The fireworks on the Mall have long held a special nostalgia for Victoria Stewart and Peter Cannon, who used to bring their son out every year to watch the display with the throngs.
The Centreville, Va., couple, both 62, said the celebration took on a new resonance this year, as they looked out across the diverse crowd gathered at the base of the Washington Monument.
The nation’s divisions were on display everywhere else, but here there was unity — at least for one evening.
“When you come out here and you look around and see the multitude of colors and ethnicities, that’s what America is: a melting pot,” Stewart said.
Amid a hot summer of protest and political polarization, thousands descended on the Washington region Wednesday to renew the rituals that have long united us as Americans. There were the traditional helpings of fireworks, picnics and the swearing in of new citizens, but the festive spirit was also marked at times by apprehension over the direction of the country.
Rockets still whizzed and exploded over a muggy Mall in showers of red, green and white sparks to the perennial delight of the youngest revelers.
From his perch atop the shoulders of his mother’s boyfriend, Kai Oliver raised his red, white and blue light saber in a patriotic en garde, prepared to joust with the Washington Monument.
But when the fireworks erupted, the 6-year-old dropped his pose and reveled with the thousands of others assembled along the Mall.
After the show’s finale, Kai carefully considered his review of the fireworks.
“Umm, good,” he said.
Then, when his mother’s boyfriend, Adam Lucian, pressed him to elaborate, he revised his answer.
“The best,” Kai said.
Isabella Sizemore, 6, squealed and jumped in the air with both hands up, shortly before the display began at 9:09 p.m.
“Yesss!!!!” she shouted.
Her half-brother, Cayden Crider, had a one-word answer for his favorite thing about America: “Freedom!”
Isabella and Cayden defined freedom as eating pizza, doing whatever you want and being safe from thieves. “And spending time with your family!” Isabella added happily.
Reggie and Shaline Alston of the District made the trek to the fireworks for the first time in 20 years because their two children were away at summer camp.
“It was a great show,” Reggie said.
But it was more than that. When Reggie and Shaline, both black and fierce liberals, found themselves sitting next to a white couple about their age from rural Oklahoma, they took the chance to connect. Leaving the Trump administration aside, the foursome chatted strictly about non-political matters — and shared their appreciation of the glittering show before their eyes.
“I didn’t ask about their political views — they’re from rural Oklahoma, I can assume,” Reggie said. “But I didn’t need to. Tonight proved you can have a civil conversation about fireworks and not mention the man down on 1600 Penn.”
Earlier in the day, Zhaleh Ghasabimilani, 35, said she had eagerly waited eight months to become an American citizen on the Fourth of July, but her moment of triumph Wednesday was also marked by tears.
The Iranian by birth wore bright red heels and a blue and white striped dress, smiling as she recited the citizenship oath with about 100 others at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
“This is where I can pursue my dreams as a woman,” said Ghasabimilani, who has a master’s in electrical engineering and plans to pursue a career in that field. “There is no limit as a woman.”
But her mood darkened as she discussed the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the Trump administration’s travel ban affecting a handful of majority Muslim countries. It forced her parents to cancel a trip to visit her from Iran.
“So this is now my sad and my happy day,” Ghasabimilani said, wiping away tears.
Hours before the Fourth of July parade began in D.C., a family who had journeyed 14 hours from Wisconsin filed down to Constitution Avenue to get the best seats.
Melinda Lehmitz and her husband, Harvey, wanted their twin children to experience the array of people and cultures in the District — something they aren’t able to see at home.
“It’s sheltered in the country,” Lehmitz said of Hilbert, Wis., as her 13-year-olds, Skylar and Dylan, took turns fanning each other. “They don’t really get to see how people interact outside their bubble.”
Lehmitz said the celebration was more meaningful than their usual Fourth of July barbecue in Wisconsin.
“I never, ever imagined I’d be here,” said Lehmitz, who had three American flags tucked in her hair. “But I want to broaden their horizons and show my kids things they aren’t taught in school.”
As the parade stepped off, Lehmitz and her family were welcomed by just the sort of diversity they sought, with a banner on the Sikh float that read “equality and justice for all.”
Many floats represented cultural groups and organizations. On one, several dozen Sikhs wore American-flag ties and red, white and blue turbans.
The Greater Washington Chinese American Community’s float was the shape of a ship, while a band behind the group played drums in a synchronous rhythm.
A panoply of floats, balloons and marching bands made their way down Constitution Avenue during the morning parade. Many played songs such as “Born in the U.S.A.,” while others danced and waved to the crowds.
Two large balloons, featuring an American flag and an even more massive eagle, drew cheers and applause from onlookers. These were followed by a float containing a model version of the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
A large cloud blocked the sun temporarily, causing onlookers to shout “Oh, yes!” in anticipation of shade.
One spectator squealed with joy while stretching her arms toward the sky.
Humid was the theme of the day. In other words, a typical July 4 in the District.
Laila El-Haddad, 40, an author from Clarksville, Md., said she came reluctantly to watch the day’s events in the District.
Standing at the edge of the crowd on Constitution Avenue, El-Haddad said she was struggling to reconcile her attendance at the Fourth of July parade — her brother had planned a family get-together — with U.S. policies such as the separation of families at the border and the travel ban against some majority-Muslim countries.
“It’s frustrating because you feel like the tide is against you, and you don’t feel very celebratory,” she said.
On the drive into the District, El-Haddad had debated whether she should take a knee during the national anthem — and wondered whether she would be safe at the parade in her bright blue hijab.
She got more stares than usual from people in the crowd, she said, “but as citizens, it’s our responsibility to speak out. As Muslim Americans, it’s part of our religion to correct injustice when and where we see it.”
El-Haddad picked up her 10-year-old daughter, Bayaan.
“Her name means ‘clarity,’ ” El-Haddad said. “Maybe she’ll be a good sign for the future.”
Richard Principe and his family laid out a blanket beneath a tree near the base of the Washington Monument on Wednesday morning.
It was their first Fourth of July together in the United States, said Principe, 50.
His wife and their two children joined him in Lorton, Va., three weeks ago, when they moved there from Peru, where Principe and his wife were born.
“We appreciate this country,” Principe said, adding that he and his family intend to spend the rest of their lives here.
The two children are U.S. citizens, and Principe’s wife is going through the application process.
“Like everybody else, we want to settle down and get the American Dream,” he said. “It’s still possible. . . . I think everyone can make it.”
To explain the holiday to his children, Principe compared the Fourth of July to Fiestas Patrias, a late-July holiday that marks Peru’s independence from Spain.
“This country is based on freedom,” Principe told his daughters.
Principe, an engineer, said he doesn’t support every White House policy, but he does support President Trump’s agenda in general. In a time of great political divisiveness, Principe said, the country needs to come together and celebrate anyway.
“It’s a holiday,” he said with some exasperation.
But he did say that Americans need to “wake up” and realize the country isn’t being treated fairly on the world stage.
As night descended on the city, residents of the Columbia Heights neighborhood put on a fireworks show of their own.
With clumps of people watching from their stoops or the sidewalk, fireworks whirred, popped and boomed just above the two-story houses near the 3500 block of 14th Street NW.
Shaunta Lee, 31, and Azusena Huacache, 23, jumped back in surprise as one particularly violent bang filled the street in front of them with smoke.
“You just walk out your door, and it’s right here,” Huacache said, as pieces of ash fell from overhead. “It’s a little loud, but that’s fireworks.”
Teo Armus, Ashley Halsey III, Justin Jouvenal and Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.