Just wrapped up your 4th of July festivities? Done celebrating your Independence from those damn Brits? Good! Because you're right on time to celebrate La Fête Nationale, aka Bastille Day. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Bastille Day is to France what Cinco de Mayo is to Mexico. An excuse to booze up, under the pretense of cultural openness and diversity!
But first of all, in France, we don't celebrate Bastille Day. We celebrate Le 14 juillet. If you mention Bastille Day to a Frenchman, or even (given nobody speaks English over there) if you say Le jour de la Bastille, people will look at you as if you have ten - royally crowned - heads, (which would make your beheading lengthy and probably against the 35 hour working-week Labor regulation).
Bastille Day is of your own making! You, my American friends, invented it. The name that is! And we should be vastly impressed that you know about La Bastille, because I can find you busloads of French 10th graders who have no clue that July 14th celebrates the storming of La Bastille.
So you still wonder what exactly is being celebrated?
It's a common inaccuracy to believe that the French are celebrating the beheading of their king. Of course, there are many reasons to celebrate beheadings. But Louis XVI was beheaded in January, soon after Christmas, New Year and the celebration of the Magi. In short, the season was already jam-packed with parties. Plus, for marketing reasons, France needed a solid mid-summer celebration.
So instead of celebrating the loss of its head by our king, France decided to celebrate the storming of the Bastille prison. A surprising symbol to commemorate? Insurgency is cool as ice on my side of the pond. You would not give the Battle of Alcatraz a national holiday status, but back then and there, La Prise de la Bastille was groovy and patriotic.
And you have to admit that this guillotine thing is quite a mind-blowing (or neck-cutting) invention. It was invented by a compassionate doctor, the good Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, to provide a less painful, more humane death. A totally compassionate solution would have included sterilization of the blade between choppings, but Guillotin's invention was a vast improvement from the archaic axe.
Now that I've whetted your appetite for Bastille Day, I'm sure you wonder how you should celebrate? No blade or axe or riot necessary.
Instead, just relax, listen to La Vie en Rose, enjoy a glass of Pastis, have a hamburger with foie gras, some escargots, stinky cheese for desert, a game of pétanque, a pack of Gitanes sans filtre. And you can call it a (Bastille) Day.
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