Revolution. While it is true that the Bastille, a fortress-turned-prison was indeed violently stormed by the populace and the prisoners freed, the date was initially proposed in 1880 to commemorate the Festival of the Federation, a warm and hopeful event first held on July 14, 1790.
9. It was tough finding a date for the official national holiday.
In 1880, when the idea of a national holiday was being floated, many different dates were proposed and the debate was polemic. Should it be September 21, honoring the official creation of the French Republic (1792)? Or perhaps February 24, the creation of the Second Republic (1848)? Or August 4, for the abolition of the feudal system (1789)? Ultimately, the politicians settled on the 14th as a way to appease everyone: Each could choose for himself what he was celebrating: A day of “democratic” violence or a symbolic festival of reconciliation.
8. the storming of the bastille didn’t accomplish much
…in practical terms. The general population had been led to believe that large numbers of prisoners were being held in deplorable conditions. However, during the event, only seven prisoners were discovered, in pretty good health. They were petty criminals: forgers, lunatics, and one aristocrat, all of whom disappeared before much else could be learned about them.
7. the floppy hat is not just a style choice
The famous Phrygian cap associated with the French Revolution was originally worn in Roman times by freed slaves. It was first adopted by the Americans during their Revolution as a symbol of freedom and democracy, then by the French.
6. Americans were involved (of course)
- Thomas Jefferson donated money to the widows of the revolutionaries who were killed in the storming of the Bastille.
- The Marquis de Lafayette, who was entrusted with the key to the Bastille after its destruction, later gifted it to American president George Washington. It remains at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia to this day.
5. marianne was chosen as a symbol of the republic
The figure of the woman Marianne was chosen as the symbol of France at least in part, for these reasons:
- In the French language, France is feminine (la France), as well as “liberty” (la liberté), “republic” (la république), democracy (la démocratie), and equality (l’égalité), so it’s only logical that their symbol be feminine.
- The allegory of liberty as a woman was already in existence and commonly recognized even by many uneducated people. Educated citizens would have been aware of the Roman female allegory of democracy.
4. more facts about marianne
- She is modeled after the most “common” people – that is, the working class. The most common names for female domestic servants at that time were “Marie” and “Anne.” Marie-Anne is generally considered a typical working-class name.
- The name was originally attributed as a joke by enemies of the new republic, who were making fun of her lowly associations with the working class, servants, and slaves
3. the french don’t call it bastille day.
A Frenchman would probably be confused if you wished him a happy Bastille Day. In France it is le quatorze juillet (“July 14th”) or la fête nationale (“the national holiday”)
2. Not july 14, but 26 messidor?
After the French Revolution, the French briefly adopted a weird new calendar, the Republican Calendar (1792-1806). While the national holiday was never celebrated during this period, if it had been, it would not have been le quatorze juillet, but le 26 Messidor (the 26th of the month Messidor).
1. celebrate like a local
To celebrate the national holiday, you can attend a local fireman’s ball. Usually held on the eve of the holiday (July 13), these shindigs are hosted at the local fire station. Popular ticket items with local residents, practically every town has one. Other ways to celebrate include taking in a regional fireworks display or attending a local parade – the Paris défilé is known the oldest and biggest military parade in Europe.
Want to know more?
Check out this video from Easy French on July 14th and its various traditions. Bonne fête nationale!