Inquiring about Bastille Day to a Frenchman, however, is likely to elicit a blank stare. The term itself is an American creation, but whatever you call it, the holiday commemorates the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a medieval fortress-turned-prison, on July 14, 1789, and the liberation of France from the feudalists.
Although the Bastille only held seven prisoners at the time of its capture, it was symbolic of the absolute and arbitrary power of Louis the 16th's Regime Ancien. By taking the structure, the people signaled that the king's power was no longer absolute. Seizing the prison was a sign of liberty and the fight against oppression for all French citizens, and its message is emblazoned on France's flag, whose tricolor design represents the Republic's three ideals: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all.
The event marked the end of absolute monarchy, the birth of a sovereign nation and the eventual creation of the (First) Republic in 1792. Like Independence Day in the United States, the holiday is emblematic of the beginning of a new form of government.
Of course, people on the streets of Paris will hardly be thinking about forms of government. These days, the country celebrates the Le Fête Nationale (Bastille Day) with pride, national sentiment, tradition and, above all else, a big party.
On Saturday morning, French president François Hollande will preside over the world's longest-running military parade down the Champs Elysees, which includes marching cadets from military schools, the French Navy and the French Foreign Legion, in addition to an eagerly-awaited aircraft flyover. Many, however, will still be up from the all-night Bal du 14 Juillet, held on the evening before Bastille Day at the Place de la Bastille (where the stormed prison once stood).
Other events include the Fireman's ball, a massive city-wide picnic and fireworks show held near the Eiffel Tower (which you can watch on a live stream online).
If it all sounds a bit too patriotic for the non-Francophile, this year's theme is Disco Years, so the celebration is sure to be funkier than usual.
Across the pond, North Americans rarely celebrate or even acknowledge holidays and commemorations specific to other countries (have you ever been to a Guy Fawkes Day celebration outside of Britain?), but Bastille Day is one of the few that's catching on. Like Cinco de Mayo, it's become an excuse to booze up under the pretense of diversity and cultural awareness.
We're both celebrating 18th century revolutions, and it's really a prolonging of the July 4 holiday for a lot of people in the United States, said Katherine Johnstone, media relations manager for Atout France, the republic's tourism development agency. In the same way people want to drink tequila and eat guacamole for Cinco de Mayo, they want to drink wine and put Brie on a baguette for Bastille Day.
If you can't make it to Paris, here are a few large-scale celebrations taking place both across the English Channel and across the Atlantic.
Bastille Day Events Outside of France
Bankside Bastille Day
Bastille Day Wine Crawl sponsored by PubCrawles.com
Bastille Day on 60th Street Sponsored by the French Institute Alliance Francaise
Bastille Day Celebrations
Bastille Days sponsored by Downtown Milwaukee
Bastille Day Festival at Eastern State Penitentiary sponsored by Visit Philly