Friendships and family relationships are greatly strengthened by celebrating holidays together. This is especially true of Bastille Day, the holiday created to specifically honor and celebrate French unity. It takes its name after the Storming of the Bastille, an event that occurred more than 230 years ago. In 1880, Bastille Day was made an official holiday, and French people have been marking July 14th with concerts, speeches, fireworks, and other fetes ever since.
These days, perhaps the most dramatic show of patriotism comes from the Air Force Patrouille de France acrobatic unit, with the trails of blue, white, and red smoke released by the fighter jets during the iconic Bastille Day military parade. This brief overview of how the holiday came to be should help get you in the Bastille Day spirit!
What Was the Bastille, and Why Was It Stormed?
The Bastille was a gloomy but formidable government fortress built in the 1300s to protect one of the primary entrances to Paris. The immense stone building was surrounded by a moat and protected by multiple drawbridges. Chains clanked as the bridge was lowered and raised. The Bastille had an exterior wall more than 100 feet high, with crenellations that soldiers hid behind but could still point muskets at the enemy. Windows in the Bastille were tall narrow slits that soldiers could shoot out of, but enemies could hardly shoot in. The slits allowed only small amounts of light to penetrate in. Inside was a maze of dimly lit corridors and cold, dank rooms.
It was probably inevitable that the Bastille, in time, came to be used as a prison—one where political prisoners were often sent and held for long periods of time without trial. Some of these prisoners had been sent to the Bastille by the king himself, who needed neither a reason nor a trial to imprison someone. If people didn’t agree with him, the King could send them to the Bastille.
Under King Louis XVI, the social and political situation in France was more than precarious. The government was in debt, unemployment was high, and years of bad harvests had led to massive food shortages. In an effort to raise money, King Louis raised taxes not on the wealthy but rather on the poor—a strategy that increased the turmoil most French citizens were already feeling.
By July 1789, insurrection and revolution seemed unavoidable. On July 14, rioting Parisians who had had enough of the King’s oppressive behaviors stormed the Bastille, ousted the guards, and freed all the prisoners. This last action was perhaps less dramatic than it sounds, since at the time of the storming, the Bastille held only seven prisoners—four of whom had been convicted of forgery, and another who had been sent there by his own family.
Still, the day was indicative of a much larger uprising. The Bastille symbolized an abuse of power, and it had just been overthrown!
Why Is Bastille Day Important?
The Storming of the Bastille marked the start of the French Revolution. It was the beginning of the end for the monarchy. It represented a call for liberty, equality, and a more democratic form of government. Today, the holiday is an opportunity to celebrate French unity and the French way of life. The Bastille Day military parade is the largest of its kind, with thousands of participants and millions of viewers. July 14 can mean many things to many people, but for French people around the globe, it is a day to celebrate their country!
Save Your Bastille Day Memories to FamilySearch—Then Find Your French Ancestors!
You can’t celebrate a big holiday and make new memories without taking a few pictures, right? Afterwards you need a place to store those memories. With your free FamilySearch account, you can save photos, family documents, and even voice recordings in FamilySearch memories. Your account is always free, and your memories will be safely stored for future generations to enjoy and appreciate. You can also search through your family tree to discover if you had ancestors who were alive during the French Revolution.
On July 14, take time to celebrate Bastille Day. Then come to FamilySearch, and see what you can learn about your own French family history!