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Picnics, parades and barbecues dominate the Fourth of July, when America commemorates its freedom from the British. To top off the festive summer day, fireworks light up the night nationwide.
Text: Maggie Dickmann
Country: USA
Photos by: Lisa Young, Nick Ritter, and James Richman

or more than 150 years the British ruled their American colonies from across the Atlantic Ocean. By 1775, however, the colonists had had enough, and the Revolutionary War began. In 1776 five men, often fondly referred to as the “founding fathers” of the United States drafted the most important document of American history: The Declaration of Independence. The war continued until 1783, but the United States’ Independence Day is officially recognized as July 4 because it was on that date in 1776 that the first representative from the “thirteen original colonies” signed the declaration.

Now, nearly 250 years later, citizens from all 50 states celebrate Independence Day, or the Fourth of July. Because of its obvious patriotic significance, it’s a federal holiday in the United States. A day free from work smack dab in the middle of summer means picnics, cookouts, and other outdoor festivities to celebrate.

Meredith Scalos of Campbellsville, Kentucky, spoke of her small city’s celebration with tender affection. Campbellsville is small, only about 10,000 inhabitants, but its Fourth of July festival is huge. She said the town shuts down because all the business owners and shoppers are downtown at the city-organized parade.

“You see everyone you’ve probably ever known [and] catch up with people you haven’t seen in ages,” she said. The streets are packed with booths and merchants selling all sorts of goodies. Local politicians can be counted on to come down to “press the flesh,” or shake hands, with the townspeople. There are hot air balloons, live music, face painting, and competitions of nearly every variety. On July 3rd, a children’s parade, where judges pick the best float, takes place. The main parade is held on Independence Day, an all-day affair with a firework display at the end.

Since I could remember, we would always pack up the car, go downtown and literally tailgate for the parade, if we weren’t in it already,” Scalos said. “[We would] go downtown at about 8 in the morning.” She said the town moves as one unit to the nearby lake, where residents crane their necks to watch the fireworks. Scalos continued, “[We] wouldn’t get home until 10 p.m. or later, likely sunburned but happy.”

Scalos mentions a popular American pastime: tailgating. Tailgating is like a big picnic, except instead of blankets, there are cars and trucks. It gets its name from the tailgate, which is the hinged flap at the back of a truck bed. Common before sports games and big festivals like the Campbellsville Fourth of July parade, people park their vehicles in a parking lot or field and pop open the trunks of their cars or open up the tailgates of their trucks. People unpack lawn chairs and enjoy food and drink from their informal tables—the backs of their automobiles.

Scalos explained that the city takes its Independence Day parade very seriously. The county fair is the first week of June, so many of the award winners get to march or ride in the parade. The parade is also open to local clubs and teams, like Kiwanis and the high school marching band. She said there are even a few fun pageantry floats included. Scalos’s family has marched in the parade a few times because they were members of the Future Farmers of America. She laments that she doesn’t have a photo of the time she proudly led a cow in the parade.

When she thinks of the Campbellsville Fourth of July parade, Scalos swells with pride. “There is a kind of kinship involved that’s hard to explain. Even as someone who hasn’t been able to go for the past few years because I’ve been out of town, I know that whenever I’m in town I could go down to the Fourth of July events and be right at home,” she said. “It’s really a huge testament to how tight-knit the community is, and while there are some negatives to that kind of lifestyle, it’s impressive in its own way.”

Josh Elam of Louisville, Kentucky, has fond memories of his childhood Fourth of July celebrations as well. He grew up in London, Kentucky, and remembers his mom taking him and a couple of friends across the state line to Jellico, Tennessee, to purchase fireworks. Driving around to nearby towns in search of various firework stands became a tradition in itself. Elam said, “They had better fireworks there—the kind that you could shoot in the air and whatnot—not the kind you could find in a variety pack from Wal-Mart.”

Elam and his friends would shoot them off in his backyard or at the top of the hill in his subdivision. “The neighbors would gather around for it. It was never a disturbance; it was something people wanted to see,” he explained. Like Campbellsville, London has a city-organized firework display, but Elam preferred to orchestrate his own show because it was much more fun than watching from a field a mile away.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington, where fireworks of all kinds, even simple sparklers, are illegal. So the Fourth of July celebrations of my youth were a bit different than those in Kentucky. My parents used to take my siblings and me downtown to Riverfront Park, where all the festivals in my hometown are held. There would be food vendors and usually live music, and other activities before the fireworks show. As a family we would get some snacks and sit on a grassy hill and “ooh” and “aah” as the sky above the Spokane River lit up with bright colors. The display would go on for 20 to 30 minutes, ending with a finale of several fast and loud explosions. I would always have to plug my ears for that part.

One year when I was very young my parents tried to trick my siblings and me by not mentioning the date. As we were going to bed my older sister said, “Wait a minute! It’s the fourth of July!” Caught red-handed, my parents piled us all into the van and we drove to a cliff that overlooks the city. We weren’t downtown at Riverfront Park where all the festivities were happening, but it was just as much fun for us to sit on the hood of the van in our pajamas and watch in awe the fireworks as they exploded over the city.

My mother, June, grew up in Spokane as well. Because small fireworks weren’t yet banned, she and her siblings would save their pennies, nickels, and dimes to purchase sparklers and fountains to set off in their front yard. A fountain firework gets its name because it resembles a water fountain when it’s lit, except instead of water spraying from the base it’s a shower of extremely bright sparks. She said that every year her mother would tell the kids that she wasn’t going to pay for any fireworks, so they’d need to save their own money. But without fail right before the children ran out the door to the nearby stand, her mother would give them a couple of dollars to buy the big variety box.

Usually they’d have a small barbecue, eat some apple or cherry pie, play with the sparklers and fountains, and then go to bed. Dickmann said that it wasn’t until fireworks became illegal in Washington that the city-organized celebration at Riverfront Park became popular. Before that, the Fourth of July was a small affair at home with a couple of friends.

No matter where the celebrations occur, a central theme across the country is fireworks. They have been a staple of the holiday since its inception. In fact, in a letter to his wife, Abigail, John Adams, one of the five authors of the Declaration of Independence, wrote of the date, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more”.

Adams was not to be disappointed. On July 4, 1777, the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated with fireworks.

Fact Box:

· 268.4 million pounds of fireworks were consumed in the USA in 2016. That’s nearly one pound of fireworks per person.

· July 4th wasn’t declared an official federal holiday by Congress until 1870, nearly a century after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

· The oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in the USA is the Fourth of July Parade in Bristol, Rhode Island. It began in 1785.




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Celebrating Independence, U.S. Style


In 1776 the United States of America declared independence from England. The Revolutionary War lasted until 1783, but the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, 1776. Therefore the official Independence Day of the US is recognized as July 4th.

Meredith Scalos of Campbellsville, Kentucky loves to go downtown to watch the parade and tailgate with friends and family. Tailgating is like a big picnic, except instead of blankets, there are cars and trucks. Its name comes from the tailgate, which is the hinged flap at the back of a truck bed. When she thinks of the Campbellsville Fourth of July parade with all its floats, she swells up with pride. She even marched in it with her family when she was young.

John Elam of Louisville, Kentucky also has fond memories of his childhood Fourth of July celebrations. His mom would take him and his friends across the state line to Jellico, Tennessee to buy fireworks. "They had better fireworks there," he says. Elam and his friends would shoot off the fireworks in his backyard or at the top of the hill in his subdivision. And all the neighbors would gather around to see the show.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. There, fireworks of every kind are illegal, even simple sparklers. My mom would take me and my siblings to the large celebration at Riverfront Park. There were vendors, live music, and other activities. As a family we would sit on a grassy hill and admire the city's fireworks display over the Spokane River.

Throughout the US, people celebrate the Fourth of July in different ways, but nearly everyone celebrates with fireworks. Even the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1777 was celebrated with fireworks.

 

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Celebrating Independence, U.S. Style

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4th of July

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