What is Bastille Day? The French call it le quatorze juillet (the 14th of July) or la Fête Nat (short for Fête Nationale) as it’s France’s National Day. It is a day to celebrate and remember the beginning of the French Revolution, following the storming of the Bastille in Paris, which was a fortress and prison representing French Royalty in 1789
National Day is celebrated across France and all its overseas dependencies and territories by holding balls and fireworks displays, there are military and civilian parades, musical performances and communal meals. It’s a public holiday and it’s a joyous one. It’s fun. It comes at a time when everyone is feeling good as it’s summer with most French starting their long summer holidays – it’s a time to relax and enjoy. One of the most enjoyable and typically French ways to celebrate is at a Fireman’s Ball, “Bal des Pompiers”, which take place all over France though most famously in Paris.
The origin of the Bal des Pompiers is not clear but what is sure is that it started in Paris. Initially they were a way for firemen and their families to relax and celebrate the public holiday within the confines of their stations. But on 14th of July 1937 passers by in Montmartre (an area of Paris) liked what they heard and knocked on the door of the local fire station. They were welcomed in and the following year many other stations opened their doors to the public.
Nowadays fire stations all over the country organise balls, either within their walls or in public squares. The tradition has spread to other public holidays too, particularly the 15th of August. Typically the music is traditional French guinguette style – small folk bands with an accordion – though more and more it’s becoming a DJ affair with chart-topping hits blasted out of a sound system. Whatever the style of music, it’s a festivity that cuts across age, class, race, military or civilian; everyone puts aside their differences and gets into the fun. It is a true fête populaire bringing together whole communities.
The prime event of the official state celebrations is a big military march in Paris. Thousands of foot soldiers, mounted soldiers, armoured vehicles and planes parade down (and over) the “most beautiful avenue in the world” (as the French modestly call the Champs Elysées!) It is televised, watched across the nation and goes on for hours.