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237 Years of Independence Day Celebrations
By Brianna Duff
Imagine: it is July 8th of the year 1776 and the American Revolution rages around you. You don’t believe in the English king you left behind, and you are overwhelmed by this new sense of patriotism that has defined the past few years. It is this patriotism that has you gathering eagerly with the rest of Philadelphia to hear the Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time since its being finished four days earlier. The proud tones of the Liberty Bell fade behind you.
Perhaps it was lacking in potato salad and barbeque, but this was the first Independence Day, held over 160 years before July 4th was even declared a national holiday (the 4th rather than the 8th since they celebrated the Declaration’s writing, not its reading). The 2.5 million American who saw their country born has now grown into 312 million, but our ties to the patriotism of the holiday harken back to that first reading of the Declaration. For decades after that first year, the day was remembered with presidential speeches and political steps towards patriotism, be it the mock funerals for the king following independence, the debate between the two newly-formed political parties at the end of the eighteenth century, or the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827.
These political motives are a far cry from what the 4th is to me. It is no longer politically centered, but rather is a perfect excuse to dress in red, white, and blue and eat picnics to the sound of band music and fireworks cracking. Though our first president may have balked at the color choices (they wore green thanks to the ready availability of that color), Washington and his contemporaries would still be proud of our ways of celebrating. As John Adams said, Independence Day should always be celebrated with “pomp and parade, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
And that it certainly is. My own family is very aware of this as we have taken to traveling to a number of different places over the years, from Lexington, Virginia to see the hot air balloons to Richmond’s own James River celebration.
I’ve found that everywhere in the country has their own way of celebrating. For instance, in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, they hold a parade of boats every year, where boats are painted and lit and sent across the water (a nice alternative to typical street parades). In San Francisco, they host a mime show, and in Mescalero, New Mexico, they hold coming-of-age ceremonies for teenage girls on the Mescalero Apache reservation. Then, of course, there is the famous hot dog eating contest that’s been held on Coney Island for 98 years. It is this contest in particular that I believe accounts for a large number of the estimated 150 million hot dogs that are consumed on the holiday.
My favorite celebration that I found is the Candle Lighting Ceremony held in Lititz, Pennsylvania every year. Candles are set on frames over the stream, and a girl from the local high school is crowned Queen of the Candles to reign over the so-called fairyland. The Queen lights the candles with her scouts until all 5,000 are aglow over the water and lighting up the night. I love this beautiful twist on illuminations that Adams referred to. It’s no hot-dog eating contest, but it sounds absolutely lovely.
But of course, even if your holiday doesn’t include candles and fairyland lights, it is still a wonderful day to just hold sparklers and celebrate our country in whatever way you choose. You could, as famous writer Henry Thoreau did on July 4th, 1845, move to Walden and exist in thoughtful solitude, or, you could gather with your neighbors like our ancestors did. You can hang your flag, set fireworks off in the street, and eat all the barbeque you can.
And, when they tap the Liberty Bell thirteen times in Philadelphia and all our military bases fire a salute to the Union precisely at noon, you can hold you head high and remember the people who did the same 237 years earlier.