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The 4th of July, v.06:

How much can you tamper with a traditional holiday? Halloween used to be about kids in costumes and very small candy bars. Now there’s this whole other thing in the mix, involving outdoor home decorations and smoke machines and plastic novelties. Most would argue it’s all very American, although it’s made possible by tons of imports from China. “China, your Halloween Headquarters!”

Easter used to be a simple deal, but it’s been appropriated and expanded to become an entire shopping season. New clothes and shoes, new items for the patio and garden. To update Phillips Brooks on the subject of Easter, “Death is strong, but Life is stronger…and Home Depot has those cute picnic table umbrellas on sale.”

Though merchants will use them to their advantage, we tend to believe that our holidays stand fast against being wholly appropriated. There are critical elements that simply cannot be removed. You can’t substitute carob for chocolate Easter bunnies and you can’t possibly endure turkey hot dogs in place of the salty, chemically pink pork of a traditional hot dog. I don’t mean that people won’t try to make those changes, just that they will never put them over on us. Lincoln famously said, “You can get some people to drink non-alcoholic beer all of the time, and all people to eat tofu weenies some of the time, but you can never get me to give up bratwurst during a Packer game.” Abe understood people. People in Wisconsin, anyhow.

Still, there was some sense for me that the parameters of the 4th of July were getting stretched and pulled a little bit this year. And not by the Easter Bunny.

Fireworks and firecrackers are having a more difficult time of it. Insurance statistics indicate that consumer fireworks started 2,300 fires in 2003, and they claim that every year fireworks drive 10,000 people to hospital emergency rooms. That might be true, but you could play with those numbers by subtracting the number of people that end up in emergency rooms because they’re loaded or stupid or both and fireworks were nearby. Still, with a growing movement to ban consumer fireworks, you can see the bumper stickers coming: “When bottle rockets are outlawed, only Uncle Dave and his beer-swilling buddy Chuck will have bottle rockets.”

It wasn’t just sloppy Roman candle wranglers that could feel something new in the air this 4th. Parade magazine, which in addition to providing a forum for collectors of Franklin Mint Civil War thimbles and Elvis denture boxes, also acts as a barometer of middle America, ran a holiday weekend cover story featuring accounts of immigrants who fled political and religious oppression by coming to America. This would be traditional, old-fashioned holiday content for Parade save for the fact that we’re currently struggling with our immigration policy.

One of the immigrants is quoted in larger type to the side of the text: “Here, where people come together from everywhere on earth, anything is possible.” Yes, it is. It’s possible that if you happen to look the wrong way, you’ll be searched at length in an airport. Or you might spend years in Guantanamo awaiting a military trial the Supreme Court says is illegal, for a crime you did not commit. Or depending on your method of entry, you may be allowed to work a little and contribute to our economy and the wealth of a few and then be ordered to leave.

It’s beyond dreaming that Parade would ever present both sides of being an American immigrant on the 4th of July 2006. They would argue that their shiny bright immigrant stories reinforce the traditional view of opportunity in America, one that still holds. And one that, by presenting itself in millions of Sunday newspapers, effectively blocks out the more detailed and disturbing picture of “freedom” as it’s been redefined over the last six years. Sparklers may soon become illegal. But while we still have them we can appreciate that, unlike Parade magazine, they give off light.

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