After two years of pandemic precautions that kept the Boston Pops off the Esplanade and forced local celebrations of the Fourth to become low-key affairs, red-white-and-blue patriotism returned to Boston on Monday, with revelers eager to return to some sense of normalcy.
Families, friends, and strangers joined together, clad in their most festive gear, to celebrate the United States and its promises of liberty and prosperity, even as some of those celebrating expressed worry about the direction the country is heading.
The celebration in Boston was held against the backdrop of tragedy in other cities, as at least six people were killed and 30 more wounded during a parade outside Chicago, and two Philadelphia police officers were shot amid celebrations there.
The crowd waited expectantly on the lawn for hours, through afternoon heat and a dazzling stage show, until the fireworks came as promised about 10:30 p.m., crashing waves of color that lit up the night sky for miles as the orchestra played “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Fireworks in the shapes of hearts and smiley faces elicited “Awws” from spectators.
The crowd erupted into applause and cheers after the finale of the fireworks.
“This is the biggest display we’ve ever seen,” said Bruce Whistler, who’s from South Carolina.
“They were spectacular,” said Laurel Whistler. “This was once in a lifetime.”
The celebration kicked into high gear more than two hours earlier, as the Middlesex County Volunteers Fife and Drums, clad in colonial garb, played a traditional tune to kick off the concert, followed by Tony-winning Broadway star Heather Headley singing an emotional medley of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “God Bless America.”
Smiles and applause spread around the crowd. After three long years of waiting, the celebration had returned.
Headley said before her performance that she was thrilled to be part of restarting the tradition.
“They had me at ‘this is the first time in three years,’ ” she said. “I was like, ‘You’re coming back? I’m coming with you,’ because I just think it’s a beautiful thing for us all to be back together and within this space, within six feet of each other, hugging on each other, and then celebrating this day.”
Earlier, as afternoon became evening on the Esplanade, revelers took respite under umbrellas, spread out on blankets, and lounged in lawn chairs.
Marcel Bedard, 32, and Lauren Pendley, 34, sat back-to-back on the grass in front of the Hatch Shell, a position that highlighted their alternating outfits. Pendley wore a blue hat, red shirt, and blue pants, and Bedard opted for a red hat, blue shirt, and red pants.
“We didn’t coordinate it; we’re of one mind,” Bedard said. The couple got engaged last weekend, and this was their first event together as fiancés.
Bedard said his upbringing shaped his view of the holiday.
“I was taught that America is an ideal, and we’re not necessarily celebrating the country or the politics of the time, but we are celebrating what we’re all striving for,” he said.
James Barnes and Tom Gamore worked hard to be at the front of the crowd. They arrived around noon Sunday and camped overnight at the Esplanade.
“We didn’t get enough sleep, but it paid off,” said Barnes, who was sporting stars and stripes from head to toe. “It’s worth it.”
After attending Fourth of July festivities at the Esplanade for decades, Barnes said he felt “sad and depressed” that the pandemic prevented the tradition in 2020 and 2021.
When he heard the Pops were returning to the Hatch Shell, Barnes “couldn’t sleep for four nights,” he said.
“I was that excited,” he said. “I love the Fourth of July.”
For all who waited in line — and for the entire city — the day marks the return of a beloved tradition, one that was put on hold amid a prolonged and unpredictable pandemic.
“You know that old friend that you have that you don’t get to see very often, but even when you see them, it’s like you never missed a beat, like it was yesterday? That’s what this event is,” said John Bonaccorso, 48, who’s been coming since 1976.
As the clock crept closer to the show’s start and the sun started to set, there was a sense of anticipation around the Esplanade.
“I’d rather be no other place in this country than right here, where it all started — the Massachusetts Bay Colony,” said James Libby, 58, who had been at the Esplanade since around 4 a.m.
Security was tight, and police were omnipresent: officers with dogs, officers on foot, officers on bikes, officers on jet skis. Marked vehicles bore the insignias of various law enforcement and military agencies: Boston police, Massachusetts State Police, New York State Police, the Massachusetts National Guard. Humvees and vehicles with shovels blocked off roads leading to the Esplanade. Coolers without wheels were allowed past security, backpacks were not.
Samm Schinker doesn’t remember the first time they came to see the Boston Pops. At almost 21, Schinker has been a regular visitor since less than a year old.
Since then, the Ohio native has only missed four years: for a wedding, a family trip to the Grand Canyon, and twice because the pandemic shut it down.
”The energy of it can’t be beat,” Schinker said. “The only thing that will stop me from being here is death. Y’all can hold me to that, too: I will be here until I die.”
Still, Schinker wasn’t sure about coming this year after recent decisions from the Supreme Court. It was “difficult to celebrate a day of freedom when those freedoms are slowly being revoked,” Schinker said.
”It was a difficult decision to come up because part of me was like, why am I celebrating? But at the same time, being here, I’m not going to want to be anywhere else,” said Schinker, who uses they as pronoun.
Their sister, Emily, said she felt “emotional” as she walked around the Esplanade Sunday while the Pops practiced. It reminded her why she came, despite feeling turmoil about recent court decisions.
”It’s important to remember that we are Americans, and even when we have to fight for our rights every day, they’re worth fighting for — this country, this dream is worth fighting for,” Emily Schinker said.
Criselda Saladin, 64, has lived in Boston for nearly 30 years after emigrating from the Dominican Republic. She comes to see the Pops every year she can.
“This is my second country, my second homeland,” she said in Spanish. “Every year, I come here to see the fireworks. I’ve been here a while, but every year, I come.”
Cristie Fadner, 43, said seeing Boston’s Fourth of July celebrations has been a “bucket list item.” She was visiting from Washington, D.C. Kim Hamilton, 56, who was sitting nearby, came down from Vermont.
“One of the best parts of this is meeting people from all over the country,” Fadner said.
Their children — Emma Fadner, 9, and Finn Hamilton, 12 — were working together on drawing comics in Finn’s notebook.
“This day just brings people together,” said Kim Hamilton.
Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff and correspondent Anjali Huynh contributed to this report.
Alexander Thompson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlMThompson Kate Selig was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @kate_selig. Camille Caldera was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.