Bastille Day! Are there any other words that so stir the hearts of Americans young and old? Adults look forward to July 14 as a respite from the summer doldrums, when the house starts to feel like its own kind of prison. And kids from Bangor to Bakersfield eagerly count down the days and hours till they can celebrate the symbolic start of the French Revolution.
True, some of the joy has been lost in recent years as status-conscious parents try to one-up their neighbors, hiring professional actors to pose as Louis XVI and erecting actual-size guillotines on the lawn. One could be forgiven for thinking that the true meaning of Bastille Day is being overlooked.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go to such lengths to ensure that the youngsters have a great time. A little planning and imagination can produce a Bastille Day party that is both inexpensive and comme il faut.
First, try to hold the party when your kids are at the ideal age, around 5 or 6. At this stage, they’re old enough to comprehend concepts like the ancien régime, the alliance of the rising bourgeoisie, and the resentment of royal absolutism, and yet young enough to get a kick out of using red Kool-Aid as a symbol for blood. Also, try to invite as many kids as possible (at least 50), even if your children don’t know them well. Without the mob atmosphere, it’s hardly worth doing.
Second, when you send out invitations, include a request that all attendees read (or, hopefully, reread!) A Tale of Two Cities. Familiarity with this Dickens classic will greatly enrich their experience the day of the party. Tell them they won’t get in the door unless they can answer a trivia question about the book.
Third, don’t forget to educate while entertaining. One fantastic approach I witnessed is to have the children sit quietly on the patio for 60 to 90 minutes while you recount the political and socioeconomic factors that led to the revolution. Don’t give short shrift to the rise of Enlightenment ideals — 5-year-olds can soak up a lot. When you finally get to the Reign of Terror, culminate the lecture by grabbing the punch bowl and saying, “And then France was drenched in rivers of blood” as you pour the contents onto the patio with enough force to slosh through the entire audience. Kids are used to being sticky and they will squeal with delight at seeing an adult spill something for once. I’ve found that cherry Kool-Aid best approximates the color, although you can also use Fruit Punch Gatorade.
Fourth, party favors can make or break the experience; they’re what the kids will remember from the occasion. Don’t settle for tiny French flags—it’s been done a million times. Instead, how about miniature guillotines that really work? You can get a pack of 30 for $19.99 (www.executeness.com), and they’re perfect for encouraging more healthy snacking. Children who normally turn up their noses at carrots or celery suddenly can’t get enough when they get to chop them into bits themselves. The tiny devices work with many other foods as well—try string cheese or Slim Jims, for example. At a neighborhood party I attended last year, a 5-year-old boy actually “beheaded” Tootsie Roll Pops and handed out the heads to all the guests.
Fifth, the kids will be disappointed if you don’t have at least one or two re-enactments. Tell them your “Bastille” (the kitchen cabinet) needs to be stormed by the entire group so they can liberate some cupcakes. When the group finds only five cupcakes, you can drive home the lesson that the real Bastille was mostly empty that fateful day. (This has the potential to get a little ugly, so make sure you read the mood of the crowd beforehand.) Or re-create the famous Thermidorian Reaction, with your son, the gracious host, volunteering to be Robespierre. Kids will clamor for their turn to scream at him, “The blood of Danton is choking you!” As a capper, let them load Robespierre onto a wheelbarrow “tumbrel” and parade him around the yard.
After this excitement, calm your young charges by reading from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, alternating between English and French. Some may use this as naptime, but most will be bursting with questions about popular sovereignty and the influences of John Locke and the American Revolution. Do your best to satisfy their curiosity, but if you don’t know the answer to something, don’t try to fake it—kids can see right through that kind of phoniness.
Once they’re fully rested, hand them a sponge and show them how to scrub the “blood” off the patio to celebrate the goddess Reason and to remove the stain of violence from the Republic. This little task will make them feel invested in the success of the party.
The final event is obvious: Let them eat cake! If you’re ambitious, you can serve it dressed as Marie you-know-who. Just make sure each “peasant” gets a fair portion or you may find a barricade in your driveway!
As you can see, a little planning can give the youngsters an exhilarating experience without breaking the bank. The kids will dream of executions for months, and the neighbors will speak of little else. And you can take deep satisfaction in the knowledge that, thanks partly to you, these kids will grow up to love and respect the French as much as they love us.