The Mountain Times

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Three cheers for the red, white and blue

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 firecrackers.

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 backyard.

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 world.

Somewhere, somehow, the July 4th holiday lost its meaning and its simplicity.

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 fireworks.

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 loud.

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!