Today, July 14 is celebrated with reverential pomp in France, where it is formally known as La Fête Nationale.In the United States, its easier to just call it Bastille Day and use it t0 party between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, a mid-summer festival of all things French.
July 14 was the day in 1789 that the formidable prison known as the Bastille in Paris was stormed by a rabble of commoners to seize arms that were stored there by the King’s military forces. In the process some seven anti-monarchist who had been arbitrarily imprisoned there for writings considered treasonous to King Louis XVI were also freed. That day’s event assumed political significance as the most dramatic symbol of the French Revolution.
Technically, however, the holiday was intended to mark what happened on that day a year after the Bastille was stormed.
In 1790, the newly-formed post-revolutionary French government decided to honor the French National Guard on the one-year anniversary of the Bastille storming, declaring it the “Festival of the Federation.” It was marked by a church service, fireworks and a feast with heavy wine drinking and some naked streaking, all of it taking place over a period of four days.
Not until 1880 was it declared a national holiday, the centerpiece being a Paris military parade down the Champs-Élysées.
However patiently the polite Consulat General de France representatives in various U.S. cities make this subtle distinction, it seems lost on most Americans, happy just to wrap a hot dog in a pancake and call it a sausage crepe.
It’s impossible to say when the first Bastille Day was celebrated in the U.S.. It was celebrated within families of French immigrants who came as part of the mass immigration from 1880 to 1920 but there is no indication of it being marked as a special occasion by the moderate numbers who settled in the U.S. before that.
Except for the large influx of French-Canadians to the New England and upper-Midwestern states, their numbers were relatively modest and not large enough to create urban communities.
Through much of the 20th century, Bastille Day was marked only in French restaurants where natives worked as chefs and waiters, the establishments usually offering special menus that day, along with the lure of a free glass of champagne to toast France.
By the early 1980s, however, those Bastille bashes grew so popular that patrons clamoring for unavailable tables had to nurse their champagne while waiting outside. In a vaguely French revolutionary way, raucous partying spilled out on the streets.
Restauranteurs soon capitalized by obtaining an annual street-closing permit to host Bastille lunch tents for the downtown crowd. Some, like Dominque’s on Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue, concocted thematic events like a race of waiters carrying trays of champagne glasses which garnered press coverage and big crowds. It wasn’t long before business alliances got in on it too, along with civic associations.
From that, Bastille Day in the U.S. just championed.
Today, Bastille Day is marked not just in places one associates with French restaurants like Boston or New Orleans, but also Orlando, Dallas, Seattle and Baltimore.
Although the champagne race among local waiters has become a popular fixture of American Bastille Day celebrations, many places hae developed unique rituals. In St. Paul and Minneapolis there’s a “Best Baguette” contest. In New York, the Empire State Building is lit in a variation of the Independence Day tricolors. In Omaha, there’s a cocktail party and a concert.
This year, Chicago is hosting a lavish exhibition of impressionist paintings and haute couture at the Art Institute while Houston hosts a ticketed event with a feast of canapes and games of pétanque, a popular French game similar to bocce ball but using hollow meal ones.
And no matter where you go to celebrate Bastille Day in the states, you can be guaranteed to spot someone dressed as that French Queen we all love to hate. She had become to the American Bastille Day the Uncle Sam of Independence Day, the Bunny of Easter, the Santa of Christmas, the Witch of Halloween.
Her white wig a dead giveaway, you will find many Americans only to eager to depict Marie Antoinette who famously never declared, “Let them eat cake!” about the French peasantry and lost her head at the guillotine, as did her husband.
In the fractured history fun American version, of course, the Marie Antoinette’s are all beaming and happy. And sometimes, the Pumpkin to their Witch is even a French Revolutionary soldier.
In Philadelphia, a Marie Antoinette re-enactor throws out Napoleons, croissants and cream puffs to re-enactors of the French Guard soldiers.
In St. Louis, it gets a bit more red, so to speak. Instead of tossing out cakes to the Yuppies, Joe-Six-Packs and Mommy-Bloggers who taunt her, this Marie-Wannabe has her beheading re-enacted. along with King Louis XVI.
No place in the United States, however, does Bastille Day up bigger, better and Frenchier than a city legendary for its love of beer and cheese in a state without a coast: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In fact, the Milwaukee Bastille celebration is technically more authentic to the 1790 one first celebrated in France than it is in France itself.
Just like the original “Festival of the Federation,” Milwaukee’s takes place over a period of four days. It is also among the nation’s earliest and longest-continuous Bastille Day celebrations, begun in 1982.
Held within an approximate eight-block radius of the city’s Cathedral Square Park, it draws over a quarter of a million French-lovers annually. The central focus of the event is a 43-foot high replica of the Eiffel Tower, where at night there are hourly light shows demonstrated on it.
All throughout the four days the streets are filled with costumed minstrel musicians and acrobats.
From tents local restaurant vendors provide a wide variety not only of traditional French foods but also those found among French-Canadians, the Cajun French of Louisiana and French Haiti.
There are also regularly-scheduled French chef demonstrations and a mass-group “Learn to Speak French” lessons.
There are four sound stages with a wide variety of live music being performed, much of it encouraging dancing.
This year as in many recent past ones, performers range from those singing French opera to Madame Gigi’s Outrageous French Can-Can Dancers to Frech chantuese Robin Pluer.
The music is also reflective of former French colonies like Sierra Leone in West Africa.
One particularly famous vocal performing group are the men of the Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, now renowned around the world but who initially formed during the horrors of their country’s bloody war in the 1990s.
All of them were, in fact, refugees from their native land and displaced into refugee camps, finding each other and then hope through music.
There’s also French jazz bands performing at night and French music for children during the day, on the specially-designated day for families where other activities include sidewalk chalk-drawing – with demonstration by professional artists who work on reproducing masterpieces on the concrete.
Berets and parasols seem ubiquitous, along with striped French sailor shirts. Twice-daily wine tastings make the entire event even more intoxicating.
Lots of signs of ye olde American summertime street festival are also obvious, like the dog parade and booths of handmade crafts.
“Storming of the Bastille,” proves not to be a revolutionary raid on a local bank but rather a 5k race sponsored by a local bank. In this respect, Philadelphia does have Milwaukee beat.
In the city of brotherly love, their Marie Antoinette pelts the plebes with cellophane-wrapped snack cakes from the roof of an abandoned but real prison.
Oh la la.
Still, Wisconsin does have a rightful claim to being a bit tres more French than most states of the union, except of course for Louisiana and Maine.
In 1634, by direction of New France governor Samuel de Champlain, it was Jean Nicolet who became the first known European to enter what is now known as Wisconsin, after Huron Indian tribe members guided him by canoe through Lake Huron and Lake Superior and reaching what would become Green Bay.
The next French there were Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, who made their way into what eventually became Prairie du Chien in 1673. A French trading post was established in 1634, a Jesuit mission in 1681 and a series of forts went up from 1685 to 1759.
Since these first Frenchmen in Wisconsin were either Catholic clergy or fur traders, no families settled permanently in the region until the arrival there of French Canadians immigrants.
Yet still there is another particular affinity between the French and the Wisconsinians.
Though hardly ubiquitous anywhere anymore, even on Bastille Day, the wearing of a particular type of hat seems to still signal to anyone who glimpses it the noble spirit of liberty embodied by that individual who choses to appear publicly in this particular hat.
It is called the French tricorne, a triangular-shaped chapeau which the Spanish first saw in Flanders while at war with the Flemish.
With the central point of the triangle positioned at the front of a person’s head and the two of the three sides of the brim curled up at the temples, the hat was able to keep the heads of soldiers relatively dry during a storm since the water which rained atop it would be drained off and behind them.
The Spanish copied it and when the French were at war with them in 1667, they in turn copied it.
King Louis XIV so liked the look and purpose of the hat and wore it often that he helped to popularize it among the military and the commoners.
By the time of the French Revolution, however, the tricorn had come to serve as an important political emblem.
Those loyal to the King wore a fancy white cockade ribbon on one side, while revolutionists wore one in blue-and-red.
At the time, the color of a tricorn’s cockade was enough to convict a person to losing their head to the enemy.
In Wisconsin, of course, there is also substantial cultural significance to a tricorn of its own, the cheesehead tri-cornered hat worn as a proud if brave sign of loyalty to the Green Bay Packers.
Unique to the Dairy state , wearing it could also lead to losing their head to the enemy.
- Le French Book Running Bastille Day Sweepstakes for Summer Reads (prweb.com)
- In Transit Blog: Bastille Days the World Over (intransit.blogs.nytimes.com)
- A Different Kind of Bastille Day (theparisphilediaries.com)
- July 14: Bon Bastille Day! (cheerdujour.wordpress.com)
- Bastille Day -The French National Day (jacqueslabrasserie.wordpress.com)
- Classical music: Today is Bastille Day, the celebration of the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. Here is a very popular YouTube video of acclaimed tenor Roberto Alagna singing a version of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” as arranged (welltempered.wordpress.com)
- Harpers Bazaar:Bastille Day Babes: 20 of France’s Chicest Femmes (harpersbazaar.com)
Tags: Bastille Day