America Celebrates Its 225th Birthday

Hamburgers, hot dogs, apple pie and ice cream. Baseball games in the park and sand castles on the beach. Skies lit with Technicolor fireworks. As always, these American traditions are marking Independence Day celebrations around the country this year.

But some are spending July Fourth a little differently. Immigrants are becoming U.S. citizens in naturalization ceremonies. President Bush is getting down at an urban block party sponsored by a Philadelphia church. Arizona firefighters are standing sentry in Tucson, dousing any fireworks-sparked flames that might ignite the brush.

In true melting-pot fashion, the United States is marking its 225th birthday on Wednesday in ways as numerous and varied as the people who live here.

Speaking in English and accented by an array of other languages, immigrants across Texas got an early start celebrating Independence Day by participating in immigration ceremonies.

"Most people come for a better life — maybe not for themselves, but their children," said Marian Smith, official historian for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Local and federal law-enforcement officers in Texas read the Declaration of Independence and 16 people took their oaths of citizenship in a naturalization ceremony in Brownsville. Immigrants from Mexico, China, Vietnam, Liberia, Rwanda and Singapore were among those becoming Americans.

"I feel so proud right now," Serafin Arriaga, 89, said as he held back tears after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time as an American citizen. Other towns throughout the country held similar naturalization ceremonies.

The city where it all began was holding one of the largest and most formal celebrations this year. Philadelphia Mayor John Street presided over the "Welcome America" festival at Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed and approved 225 years ago. The celebration was to culminate Wednesday evening with a dramatic reading of the prized document and fireworks.

As part of the Philadelphia ceremony, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was to accept the 2001 Philadelphia Liberty Medal and $100,000 for his efforts toward AIDS research. He plans to donate the money to the World AIDS Fund he established.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were also in the City of Brotherly Love, at a block party thrown by the Rev. Herb Lusk of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church. In attendance were children and families in mentoring programs.

The president planned to use his Independence Hall speech to encourage Americans to support federal "charitable choice" legislation, which sets aside federal funds for religious charities. Bush earmarked $67 million of his fiscal 2002 budget for religious-based mentoring of children of imprisoned parents.

"We have a responsibility to encourage love all throughout our communities," Bush told reporters Tuesday. "Some babies are born where people just don't love them like they should. And as a society, we've got to make up for that love."

In Washington, Woody Woodpecker made an appearance, along with Beetle Bailey and Thomas the Tank Engine.

They were among the big balloons that made their way along Constitution Avenue in the National Independence Day Parade.

Uncle Sam turned out twice — once as a balloon and once on stilts. Smokey the Bear came in from the forest to ride in the back of a pickup truck.

Since no parade is complete without marching bands, there were plenty, from as far away as Texas, Wisconsin and California. There were also celebrities, including actress Patricia Neal, and Miss America, Angela Perez Baraquio, who was the grand marshal.

In Arizona, firefighters prepared for small blazes to erupt after fireworks were launched from Tucson's "A" Mountain Wednesday night. But recent rain and sparse brush growth on the mountain have reduced the chance of serious fires, officials say.

Last year, a few small fires flared up but were quickly extinguished, and a dozen lit up the mountainside in 1999. Tucson fire says about 20 firefighters, two trucks and a water tanker will be stationed on the mountain for tonight's "Fire in the Sky" display.

Many of those on hand will roam the mountainside with backpack-mounted extinguishers, putting out small blazes before they spread. The downwind side of the mountain will be soaked with water to decrease the chance of fires caused by embers that could be blown there.

Emergency medical workers also planned to be on duty to treat injuries.

Doctors in Iowa and elsewhere were bracing for holiday-related injuries, too. Each year they see patients with missing fingers, lacerated eyes and charred skin in firecracker and sparkler parties gone awry.

Nationwide figures provided by the Iowa-Illinois Safety Council show that more than 10,000 people were injured by fireworks in 1998, more than 40 percent of whom were children.

In Canada, the Fourth of July bash at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Ottawa was to have a distinctively New England flavor.

The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester reported that former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, now the American ambassador to Canada, was putting his stamp on the celebration. Instead of the usual grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, they're serving up a seafood feast complete with chowder, lobster ravioli and cod cakes, and Vermont specialties such as maple-roasted pork loin.

Embassy officials were expecting 1,500 guests at the Independence Day party, a traditional summer staple of the Canadian capital's social scene.

In Illinois, the Taste of Chicago Independence Day festival will run a little more smoothly, now that cab drivers across the city have returned to work. At 6 a.m. Wednesday, the drivers ended a 24-hour strike to protest regulations requiring them to take more calls in under-served parts of the city.

Illinois holiday-goers have something else to celebrate: lower gasoline prices. After weeks of suffering from the highest pump prices in the nation, the state marked the sixth consecutive week of falling costs —– even though fuel is traditionally at its most expensive during the Fourth of July holiday weekend. The AAA Chicago Motor Club reports a 57-cent drop in average gas prices between May 17 and July 3, with regular unleaded ending up at an average of $1.50 a gallon.

New York City was holding its traditional fireworks displays and parades. Across the state in Buffalo, two such shows were competing for visitors, leaving some unhappy for fear of low attendance at both.

Hawaii planned to set its official fireworks off over Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. And in New Mexico, Los Alamos celebrated with a fireworks display advertised as 20 percent larger than in previous years. Its show had to be canceled last year in the wake of the devastating Cerro Grande wildfire.

The northern New Mexico community, like towns around the state, also planned other festivities, including games for children, arts and crafts booths and a rematch of last year's police vs. firefighters softball game.

The Associated Press contributed to this report