People all around the world are familiar with the idea of Independence Day, also known as the Fourth of July, not least of all thanks to the many appearances it has made in movies and television shows, such as the alien invasion action film Independence Day, or the military drama Born on the 4th of July. But what is the holiday really all about?
As most people know, the thirteen original American colonies were primarily settled by British citizens, and were subject to the rule of the British monarchy. After a year of revolution, however, the Declaration of Independence was signed on the 4th of July, 1776, symbolizing our freedom from British control. This famous declaration was drafted and signed by the most important politicians of the day, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, and represented the birth of the American nation as it is today. After the Declaration was signed, colonists in Philadelphia celebrated with concerts, parades, public readings of the document, and even mock funerals for King George III, meant to represent the permanency of the separation between America and Great Britain. Over the next few years, celebrations spread to the majority of the large cities in America, and in 1870 the 4th of July was officially declared a federal holiday. [i]
It’s safe to say that I’ve never seen a mock funeral for a member of the British monarchy as part of the 4th of July celebrations, and indeed for most people, the heavily political side of the holiday has largely faded away. These days, the 4th of July is a day to celebrate American history and traditions, and to take pride in the qualities that make Americans who we are today. More than anything else, it’s a chance to spend time with family and friends, usually with a variety of outdoor celebrations.
All across the nation, people take the 4th of July as a chance to put their patriotism on display, with flags, streamers, and red, white, and blue house decorations. Most cities and towns will host a 4th of July parade in the morning or early afternoon to kick off the celebrations. Participants in these parades can include local branches of the military, local fire and police departments, schools, sports teams, gymnastics or dance clubs, cheerleaders, and the ever-popular marching band playing patriotic tunes such as “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” Later on, there may be a village picnic, organized outdoor games next to the town hall, ice cream and cotton candy, and, of course, fireworks! Depending on the size of the town, the evening’s fireworks show could last as long as 1 or 2 hours, and is often accompanied by recorded music or even a live orchestra. For people who choose to stay at home, there are always sparklers or smaller-scale fireworks to set off yourself.
As for the rest of the day, we mostly spend it eating! Food is a very important part of the 4th of July, as it is with any other American holiday. Many people host barbecues at their homes or at nearby parks or beaches, with the all-American hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad. A lot of people also embrace the red, white, and blue theme, creating America-centered cakes, vegetable trays, or even drinks. Most of the time, parties will be in the form of a potluck, where each guest brings a different main course, drink, or dessert to share with everyone else.
Of course, what’s an American holiday without some quirky regional traditions? In addition to the usual parades, fireworks, and barbecues, here are a few towns that put their own spin on Fourth of July celebrations every year.
The city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, prides itself on holding the first 4th of July parade of the year, by starting their annual celebrations at midnight on July 3rd. [ii] People start setting up their chairs along the parade route as early as 7:00 in the morning on July 3rd, and the parade itself extends for over a mile. This year will be the 41st edition of the midnight parade, and will honor military veterans and other US military heroes. The town of Gatlinburg is expecting their parade to draw more than 100,000 spectators! [iii]
Also on the East Coast, in South Carolina, this year will mark the 7th anniversary of the creation of the “Salute from the Shore.” During this event, vintage and modern military aircraft fly the length of the South Carolina coast and people are invited to stand on the shoreline with signs and flags to “salute” the aircraft pilots, all of whom are current or former members of the military. This event is held to honor the men and women who have served the United States of America and helped fight for our freedom.[iv]
The seaside town of Bar Harbor, Maine, has a lighter take on the 4th of July celebrations. Since 1978, the Young Men’s Christian Association has held a day’s worth of races- but there are no horses or greyhounds here! Instead, local businesses pay over 200 dollars to sponsor and name a lobster, and then attendees bet a dollar a piece on which lobster they think will win the race. The event raises funds for the town, and people enjoy the chance to celebrate the 4th in a light-hearted, family-friendly way.[v]
And finally, what’s more American than the 4th of July? Celebrating the 4th of July in New York City with a hot dog eating contest! That’s right, on the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Coney Island, New York, the main restaurant of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs hosts the annual International Hot Dog Eating Contest. The contest, which has been going on for a hundred years, attracts thousands of audience members, and is the culmination of a series of hot dog eating contest events held throughout the country in the spring and early summer. Last year’s winner ate 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes! [vi]
All in all, the 4th of July is a chance to celebrate America for the proud, independent, and diverse country that it is. Each state, town, and family has their own way of celebrating the holiday, and I hope you’ve enjoyed having a chance to learn about some of our traditions.
Have you ever been in the USA for the 4th of July? Which of these traditions do you think you’d most enjoy celebrating if you had a chance to visit in the summer? Let me know what you think in the comments down below!