There were very specific signs that signaled the approaching
July 4th holiday when I was a kid. One was the appearance of
sparklers for sale in the local department store. They came in a
cardboard box, probably 20 to a box. Sparklers were the
extent of fireworks at my house, though we knew the neighbors would
treat us to a late-night show of bottle rockets, sizzlers, snakes,
Roman candles and, of course, lots and lots of packages of
The other sign that July 4th was around the corner was the onset
of Kraft commercials. These were a precursor to infomercials.
They lasted for several minutes and provided instruction for a
holiday recipe. It may have been the Pigs in a Blanket appetizers
or a colorful gel mold. No matter the recipe, it always seemed to
require cream cheese, Velveeta or some other infamous Kraft
product. And then there was the traditional holiday cake episode.
With the ingenious use of food coloring and assorted berries, it
looked like an American flag flying over amber waves of grain.
My mother was an awesome cook albeit not a gourmet cook. She was
the queen of comfort food, but there were no Martha Stewart-type
presentations to any of her meals. "Cutesy" simply had no place in
my mother's kitchen, not even on holidays.
There would be no red, white and blue food items on our picnic
table. No Jello molds, no red and white striped cookies and no flag
cakes. The most extravagant my mom would get was to stick tooth
pick flags into her plain chocolate and vanilla iced cupcakes.
Our house was the gathering place for my mother's extended
family on July 4th. We lived in the "country" - Long Island. The
rest of the family traipsed in from "the boroughs." Basically, the
determining factor was that we were the only ones with a
Aunts, uncles and cousins arrived, each knowing their job for
the day. One of the uncles prepared the grill, building an
architectural tower of charcoal briquettes over wadded up
newspaper. He would douse the creation in lighter fluid and allow
it to "set." An hour later all it would take was the toss of one
wooden match for it to light. The other uncles hammered the
horseshoe pegs into place and set out the coolers filled with
drinks on ice.
The aunts all scurried to the kitchen, unloading the potato and
macaroni salads they had prepared. Bags of chips and pretzels were
poured into bowls, and desserts were laid on the counter for later.
And they all talked - at the same time - somehow still managing to
hear every word.
The cousins gathered together for games. Croquet, badminton,
kickball in the street. If it was exceptionally hot, we changed
into bathing suits and the sprinkler got turned on.
The holiday was meant to celebrate our independence, our
freedom. My dad and my uncles didn't need to celebrate our
independence, they lived it every day; they had all fought in the
"big one" and had the stories, medals and emotional scars to prove
it. There were no worries in their heads about terrorists, or any
more attacks on US soil. It would never happen again on their
watch. This day was about enjoying family, food and fireworks. It
was a remembrance that we lived in the greatest country in the
Somewhere, somehow, the July 4th holiday lost its meaning and
Today, it means different things to different people, shaped by
opinions that may be generational or political. The Vietnam War,
9/11, political divisions and a host of other factors have iced the
holiday with a heavy, and sometimes bitter, frosting. When I was a
kid, every house on the street flew a flag on July 4th. At 59, I
still shudder at the sight of an American flag being burned, unable
to wrap my head around the motivation to deface such a reverent
symbol of our country.
As I started to write this article, I performed the typical
author's initial research - I googled it. I read the history
behind the holiday, early celebration rituals and the fact that the
holiday has lost some of its meaning. Like Christmas, Thanksgiving,
Easter and other holidays rooted in religion or history, July 4th
has gone commercial. Its true meaning has become muddled and
traditions are being lost.
Though we may no longer see Kraft recipe commercials, we will
see flag-emblazoned hats, t-shirts, bathing suits and fingernails.
Fireworks outlets will ring up their best sales of the year,
(though some may worry whether any of the products they sell will
be used in a homemade bomb.) Barbecue grills will be lit, folks
will flock to the beach and families will celebrate with food and
As families and friends gather around the grill, the meaning of
Independence Day may be a topic of discussion. But it 's unlikely
to be about the Declaration of Independence, but rather whether or
not Edward Snowden is a traitor, should any citizen be allowed to
carry a gun, just how well does the first amendment protect our
freedom of speech and do we need immigration reform.
If you really want to throw a theme party for the 4th of July
this year, make it a citizenship party. Print out the
questions for the naturalization test and quiz your guests. Have
everyone take the Oath of Allegiance. Sing the Star Spangled banner
a capella. Read a section of the Declaration of Independence out
Yes, perhaps this idea is a little over the top. But it would be
nice to take the time to truly remember what this holiday
represents. Perhaps if we recalled what our forefathers endured in
order to claim our independence, we might feel a renewed sense of
appreciation for the freedoms and opportunities we enjoy every day.
We just might thank our lucky stars and stripes that we are
Americans. And we might recall those mighty words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness.
Happy birthday, America!