“Why is there fire in the sky?” I asked my mom naively, uncertain of the English words for what I was seeing.
The silent explosions were mesmerizing. Streams of red, white, and blue — the requisite colors on this most American of holidays — flashed over the Hudson River, lighting up New York City’s already brilliant skyline as I clambered over my mother and little sister for a better look.
It was July 4, 1990, and I was watching the display from a height of 5,000 feet and climbing. Two years after my family had moved from Sweden to the U.S., we were on an Icelandair flight back to my birthplace, Stockholm, via Reykjavik. My father explained that this was Step 1 in the long process of becoming permanent U.S. residents, and someday citizens.
“They’re like birthday candles,” my mom explained. “You remember you had candles on your birthday cake last week? The fireworks are America’s candles.”
Mmhmm, I cooed, leaning too hard against my sister’s arm as I stretched my neck toward the window. Sandy, 5 at the time, cried out, wrenching my mother’s attention away from the story of American Independence.
“Fireworks,” I repeated to myself, rolling the word lazily on my tongue. For as long as I could, I watched them burst, ever smaller, as we floated over the Atlantic Ocean.
An adult with a penchant for sentimentality may have noted this particular moment: That on the birthday of our adoptive nation, my family was jetting off to our former home with hopes of someday becoming real Americans. That watching the fireworks through a thick pane of plexiglass would come to mirror our experiences of assimilation — that incongruent feeling of simultaneously being a part of American culture and also removed from it.
But these observations were lost on my 7-year-old self. At the time, I could neither foresee nor fathom this cultural distance. All I knew was the glittering spectacle of this New World holiday was dazzling and I wanted to get closer.
I already knew holidays made ideal entry points for infiltrating an unknown culture. When my parents left their native Iran in 1981, having abandoned efforts to live under the new Islamic state, they landed in Sweden, where they embraced all the Scandinavian traditions. On Santa Lucia Day each December 13, they dressed me in white robes, pinned a garland in my hair, and sent me off with a parade of young girls carrying candles. Similarly, my sister and I dressed in white dresses and wore floral crowns on Midsommer, a summertime festival of light. (The Swedes love their light.) On Christmas we decorated a tree and exchanged presents. My dad, a clean-shaven mountain climber and ultrarunner, attempted to dress up as Santa by wearing a red sweater and red ski cap — it was hilarious even to my toddler eyes.
When we moved to America, the Fourth of July served as my gateway holiday. Now that we were becoming Americans, I took it upon myself to help my family embrace the standard American traditions.
I insisted we dress in red, white and blue; go to the beach; host a neighborhood barbecue and watch the fireworks.
Inevitably there were complaints — Why are we dressed like the flag? Why are we grilling hot dogs when there’s perfectly good jujeh-kebab marinating in the fridge? The smoke makes my eyes burn!
But I persisted. “It’s the way things are done,” I insisted, as much for myself as my family.
I was just as zealous about celebrating Columbus Day, Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Especially Thanksgiving. Until the year my family revolted. (The frozen Sarah Lee pies, we now joke, were the last straw.) We ended up improvising a Persian-inspired Thanksgiving feast of turkey basted in saffron and lemon juice served with crispy basmati rice.
Over time, I loosened my grip on the other stereotypical holiday rituals, allowing my family’s unique celebration style — a rich combination of Persian, Scandinavian and American cultures — to emerge. We grill on Labor Day, but we don’t make hot dogs and buns—we dig into kebabs and pita wraps. Columbus Day marks, at best, an annual pilgrimage to the mall to scout out the sales. (I grew up in New Jersey, after all.) It’s been years since I celebrated the Fourth of July with the whole beach-barbecue-fireworks routine. I honestly can’t remember how I spent the day last year.
But forever and ever I’ll remember that first Fourth of July in 1990, when fireworks streaked the sky and stamped my desire to be American.
Maggie Fazeli Fard is a former breaking news reporter at The Washington Post and currently the senior editor of fitness and travel at Experience Life magazine. She lives in Minneapolis.