Well, I should say celebrating, not partying. I hope you have something fun planned for the Glorious Fourth.
If you aren’t used to an old-fashioned Fourth of July, an impromptu gathering with a few other families can work, or just your own family — you just need watermelon, something to grill, and a few games — even simply throwing water balloons fits the bill. Badminton, volleyball, horseshoes — if you want to get fancy. All American.
I’m remembering how I used to think of Independence Day. Fireworks and the above-described party, perhaps. Phil’s parents, whom we lived near for many years, had a rather staid commemoration of the day — one which included salmon and peas (a traditional New England Fourth menu, and I hadn’t heard of it either) eaten in the dining room, and the hanging of a small replica of the Declaration of Independence from the fireplace mantel with some scotch tape.
As we visited, I thought further back to big barbecues at the state parks in the South where my non-American father lived with my stepmother. In those days, immigrants were few, and welcomed by the hospitality of a people firmly confident in their own traditions, enough so that they were only interested– really, enthusiastically eager — to know more about the culture of their guests.
On the Fourth, though, these folks good-naturedly included us in their unselfconscious celebration, which, however, did not include any lore or reference to causes — only fun and food. Looking back, I think I detect in them a sense of retaining the instinct to rejoice, but only the instinct. The collective memory — the knowledge of the particulars that cause the celebration — wasn’t passed along. Maybe they thought the schools were doing that part of the task. I can see how those same people, forty-five years on, might be unsure of how it has come to be that certain precious things no longer exist.
At this moment we are at a crisis of liberty. It’s not enough to drink lemonade and hold a sparkler. But just getting angry — or worse, despairing — doesn’t fix anything. And certainly only talking about what’s important might make us think, but it’s not actually doing anything about the situation.
Remember, I’m that rootless person who has spent my life trying to build things from scratch, with only a few scraps from the lumberyard — little pieces of memory and information pounded together to form some sort of structure. I saw the little Declaration posted there on the mantel, I ate my salmon and peas, I thought of those Southern softball games and hot dogs. Of course there are the many books I’ve read; that’s how I learn a lot of things, as we know. But translating into my here-and-now life can be tricky.
Thanks to friends whose gatherings are more centered on the building of culture rather than only preserving its outward manifestations, one day it all clicked — what we should do to build this part of our culture — the part where we attend to the human side of how we live together in freedom.
We should have games, we should flip burgers, we should have salmon and peas, and we should not only display but actually read the Declaration of Independence with our children! And talk about it! And tell stories about how it came to be!
So, somehow, that day more than a decade ago, it became dear Sukie’s job to write out the whole thing on one of those rolls of paper I happened to have.
I don’t think any of us had really internalized how long it is (yet how short for such an important work of human genius, the foundation of our freedom!), and it took her quite a while. I mean, I think she in particular now knows how long it is!
I think that if I had to do it over, I might give each child a section, to spare any one child from such onerous work. Be that as it may, she did it. Just as in the original, there are mistakes. Don’t sweat over those. It’s just fine. Actually, I think she did a beautiful job (how did she keep all the lines so straight!).
Every year, we try to gather with friends and family. We try to have a nice party — low key and fun. And we give an older child, usually the oldest boy of the hosting family, the task of reading the whole thing in a nice, loud voice to the assembly. Shouts of “hear hear!” and huzzahs (or boos at the appropriate moments, such as the recounting of the wrongs inflicted by foreign tyrants) are encouraged. (And you need someone with a steady arm to hold the thing up for the reader!)
When the reading is over, the signers, from the littlest pen-wielder to the eldest, pledge in ink their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
Of course, it’s hardly a celebration without music, so as it gets dark, it’s wonderful to sing patriotic songs, maybe around a bonfire with marshmallows! You can look them up online for the lyrics, or here is our own for you to print out.
I realize you may be short on time for writing out your own copy. It would be perfectly fine to use a printed copy this year, and then put it in the handwriting and history class in the coming year to produce a document of your own for your friends to sign. You could have a removable portion at the bottom for the signatures. If your children are very young, maybe Dad could read it out for a few years.
It’s fine to ask the children to listen quietly to the ringing words, even if they don’t quite understand them. Hold the toddler on your lap. Ask the children to sit down.
In coming years, they will know it well, especially if you read it occasionally at other times, and even set them to memorizing the first bit. It’s good to know by heart that “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary,” and then discuss the particulars (imagine if you had to feed and house a troop of soldiers from another country!).
Stay with it. The important things are the work of years, not the assignments of a day. Civic lessons are one thing, necessary of course. But celebration is what fixes the meaning. With love and patience we can recover our patrimony and raise a new generation to love freedom!
*Updated to answer the question of whether guests sign every year: I usually say something like, “If you haven’t signed in the past, please do today!” just because the space on our document is limited. But I think kids from previous years like to “do a better job” on their signature, and that’s fine with me!