Here in Bristol, RI, the single biggest holiday of the year isn't Christmas or Thanksgiving, not Easter or Halloween. It's the 4th of July, hands down.
Dubbed "America's Most Patriotic Town," Bristol and its main streets have played host to a July 4th parade in each of the last 223 years with number 224 only days away. In 1976, a reported 250,000 people were on hand to watch it and the crowds routinely break the 100,000 mark. Not bad for a little shoreside town of 24,000 people in a state with roughly 1,000,000 residents.
However, the parade is merely the culmination of the festivities with free concerts every night for the two weeks leading up the big day. You've got the Miss Fourth of July Pageant and the Little Miss Fourth of July Pageant. The town's fire brigades face off against each other in games of skill and competitive hoses. You get a vintage baseball game, an orange crate derby, a week-long carnival on the town commons, the July 4th Ball, a patriotic speaker, and a U.S. Navy vessel anchoring off the town, open for tours, and with the officers and crew joining the parade festivities.
The big finale (excepting the parade of course) is the July 3rd competition among marching bands and drum corps from across North America on the high school football field followed by the grand fireworks display over Bristol harbor. While it's a pleasant walk into town via the bike path near our house, we typically enjoy the fireworks from the comfort of our deck, watching the big chrysanthemum explosions over the tree line, the booms shaking our house, and our cats crouched by the screen door really hoping that mom and dad will come inside and make the loud noises stop.
The parade itself has taken on legendary proportions with generations of families always racing to claim the same spot along the route year after year. Property values are spiked for homes along the parade route, and the police patrol to prevent anyone from claiming a spot on the grass or sidewalk before 5:30 AM. The parade route itself is roughly 2 and a half miles, winding down by the harbor and then up through the quaint main street, past the Herreshoff Museum (a must for boat lovers) and then back around to the Town Commons. It's easy to follow, marked as it is by red, white and blue street stripes authorized by a special act of the U.S. Congress. Several years ago, parade marchers frequently passed out due to the high temperatures and in other years, costumes were distinctly sodden due to the rain but the parade continued on.
Broadcast live across the region, the parade is must for politicians, celebrities, cultural groups and more. It's considered the culmination of a Bristol resident's career to be selected to serve as the Chief Marshal. A Johnny Depp/Captain Jack Sparrow impersonator was a featured marcher last year (well, rider actually as he swayed and waved from the back of a truck with pirate-themed decorations). The governor was roundly booed last year as Bristolians (or Bristolites depending on who you're talking to) clearly weren't happy with his budget cutting plans.
The parade makes for strange bedfellows or at least brings them into close proximity -- radio show host, frequently disgraced former mayor of Providence, and felon Buddy Cianci walked in the parade last year only a few months after being released from federal prison. The parade route brought him past the home of Raymond DeLeo, the man Cianci assaulted with his hands, a fireplace log, an ashtray, and a lit cigarette in 1983, one of the events that led to Cianci's first ouster from his mayoral seat. Cianci just kept walking, never looking at DeLeo's home, DeLeo, or all of his guests who were celebrating on the lawn. Of course, in true Rhode Island fashion, Cianci was treated like a folk hero by many people along the rest of the length of the parade route.
But those moments of political or celebrity sniping are just icing on the cake. Of course there are always little side stories but the true wonder is the parade itself and how the town goes all out. Flags and bunting decorate homes throughout the town. Last year, as my aunt wheeled my then 92-year old grandmother down the hill from the nursing home to see the parade, military personnel, out-of-towners, and Bristol residents all helped get Babci safely and comfortably over the bumps and the grass, and down the street, and to the start of the parade route where she would be able to wave at the marchers, say hello to the kids, and just enjoy the day.
Everyone seems to get involved somehow, even if it's just walking into town on the 4th, finding a spot to sit, and cheering on the parade participants. And oh how to people cheer. It's easy to scoff at the rah rah patriotism that is used to sell liquor or used cars this time of year but on July 4th in Bristol, as veterans from all of America's conflicts march proudly by, as students from around the country march and play music and dance in the streets, as groups large and small display their pride in their heritage and in their country, it's impossible not to smile and cheer and clap and maybe even tear up a bit. Sure, you might not always agree with the people in elected office but when you see recent events in Iran and elsewhere, you realize how truly remarkable our nation is and there's no place better to celebrate it and our Independence Day than here in America's Most Patriotic Town.