If you happen to not know it’s Bastille Day, don’t worry, you won’t be judged here. I never gave it a thought before I started getting Frenchified; it was one of those holidays I assumed the calendar publishers added to give the appearance they went the extra mile for the consumer. I mean who knows what Armistice Day is? Guess I won’t know till I go live in Armistice one day.
If you do know what today is, points for you! A further bonus if you know that it celebrates France’s independence from the monarchy, beginning with the overtaking in of a royal prison fortress in Paris named La Bastille on July14, 1789.
The French have in fact never heard of a holiday called Bastille Day, as they stick with the more austere title of “14th of July”. I should also mention that the true pronunciation is more like bah-stee, but I don’t recommend correcting those around you unless you enjoy sounding pretentious.
Fireworks, a huge parade down the Champs-Elysées, and a general shutdown of public services make this holiday similar to our own Independence Day. It’s the day we honor those brave 18th century souls for standing up to tyrannical oppression, partly inspired from what we yanks had done 13 years earlier (Ben Franklin was pretty much a rock star in Paris). Unfortunately after these revolutionaries had separated all the royal heads from all the royal bodies, they got a bit caught up in the adrenaline rush and destroyed anything around that reminded them of the king, which included most medieval churches, statues, and public landmarks, all the while periodically turning on each other and beheading their comrades.
Notre Dame, like many religious buildings, was basically turned into a storage warehouse and considered a “Temple of Reason” instead of a Christian church, with the Virgin Mary being renamed Lady Liberty (sound familiar?) Its bells were melted down for cannonballs and its beautiful façade sculptures were smashed to dust.
The 28 biblical kings of Judah that stretch along the front of the cathedral were unfortunately mistaken for French kings and their heads symbolically lopped off one by one. Fortunately a school teacher who lived nearby secretly scooped up the heavy stone remnants, and under the cover of night lugged them home and buried the heads in his backyard for safe keeping. There they remained until an excavation unearthed them in 1977. These original medieval heads can be seen today at the Cluny Museum in the Latin Quarter, which I highly recommend as they gave me quite a thrill when I first saw them. Huh — turns out some people don’t mind sounding pretentious :)
Anyway the French got their freedom, the Louvre and Versailles became killer museums, and everyone now gets a day off on the 14th, so let’s say it all worked out for the best. Happy Bastille Day everybody!