Only in America

Be swept up in parades, patriotism and pie at Washington, DC’s Fourth of July celebrations.

At Washington, DC’s Bread Furst Bakery, a man is lining up to buy star-shaped cookies in red, white and blue. “Americans love two things,” he says.  “Pageantry and patriotism.” It’s true, and on the eve of the Independence Day celebrations there is no finer time to witness these two things collide.

In major cities and tiny towns all across the country, the Fourth of July is an elaborate and feverish celebration of American independence; it’s a day that symbolises the country’s hard-fought freedom, with a side order of colourful parades, barbecues, pies, fireworks displays and baseball games.

It has been 240 years since Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, a list of grievances against King George III of England that justified breaking away from the mother country and becoming an independent nation. This is the country’s most famous document, prominently sealed by the signature of one John Hancock, his penmanship so elaborate his name would become colloquial for requesting an autograph in busy offices everywhere. “I guess King George will be able to read that,” he announced after surveying his tidy work.

Today, the Declaration is housed in the nation’s capital, Washington, DC - arguably the most patriotic place to celebrate Independence Day. This is a city that’s never short on excuses for a parade, with plenty of long avenues on which to host them. The crowds that line the street for the annual July spectacular wear red, white and blue, cheer for marching bands, wave at oversized, inflated cartoon characters and solemnly place their hands over their hearts when the national anthem plays.

Celebrations also take place in what’s fondly referred to as ‘America’s front yard’, DC’s National Mall. It’s a grand expanse of green national park in the heart of the world’s most powerful city. Vast monuments to past wars (Vietnam and WWII), American heroes (Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr) and a selection of renowned Smithsonian museums line the space. On this holiday it truly has a front yard atmosphere, albeit a large one, with about 700,000 people spread out on picnic rugs, their eskies overflowing with typical Independence Day fare: potato salads, homemade corn bread, cherry pies and iced tea.

There’s a more serious side to the celebrations, of course. While the day marks the cutting of ties with the English, it is also a chance to commemorate other conflicts in which America has been involved, and appreciate the freedoms that citizens enjoy today. For many, this day is a time to reflect on the price of that freedom. “Thank you for your service” is a common refrain of parade-goers as they pass military personnel working as security detail during the event. There is a sincere reverence held for those who serve their country in the armed forces.

America’s festival of freedom is a time when locals take only one thing more seriously than their allegiance to their country and that is their barbecue. “No one has friends over to microwave,” says a veteran brandishing oversized tongs as he works the grill, flipping burgers. “Today is one of the best parts of the summer,” he says. “You’re outdoors, away from work and with your family.”

It’s certainly a food-focused day, with supermarket chains around the country pumping out flag-themed cakes, and bars hosting rowdy eating contests, the most well-known of which is Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Held about four hours north of DC at New York’s Coney Island, it’s a tradition that started back on 4 July, 1916, when, according to legend, four immigrants settled an argument about who was the most patriotic by seeing who could consume the most hot dogs. There’s no official record of how many dogs went down that day but the tradition spread country-wide. Fair warning: participating in these competitions isn’t for the faint-hearted - last year’s winner ate 62 of the torpedo-shaped snacks in just 10 minutes.

But no matter how you choose to celebrate, there is a real feeling of goodwill in the air. Strangers chat and share snacks as they queue around the block at the National Archives Museum, where visitors wait to catch a glimpse of the Declaration of Independence. American comedian and author Erma Bombeck summed up the spirit of the day (and the indigestion that surely follows) when she said, “You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every 4 July, not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”

When the parades are done, the picnic baskets are emptied and the afternoon lulls before the night-time fireworks set in, there’s always time to fit in one more all-American pursuit - baseball. All the major league teams play on this day each year, wearing customised uniforms to mark the occasion. Stadiums reach capacity, with veterans and active military invited to watch the game for a discounted price or even for free. A flag ceremony kicks off proceedings and traditional team chants are intermittently replaced by cries of “USA! USA!”.

The flag is the great symbol of the day and it flies from front porches, public buildings, supermarkets and restaurants. Its nickname, ‘Old Glory’ derives from the flag of Civil War sea captain William Driver. Driver was so worried the Confederates would get their hands on his beloved flag, he had it sewn into the inside of his quilt. Before he died he said, “I love this flag like a mother loves a child”. Driver’s Old Glory is still on display at Washington DC’s National Museum of American History, a stone’s throw from where the Fourth of July parade happens each year.

Like the events of the day, it’s a story that’s serious and frivolous, patriotic and personal. It’s a day best summed up by Thomas Jefferson: “All men… are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Sarah Oakes - Published in Voyeur July 2016
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 600,000 (City) 5.4m (Metro)
Time Zone UTC -5
Languages English (official), Spanish, Native American
Currency American Dollar ($USD)
Electricity 110v - 60Hz
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