For the capital of a country well into its third century, Washington showed Friday that it still knows how to put on a national birthday party, with a festive morning-to-night schedule of parades, ceremonies and concerts capped off after dark with a mammoth fireworks display above a vast throng on the Mall.
As the time for the annual display of July 4 pyrotechnics approached, the grassy expanse around the Washington Monument filled with people from near and far, in places pressed elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, in such close quarters that the casual strolling or tossing a football that characterized earlier hours seemed no longer possible.
But at 8:57 p.m., they stood for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Marisela Mendoza, a third-grade teacher from Salinas, Calif., urged her son to stand. “We have to respect the flag. We have to respect our country,” Mendoza said.
About 9:10 p.m., whenthe western sky above the ridges of Virginia remained streaked with the orange light of the setting sun, the fireworks show began, with rocket following ascending rocket and crackling star burst after star burst exploded in spheres and streams of color.
For Washingtonians, the nation’s annual birthday party, held in their own back yard, is a calendar mainstay. But as happens almost every year, the number is swelled by eager visitors, drawn to the capital on this special day.
This year they included Bob and Ramona Craft from outside Chicago, whose bucket list included a pilgrimage here. And Jackie Wells from Detroit in red, white and blue, who wanted to be here at a time when a black man was president.
And there were members of Boy Scout Troop 55, from Great Falls, Va., who brought flags and streamers to help kick off the parade on Constitution Avenue NW.
The scouts added to the outpouring of red, white and blue that seemed to be everywhere, from vendors’ carts to visitors’ clothes. Uncle Sam hats were worn, small flags waved.
The day that marked the 238th anniversary of America’s independence, was a day of patriotic airs, including those played by symphony musicians at the Capitol, with the clash of their cymbals and the blare of their trumpets floating down the Mall.
The broad stretch of greensward seemed to be populated by happy crowds, block after block, adults and children, many of the younger ones borne on their parents’ shoulders. At the fireworks’ end, crowds jammed Metro stations.
The day was a special summer occasion for Washington, with heat and humidity seemingly abolished as gray morning skies gave way to sparkling sunshine and a high of 83 degrees, the most pleasant July 4 weather many could remember.
Over the course of the day, crowds lined the parade route, purchased patriotic souvenirs, filled the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and bobbed and swayed during the concert at the Capitol. They smiled to themselves and at their neighbors.
It was not difficult to find among them those who have attained a goal cherished for years.
“We’ve never experienced the Fourth of July here in Washington,” said music teacher Ramona Craft, 61, of Crete, Ill., as she and her husband, Bob, sat on a bench along Constitution in the morning. “It’s time.”
Added her husband, 62: “I think it was kind of [on the] bucket list.”
“We watch the concert every year on public television,” he said. “So we said, ‘Let’s go try to be at the concert.’ So that’s what we’re going to try to do. It's a long day, but we’re ready.
The enterprising spirit that is regarded as an American hallmark could be found amid the vendors’ wares, much of it having a patriotic theme, such as miniature copies of the Declaration of Independence. Some sold sunglasses carrying a flag pattern. Richard Lafontant, 41, shouted: “One-dollar flags! One-dollar hats.” He also reminded visitors of something else they would need: “Don’t let dehydration ruin your vacation!” he urged.
Festivities were not confined to the city. Parades and fireworks display were scheduled across the region, from Herndon and Greenbelt to Kensington and Columbia. And at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 102 of the newest Americans participated in an naturalization ceremony.
As early as 9 a.m., people clad in red, white and blue shorts, T-shirts and scarves were already setting up for the 11:45 a.m. parade along Constitution. Others streamed down 17th Street NW toward the site of the parade, many coming prepared with chairs, food and drink. Nearby, the White House had been draped in red, white and blue bunting.
As the parade began, Johan Nilsson, 27, of Stockholm stood with friends, wearing a ball cap with an American flag motif and waving an American flag. “We don’t celebrate our national day like this in Sweden, he said.
Their group was at the beginning of a road trip, starting here for the Fourth and continuing to New Orleans and Florida. “We don’t celebrate our national day like this in Sweden,” Nilsson said. “We wanted to see how it’s really done.”
Elsewhere, hundreds perched on the steps of the National Archives for its annual reading of the Declaration of Independence, punctuated by historical reenactments and regular exhortations from speakers to document their experience on social media, using the hashtag #ArchivesJuly4.
Attendees cheered and booed at the emotional reading by reenactors playing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abigail Adams, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward “Ned” Hector, an African American soldier who served in the Revolutionary War. They were egged on by three Archives workers waving signs reading “HUZZAH” and “BOO.”
“We’re small-town,” said Kelly Johnson, 31, of Tampa as she stood on the curb out of the way of passersby. She, her husband and their two daughters were traveling to Pennsylvania to visit friends, with a stop in Washington for the holiday, she said.
Elizabeth Borgwardt, 49, a history professor at Washington University in St. Louis said that for the past four years, she has visited the Archives to hear the Declaration of Independence read. This year, her son Jay, 15, finally joined her.
“Last time [I was in D.C.], I slept in,” he admitted sheepishly.
Catherine Gallivan, a retired high school teacher in her 70s, said the reading brought home reminders of her mother, an immigrant from Ireland. “It wasn’t easy” to win independence, she said. Hearing the declaration read “is kind of special.”
After the reading, attendees lingered outside in a block-long line for a chance to enter the National Archives and glimpse the words they had just heard outside.
At the Jefferson Memorial, Juanita McGowen and Guy Snowdon, an American bride and British groom, chose a memorable day and place to get married.
“I’d never do anything traditional,” declared McGowen. She had waited two years to marry Snowdon at a wedding she first thought would be in Birmingham, England.
“I remember calling my sister crying because it was so difficult to plan the wedding in England,” she said. Her sister, Mel Hampton, who lives in Alexandria, invited her to have the wedding at a park in the District.
“I just didn’t think she was going to pick July 4,” Hampton said.
Red, white and blue flowers filled the wedding bouquet, honoring the day and the setting.
“When they say they are going to do something,” Andrew Snowdon said of the couple, “no matter how crazy it sounds, they are going to do it.”
At Mount Vernon, Maha Ahmed, 40, and Igbal Hassan, 49, natives of Sudan, said they were honored to take the oath of citizenship at the national landmark with 100 others.
“I can go anywhere around the world,” Hassan said, noting the power of her U.S. passport.
Ahmed, who is an exam away from becoming a doctor, said she was happy to have the freedom of religion, justice, equality and human rights — something she didn’t have back home.
Nuriye Salim, 58, who is from Istanbul, said she had been waiting 45 years to become a citizen and was proud to finally have the distinction.
Kiratiana E. Freelon, Wesley Robinson and Ileana Najarro contributed to this report.