Happy (Almost) Fourth!

Boston need not feel bad about not celebrating the Fourth of July on the actual fourth of July.

After all, even the original Fourth of July did not occur on the actual fourth of July.

Under normal conditions, the Hub of New England hosts a free concert every Independence Day around sunset, attended by north of half a million spectators. The show, performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra and various “special guests,” takes place at the Hatch Shell along the Esplanade, and culminates in a fabulous fireworks display over the Charles River.

This year, however, saw abnormal conditions in the form of a tropical storm called Arthur, which was forecast to (and did) dump bucketsful of rain on our fair city at precisely the wrong moment, forcing the Pops concert to be moved.

While Arthur’s projected storm track might have made today, July 5th, the most logical Plan B, the powers that be opted instead to throw the party on Independence Day Eve, July 3rd, reportedly to avoid a scheduling conflict with the featured act, the Beach Boys. (Indeed, I think we can all agree that the comfort and safety of 600,000 revelers should never take precedence over the possibility of the city losing its deposit on the entertainment.)

In any case, the weather cooperated and the night-before-July 4th show went off practically without a hitch. (I say “practically” because the 1812 Overture had to be scrapped to avert a wind-and-hail-leaden fireworks show, but let’s not quibble.)

While no one can decently fault state officials for not wanting to have a massive outdoor concert in the middle of a tropical storm, it nonetheless feels somehow wrong that we would commemorate July 4th on any day other than July 4th.

It’s one thing to “observe” occasions like Memorial Day or Presidents Day when they weren’t originally intended to be held, but with the Fourth of July—well, for Pete’s sake, the date is right there in the name! To shoot off fireworks on the 3rd or 5th instead might not be as radical as, say, hanging up Christmas lights in August, but it’s still a bit odd, and something we’d like to avoid whenever we can. It’s a betrayal of tradition, if nothing else.

And yet the tradition in question is, itself, grounded not in fact but in myth.

As all students of American history well know, the sacred date of July 4, 1776 is something of an historical misnomer. In point of fact, nothing of any great consequence happened on that day, in Philadelphia or anywhere else.

The celebrated final vote to ratify the Declaration of Independence took place, after a great debate, on July 2nd. The signing of the document—contrary to John Trumbull’s famous painting—occurred with no particular pomp or fuss on August 2nd, as each delegate dropped in to the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) at his convenience before returning to personal business.

Yes, the date “July 4, 1776” appears at the top of the parchment, and it was the day that the final wording of the declaration was approved. But surely such a trifling formality is not what we think we’re honoring when we ring bells and eat hot dogs on the sacred day itself.

Nope, the collective decision to mark the birth of our country on the fourth is one of those things that just sort of happened, and now we’re stuck with it.

As such, given the circumstances, it is my vain hope for the future that we un-stick ourselves and celebrate our independence whenever we damn well please.

As I’ve already noted, to tweak the date of America’s birthday each year would not be without precedent on the American calendar. To the contrary, most of our national holidays, whatever their origins, are “observed” on a date or day of the week that is most convenient for the most people—typically a Friday or Monday, to give ourselves a three-day weekend.

What is more, the Reform temple to which my parents belong will occasionally observe some Jewish holidays the week before or after they actually fall, in order to accommodate the highest possible number of congregants. (In the event, say, that a particular festival occurs during school vacation, when nobody is around to attend services.)

Similarly, I once fasted on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, one day early, so as not to interfere with my work schedule. I figured that God, if he existed and was fair-minded, would prefer such a compromise to my not fasting at all. And anyway, it was to no one’s advantage for me to be hustling around at work on a profoundly empty stomach.

Strictly on the matter of birthdays, who amongst us has not attended or played host to a birthday party not on the actual day, but rather on the nearest Friday or Saturday night? That’s just basic good planning. What’s the point of being precise and official if it means fewer people eating cake and having a great time?

So let us not worry ourselves one whit if circumstances force us to move a national observance in one direction or another. Ultimately, the date doesn’t matter—all that matters is that we take the time to observe at all.

As a wise person (or two) once said, it’s the thought that counts.


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