Bastille Day

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Bastille Day

Type of Holiday: Historic, National
Date of Observation: July 14
Where Celebrated: France; New Caledonia, Tahiti, and other French territories
Symbols and Customs: Bastille, La Marseillaise
Related Holidays: Fourth of July


Bastille Day in France is the equivalent of the FOURTH OF JULY in the United States. There is usually a parade down the Champs-Élysées, street dancing, fireworks, and free theatrical performances. It is the day on which the French celebrate their independence from the monarchy by commemorating the storming of Paris's Bastille prison on July 14, 1789-an event that marked the end of Louis XVI's rule and started the French Revolution. By freeing the political prisoners held there and dismantling the building stone by stone, the Parisians displayed their scorn for the Bourbon kings who had ruled France for so long. The Marquis de Lafayette, who had been named commander of the National Guard the day after the Bastille fell, later gave the key to the infamous prison to George Washington, under whom he had served during the American Revolution. It is still on display at Mount Vernon, Washington's home (see also WASHINGTON'S BIRTHDAY).

Americans were particularly happy to hear of the Parisians' revolutionary act, and they celebrated Bastille Day for a number of years, particularly in Philadelphia. But eventually the celebration diminished in the U.S. Bastille Day observances, however, still take place in New York City as well as Kaplan, Louisiana, an area with many ties to French traditions. Bastille Day is also observed in a number of French territories in the Pacific with parades, fireworks, and dancing in the streets. In Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia, it is called Tiurai, and the celebration goes on throughout most of the month of July.

In France, Bastille Day continues to be celebrated as the great national holiday. National holidays can be defined as those commemorations that a nation's government has deemed important enough to warrant inclusion in the list of official public holidays. They tend to honor a person or event that has been critical in the development of the nation and its identity. Such people and events usually reflect values and traditions shared by a large portion of the citizenry. Bastille Day has become one of the nation's most important shared celebrations.



Built around 1369 at the order of King Charles V, the prison-fortress known as the Bastille had eight towers and 100-foot-high walls. Beginning in the seventeenth century, it was used to house primarily political prisoners, including many famous people-such as the French writers Voltaire and the Marquis de Sade-who had displeased the court or were considered a threat to the monarchy.

Although it was razed to the ground two days after it was stormed by the angry Parisians, the Bastille remains a symbol to the French people of the oppression of the monarchy.

La Marseillaise

"La Marseillaise," the French National Anthem, was not even written when the Bastille was stormed in 1789, yet it has come to be associated with Bastille Day. The song was written by Rouget de Lisle, an army officer, during the night of April 25-26, 1792. It was taken up by volunteer soldiers and became the national song in 1795. Banned during the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was reinstated in 1830 and became the national anthem in 1879. Today, La Marseillaise is usually performed at official events and particularly on Bastille Day.


Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., and Jane M. Hatch. The American Book of Days. 4th ed. New York: H.W. Wilson, 2000. Dunkling, Leslie. A Dictionary of Days. New York: Facts on File, 1988. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


French Institute Alliance Française and

French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Bastille Day

July 14
The Bastille was a 14th-century fortress that became a notorious state prison in Paris. An angry mob assaulted the Bastille—which had come to symbolize the French monarchy's oppression of the people—on July 14, 1789, freeing the political prisoners held there and launching the French Revolution.
Although the building itself was razed a year after the attack, the Bastille became a symbol of French independence. July 14 has been celebrated since that time in France as FÉte Nationale, as well as in French territories in the Pacific, with parades, fireworks, and dancing in the streets. This period in French history is familiar to many through Charles Dickens's portrayal of it in A Tale of Two Cities .
In Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia it is called Tiurai or Heiva, and is celebrated for most of the month. The festival includes European-type celebrations plus Polynesian competitions that include both men and women, and a play about the enthronement of a Tahitian high chief. The highlight is the nightly folklore spectacle—a competition of music and dance among groups from throughout French Polynesia who have practiced all year for the event.
See also Night Watch
The French Government Tourist Office
825 Third Ave., Fl. 29
New York, NY 10022
514-288-1904; fax: 212-838-7855
AnnivHol-2000, p. 117
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 59
BkHolWrld-1986, Jul 14
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 440
HolSymbols-2009, p. 75
NatlHolWrld-1968, p. 113
OxYear-1999, p. 293

Celebrated in: France

Bastille Day (Kaplan, Louisiana)
July 14
The French-speaking town of Kaplan, Louisiana, where most of the inhabitants are descended from French Canadians (Acadians), claims to hold the only community-wide celebration of Bastille Day in the United States. The celebration there on July 14 includes fireworks, amateur athletic competitions, and a "fais do-do" or Acadian street dance.
The custom of observing Bastille Day was started by Eugene Eleazer, a French immigrant who became mayor of Kaplan in 1920. With the exception of a brief interruption during World War II, the town has held its fÉte every year since 1906. Smaller Bastille Day celebrations are held elsewhere in Louisiana, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where French traditions still run strong.
Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission
1907 Veterans Memorial Dr.
P.O. Box 1106
Abbeville, LA 70511

Celebrated in: Louisiana

Bastille Day

July 14; French national holiday celebrating the fall of the Bastille prison (1789). [Fr. Hist.: NCE, 245]

Bastille Day

celebration of day Paris mob stormed prison; first outbreak of French Revolution (1789). [Fr. Hist.: EB, I: 866]
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