How Much Do You Know About the 4th of July?

Every year, we dig through our closets for red, white and blue gear, throw burgers and hot dogs on the grill, and pack the family into the boat, scouring for the perfect spot on the water to catch the fireworks displays. When, where and why did these traditions begin and how else does our country celebrate its birthday?

Let’s start at the beginning – the Independence Day. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress reviewed the Declaration of Independence and voted in favor of granting America its independence from Great Britain. Many of the founding fathers thought July 2nd would be the official Independence Day. In fact, John Adams wrote in his letter to his wife, Abigail Adams, that “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.”

But the colonies did not ratify the document until two days later when it could be distributed across the colonies’ representatives. July 4, 1776, marked the day the new nation officially adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Before the Revolutionary War, the colonies celebrated their English king’s birthday with the ringing of bells, bonfires, and public speeches. Some of these traditions carried over into the first Independence Day, celebrated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as people held public readings of the Declaration of Independence and rang bells thirteen times to represent the thirteen colonies. (Today, it’s still tradition in Philadelphia to tap the liberty bell thirteen times on the Fourth.)

So how were the first Fourth celebrations different from the king’s birthday? Well, for one thing, instead of celebrating his birth, many colonists held mock funerals for King George III.

How about fireworks, feasting and drinking – where did those traditions come from?

Chinese fireworks became a crucial part of big celebrations in Western society in the 13th century, when Europe began to trade with China. Colonists even shot off fireworks toward the end of the Revolutionary War to boost morale.

There were fireworks at the first 4th of July celebrations. John Adams wrote in that same letter to Abigail that the anniversary of independence “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.”

As for the boozing, you can thank George Washington. On the 4th in 1776, he doubled the rations of rum given to all of his soldiers.

4th of July celebrations spread across the country and became more popular after the War of 1812. In 1870, the U.S. Congress made the 4th of July a federal holiday, though it wasn’t recognized as a national holiday until 1941. In the late 18th and 19th century, Americans celebrated the fourth with parades, readings of the Declaration of Independence, and town feasts. Which is why we now celebrate with modern day feasts of burgers and potato salad.

But not all of America has the same ideas about how to celebrate this occasion. Some states have some very… interesting ways to celebrate America’s birthday.

  • The town of Bar Harbor, Maine, rings in the Fourth with traditional lobster races. That’s right, racing lobsters. Six lobsters compete in twelve heats, and some of the locals bet money on a lobster of their choice. Local businesses even sponsor the lobsters. The lobster races are a fundraiser for the Mount Desert Island YMCA that has been a Fourth of July tradition since 1978.


  • In Ocean Beach, California, there was a longstanding tradition of marshmallow fights on the beach. People would gather along the shore to throw marshmallows at each other. In recent years, local police have been trying to eliminate this fight due to an increase in marshmallow-related injuries. Yep.


  • In south central Kentucky, for the past decade, people have collected unrepairable technology throughout the year before taking it out into the woods to use the obsolete machines as target practice. John Adams did mention guns being a part of Independence Day. Granted, this may not have been what he had in mind…


  • Stinson Beach and Bolinas, California, use the Fourth to take out their local feud through a game of tug-of-war. The towns hold a tug of war match over the channel that separates the two towns. It was all fun and games until Bolinas set a two-hundred-pound weight minimum to join the men’s or women’s tug-of-war teams. One year, Bolinas even used a Jeep for more muscle power. This resulted in a broken arm and the prohibition of vehicles from the competition.


  • Lastly, Hailey, Idaho holds a lottery on the Fourth of July. But it isn’t your run-of-the-mill scratch ticket lottery. The Road Apple Roulette lottery is of a different breed. Before the annual Fourth of July Parade, people purchase squares of the parade’s path. They have 10,000 squares to choose from. Horses, during the parade, drop “apples” along the path. If “apples” land in the square you bought, your names goes into a raffle to win big prizes. You get what we mean by “apples,” right?

No matter how you choose to celebrate and what traditions you upkeep, it’s probably safe to say that taking your boat out on the water is one of the best ways to spend the holiday. Happy Independence Day!