From a historical or geopolitical perspective, the Fourth of July (aka, Independence Day) marks the anniversary of the United States’ Declaration for Independence—the date in 1776 when representatives of thirteen of Britain’s American colonies severed their ties with the Mother Country and went out on their own. But from a practical perspective based on decades of celebrating the Fourth, it is mostly a time of merrymaking and forming happy memories. It is a time for summer fun and ostentatious patriotism, for parades and fireworks, for picnics and concerts, for flag waving and military bands—and an occasion for enduring the rhetoric of the latest political campaign.
Independence Day is one of a declining number of observances that are not routinely moved to the nearest Monday or Friday to accommodate a three-day weekend. As a major federal holiday, it means a day off from work for the vast majority of Americans—and that day is always on 4 July. Fireworks, barbeques and other events, however, are likely to cluster toward the nearest weekend. Somber observances such as wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery and at military cemeteries across the nation are part and parcel of the holiday. But on the whole the day has come to be filled with food, spectacle and frivolity.
As residents of Greater Washington Metropolitan Area, Himself and Yours Truly have enjoyed a number of Fourth of July extravaganzas on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Our initiation to this festive occasion was the Bicentennial Fourth of 1976, an event that is estimated to have been attended by as many as 1.8 million people. Families like ours gathered on the Mall with blankets and coolers to settle in for a day of picnics, concerts and fireworks. Some even brought along highly decorated birthday cakes or bottles of champagne to mark the nation’s 200th birthday. One couple near us dressed formally and carried in a large silver candelabra and a whole roast turkey with trimmings! Children waded happily in the Reflection Pool, and demonstrators (who were undoubtedly no less happy) supported the legalization of marijuana by committing acts of civil disobedience, weed in hand. Each year repeats the pattern, if not the scale, and for us the Fourth in DC is an event characterized by memories of fireworks bursting above the Washington Monument, the laughter of children, and massive traffic snarls created by tens of thousands of people pouring in and out of the city.
Other years have seen celebrations in local parks or at the Antietam National Battlefield, where the fireworks are preceded by a concert under the open sky by the Maryland Symphony and with the 1812 Overture punctuated by artillery fire by a local National Guard unit. Less extravagant but far more common—both for us and for most Americans—are neighborhood events characterized by small town parades and modest firework displays set off on driveway pavements, all to a chorus of oohs and aahs from those assembled. Hot dogs and hamburgers sizzle on the grill, and for the truly traditional among us, there will be homemade ice cream and a pitcher of old-fashioned lemonade to cool the thirst that accompanies a hot summer day.
Memories of the day also extend back to my own childhood, including recollections of fireworks reflected above a southwestern lake, hand-held sparklers drawing fiery patterns against the darkness, and headlong dashes to escape the explosion of strings of firecrackers. They include a small child’s frozen "bottom" acquired while sitting on a manual ice cream churn to help finalize the perfect consistency of a chilled confection. They include red, white and blue streamers thrown into the air from the floats of hometown parades, and they include legends retold of Founding Fathers who never told lies and who sought to uphold personal and political honor. And last but not least they include the remembered choruses of Yankee Doodle Dandy, America the Beautiful, and the Star-Spangled Banner.
Despite--and no doubt because of--the undercurrents of official patriotism that provide the excuse for this holiday, its most genuine symbol is a sense of freedom—political and otherwise. Like all holidays based on political events, its celebrants have been known to betray their own ideals. But when at its best, a proper appreciation of the Fourth challenges Americans to be better citizens by being better people. It is at heart a hopeful holiday that both promises and demands much of a people to whom much has been given. It reaches forward and backward, pursuing a better future while remembering the past.
© BawBaw, LovesTravel, DAnneC - 2011