Fireworks, French maids, and pastries, these are all important facets of La Fête Nationale also known as Bastille Day!
July 14, 1789, is a French national holiday that celebrates the invasion by Parisians of the fortress-prison Bastille Saint-Antoine, killing many soldiers. Historically, the Bastille not only held common criminals and religious dissenters, but also political prisoners who displeased the monarchy—though in July 1789, the inmates numbered only 7. More to the point, the Bastille housed large quantities of arms and gunpowder needed by the Parisians for their insurrection. Ultimately, the Bastille represented a symbol of absolutism. This monumental day was the most dramatic of the early events of the French Revolution, though the more lasting achievement is no doubt the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, in late August of that year.
As an aside, among the better-known inmates of the Bastille is Pierre François de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, the last Governor-General of New France, imprisoned briefly in 1762 for his role in the loss of the French colony. Vaudreuil-Cavagnal, the first Governor-General to be born in Canada, was considered by others in the colonial administration of Louis XVI to be “too Canadian.” Vaudreuil-Cavagnal is recognized today for having maintained excellent relations with the First Nations allied with France. For insight into the complex diplomatic history of that time, read the account by historians Ruth B. Phillips and Michael Witgen (Ojibwe) of the Anishinaabe outfit assembled by the British officer Andrew Foster in the online version of the exhibition Infinity of Nations, or see the outfit on view at the Heye Center in New York.
Anishinaabe outfit collected by Andrew Foster, ca. 1790. Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan. Birchbark, cotton, linen, wool, feathers, silk, silver brooches, porcupine quills, horsehair, hide, sinew. 24/2000 et al.
How do the French celebrate such a colossal day in history? They party! I asked a few friends from Paris what they do on July 14. First of all, most people do not have to work that day, leaving the day open to watch the military marches on the Champs-Elysées. Many Parisians will gather with friends and family for lunch and dinner, complemented by pastries and followed with wine and champagne at the Eiffel Tower during the fireworks. Others will attend a party held on the Place de la Bastille. One of the most popular activities includes parties at firehouses where music and drinks ensure a good time.
Here at the NMAI, we celebrate Bastille Day by walking through the Saint-Lauren exhibit in Our Lives, on the museum’s third level. Saint-Lauren is composed of a proud Métis community that celebrates Métis Day with jigging and fiddling all night long! The Métis of Saint-Lauren have a traditional language called Mischif, composed of Ojibway, Saulteaux, Cree, and Canadian French. In the past, Métis children were discouraged by teachers to speak their language, rather they were told to “speak proper French.” Nevertheless, today the Métis raise their blue and white flag proudly to celebrate their French and First Nations heritage.
For those of us in Washington, D.C., let’s see if there are ways that we can celebrate Bastille Day! Interestingly enough, there are several fun festivities happening July 14 through the 17. Today at noon, there is a French maid race on Pennsylvania Avenue, featuring waiters and waitresses dressed up in maid costumes; the challenge is to run while carrying a tray holding a glass of champagne. Another French maid race will take place in the evening at 8 PM at the L’Enfant Café on 18th Street NW. The Café will host a Masquerade Ball Bastille fête starting at 4 PM, continuing through the night. For the better connected, the French Embassy will host a gala cocktail soirée in honor of Bastille Day on Saturday, July 16. Since freedom is an important aspect of American principles, the French Bastille Day relates quite well!
—Lea Toulouse Florentin (Anishinaabe/French), Public Affairs, with Holly Stewart, Web Office, NMAI