The French Revolution's answer to Christmas and Easter.
Some parties are fun, others are un-missable “cultural experiences.” The strange and exotic festivals held during the French Revolution would have to fall in the latter category. There was one particular event — the Fête de l’Être Suprême, or Festival of the Supreme Being — that was easily the most bizarre. Held during the height of the Terror, with the guillotine casting its gruesome shadow over Paris, it was a giant street party organized to celebrate fraternity and fuzzy warm feelings. It may not have been a barrel of laughs — at least not intentionally — but it was definitely something to see.
The Revolution, the Catholic Church had organized France’s hectic calendar of festivities. But from the moment the Bastille was stormed in 1789, patriots had been stripping away old religious traditions. Priests and nuns were arrested and often butchered, churches and monasteries looted, the holidays of Christmas, Easter and saints’ days all cancelled. This “de-christianization” made way for new and invented traditions, some of them notably loopy: the venerable Notre Dame cathedral was renamed the Temple of Reason, with Greek columns erected inside and an actresses instructed to flit about in white robe as Liberty. An entirely new calendar replaced the Gregorian anno domini system — its years dated from Year I of the Republic (1793) when the heads of state had rolled. The 10 months were renamed to match agricultural patterns, like Germinal (Month of the Seed), Floréal (Month of the Flower) and Messidor (Month of the Harvest). True patriots, whether inspired or intimidated by these changes, began to name their children Dandelion or Rhubarb. Under the rational new metric system, even time itself went decimal: Each hour was now 100 minutes, clocks followed 10-hour cycles and French people worked 10-day weeks, while other Europeans scratched their heads.
The infamous Maximilian de Robespierre — the skeletal, puritanical radical who had become virtual dictator — knew that religious feeling could not be so easily eradicated amongst the common people. (Soldiers needed to march through Paris banging drums to force shops to open on Sundays). As a compromise, he rejected atheism and ordered the creation of a whole new creed presided over by the Supreme Being. The invented religion based on the eternal laws of Nature, with its own pseudo-classical rituals and new schedule of festivals. Many of these fabricated celebrations were tawdry, low budget and frankly rather dull. But the Festival of the Supreme Being, planned for 20th Prairial, Year II (June 8, 1794, to us — the old feast of Pentecost) was anything but.
Scoring an Invitation: Hardly an exclusive affair, this was one party invitation you didn’t want to refuse — particularly if you were a fallen aristocrat now working as a waiter, dishwasher, or street cleaner in Paris. Even ambivalence to the event could have dire consequences: Since early 1793, the guillotine had been cranking away with increased efficiency every day, and thousands of counter-revolutionaries were crowded into the Conciergerie prison, wondering when they would be “shaved by the national razor” in today’s Place de la Concorde. Nor were the victims only nobles. The list of 2,780 Parisians eventually executed — which is still posted in an honor roll inside the Conciergerie — includes butchers, bakers, washerwomen and seamstresses alike.
Pre-party Planning: For weeks beforehand, music teachers held singing lessons in the streets of Paris, making sure citizens knew the words to the new Hymn to the Supreme Being. Any able-bodied men not already drafted into the army had to build the sets designed by the official artist, Jacques-Louis David. As the happy day neared, fresh flowers and oak branches were brought from the countryside to decorate the streets; whole banks of roses perfumed the air. You’d think that the hovering presence of the secret police, informers and agents provocateurs would put a damper on any genuine revelry. But surviving letters and diaries suggest that most Parisians, especially bourgeois families with a little surplus cash, felt surprisingly safe. Many citizens had actually grown indifferent to the bloodshed: They barely noticed the tumbril carts of ashen-faced victims trundling down the ritzy Rue Saint-Honoré and returning with headless corpses piled high and blood trailing behind.
What to Wear: Even fashion was political. A loud splash of red, white, and blue should be incorporated somewhere in the outfit — a sash, a fan, gloves garters, or cockade in the hat. Most clothing was far from chic: Men wore hip-length worker’s jackets, women plain dresses with high neck-lines and practical shoes (although one of David’s followers argued that French girls should dress stripped to the waist like the Spartan heroines of old and thus reveal their “natural beauty”).
Party Progress: On the day of the gala event, the Supreme Being had certainly blessed the weather: The 20th Prairal dawned as a perfectly clear, seductively warm spring day. Thousands arrived early to occupy the bleachers before the Tuilleries Gardens. The event proper began at 8 am with choral singing by 2,400 patriotic volunteers, including a passionate rendition of “La Marseillaise.” The audience burst into applause when Robespierre leapt onto the stage, smartly dressed in a sky-blue coat with red lapels. The dictator gave a rousing speech about the benefits of the new religion, then solemnly set fire to a giant papier-mâché figure of Atheism. Robespierre then led the procession off the stage and towards the Champ de Mars, or Field of Mars; behind him came a triumphal chariot pulled by eight oxen with their horns painted gold, young girls in white lawn dresses bearing baskets of fruit, and happy mothers with arms full of roses.
At the second venue, citizens were greeted by another impressive sight: An enormous mountain had been built from cardboard, plaster, and wood. At its peak was a statue of Hercules representing the invincible People of France and holding an image of Liberty in his hand. Robespierre bounded up the scenic landscape, flanked by the baffled deputies of the Convention bearing sheaves of wheat, and proceeded to lead the People in a string of new Republican rituals, where old men blessed children and virgins promised to only marry patriotic war heroes. This formal side of the party climaxed at 7 pm with the Hymn to Divinity. As one otherwise enraptured adolescent, known only as Emilie C noted in her diary, “we were (by now) dying of hunger, thirst, and fatigue.”
The Menu: Good citizens were expected to attend a “fraternal supper” — a patriotic block party, in which everyone brought a dish to share while sitting in the streets. Choosing the plate could be stressful: The bourgeois Madame Rataud worried that if she brought pheasant, she would be thought too upper-crust, but that if she brought cheap haricots verts, the rabble would accuse her of hoarding food. (In the end, she brought both, to the approval of all). If they were lucky, diners got a few mouthfuls of wine; there was no silverware, so they ate with fingers while dogs darted between their feet for the scraps. One unimpressed observer, Edmé Mommet, found the fraternal meals grotesque, discovering “amid symptoms of gaiety, conversation of cannibals.”
The After-Party: The spectacle of Robespierre strutting about as the prophet of the Supreme Being fueled suspicion that he was power-mad. There were even mutterings in the crowd: “The little wretch!” one sans-culotte famously yelled as the dictator climbed the faux mountain. “He’s not satisfied with being top dog. He wants to be God Almighty as well!” (Nobody caught or even reprimanded him.) Robespierre himself was oblivious to this: Two days after the festival, he passed a motion giving his Committee of Public Safety the power to order executions without trial, pushing the Terror into full throttle. The guillotine began clocking an average of more than 26 victims a day, with some hitting 50. After about six weeks of this, Parisians had had enough. A mob stormed Robespierre’s house on July 27; in an apparent suicide attempt, he took a bullet in the jaw. The next day, howling in bestial agony, the dictator himself was sent to the “national razor” along with his closest associates. In the following weeks, political prisoners were released by the thousands and replaced with Robespierre’s supporters; some time early the next year, the guillotine was mothballed. • 10 June 2009
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Castelot, André, The Turbulent City, Paris 1783-1871 (New York, 1961); Robiquet, Jean, Daily Life in the French Revolution, (New York, 1965); Schama, Simon, Citizens (New York, 1990).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.