Once upon a time in America, the Fourth of July was a holiday celebrated both in action and in spirit, a single day in which gratuitous swooning about the flag was ubiquitous. It was also a holiday on which the celebration was shared by neighbors and families, their faces and personalities known to us.
In many parts of the country, the neighborhood Fourth of July fireworks display is now either outlawed or an anachronism, cast aside in the perceived cause of safety. In response to the irresponsibility of a minority of fireworks users, the ‘burbs have been kicking the Fourth of July out of town for nearly 20 years, some compromising with allowing larger pyrotechnic displays dependent on private sponsorship and needing the stamp of government approval to proceed.
When imposing fireworks bans, city councils have always been quick to remind citizens that corporate displays still offer a fun and festive way to celebrate Independence Day, but in the fine print of that exchange is the headache-inducing struggle that comes with any family outing to a crowded metropolitan scene. For many families, the net result is often to forgo any celebration of note, a decision that leaves today’s children missing out on one of the experiences that most serves to bond them with their own American identity.
Our youngest generation is losing an important event in their civic maturation. In our quest to protect ourselves from any sort of harm, we have watered down the power of a holiday that had long been a day of renewal for adults and an induction for children in what it means to be an American.
Much like children raised in the Christian faith connect most with their religion during the celebrations of Easter and Christmas—the days on the child’s calendar in which theology, scripture and fun collide and have the greatest potential to shape their beliefs—the hundreds of recited Pledges of Allegiance, streamlined history lessons, and paintings of old dead white men performing gallant feats take on greater significance when coupled with the celebration of Independence Day.
For me, my confirmation as an American came in the 1970s during a grand deflowering of our national innocence, the swift erosion in our faith in government commencing with acts by a disgraceful president (Pres. Nixon) and ending with a disgraceful presidency (Pres. Carter). I was a school-age child for most of the decade, reciting my Pledge each morning, grabbing pieces of American history and folklore in my lessons, and paying close attention to the way the adults around me—grandparents whose membership in the Greatest Generation could not be missed—revered the national institutions that younger generations were working hard to tear down. But it was the Fourth of July that provided a context grand enough in a troubling time of what it was to be an American.
Coming as the holiday does in summer months when whole families and neighborhoods had the time to gather, the celebration of our nation’s spiritual birth was an event shared by people I knew, and in seeing and feeling their love for the country I learned what it was to be an American.
My memories are likely not different from those of many in my generation. A day of picnicking and cavorting in the sun would draw to a close as the light in the sky above faded. It was the one day of the year that nightfall was greeted with giddy anticipation. Fathers in plaid shorts and golf shirts bent down carefully to light fuses while their brood—assembled in lawn chairs and on blankets—anxiously awaited the payoff. Dad did not wait for a corporation to fund his extravaganza, nor did he need the government’s green light to set alight the fuse, he did it himself and his family honored liberty while simultaneously exercising it.
For me, the loud booms and colorful crackling fire that followed each July 4th became fused in my memory with the sight of dancing lights sparkling in the eyes of the people I knew and looked up to, a visceral moment that joined together so many intangible elements of what America is. It is a moment many of today’s children will never experience, and that should cause us great concern for the future.
We should consider carefully the full impact of these ordinances not only in terms of the illusory shield they offer against harm (those who are most apt to use fireworks irresponsibly are also those most likely to ignore the law), but in how they alter the relationship future generations have with their country.
[photo credit: flickr]