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20 July Fourth Traditions Foreigners Will Never Understand

"Just how big are the backyards in America?"

Every country has its own special day set aside for a little self-love. And obviously the United States is no different. But when it comes to what we do to celebrate our great nation every summer on the Fourth of July—whether it's chowing down on hot dogs by the dozen, shooting off explosive fireworks into the night sky, or giving hilariously over-patriotic shout-outs to our founding fathers—that's when we start behaving very, very differently. Those outside of the U.S. tend to look at our July 4th celebrations with either curiosity or horror (or both). With that in mind, here are 20 traditions that are all but guaranteed to confuse non-Americans.

Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

hot dog july fourth traditions

Though some of its greatest competitors—like Takeru Kobayashi, who once ate 110 hot dogs in 10 minutes at the New York State Fair—hail from as far away as Japan, when it comes to bizarre Fourth of July competitions, the mother of them all is the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. It combines so many classic Americanisms: food, breakneck competition, short time commitments (it's just 10 minutes long), food, and more food.

Beer Pong (and Solo Cups)

beer pong

The unofficial drinking game of fraternity houses, beer pong, requires players to throw ping-pong balls into cups partially filled with beer. By now, it's gone so mainstream in America that it's become a July 4th staple. But don't think that because it's popular here it's a big hit everywhere. As British writers Josh Kaplan and Bobby Palmer explain for The Tab, "Beer pong and flip cup are not just competitive [in America], they're aggressive!"

Boat Parades

boat parade july fourth traditions

In a number of cities throughout the United States, crowds of seaside communities gather shoreside or lakeside for a great American tradition: a boat parade. Rather than floats, participants decorate their motorboats or yachts with red, white, and blue lights and cruise through the water in a procession while music plays.

From Napa Valley to Newport Beach, California; Avalon, New Jersey; to Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, locals everywhere love to gather around and watch boats, lit up or elaborately decorated, unfailingly accompanied by some of the cheesiest music you've ever heard. The flags fly and families hang out, enjoying the innocent fun.

High-Caliber Water Guns

watergun fight july fourth traditions

Americans love to show off how much we love our water guns, especially at July Fourth celebrations. Kids don't just squirt each other with innocent water pistols, they blast each other with 55 ounces of ammunition from their Soakzooka and commit drive-by dousings with Cyclone Bike Water Blasters. In the United States, water fights mean all-out war.

Flags, Flags, and More Flags

American Flags in Crowd, july fourth traditions

During the Fourth of July, Americans wear their patriotism on their sleeves—and everywhere else (despite the fact that it's technically prohibited by U.S. Code). But that's not necessarily the norm elsewhere.

"I was surprised to see that the U.S. flag is displayed in schools, on rooftops of houses, et cetera," Quora user Aniruddh Chaturvedi, originally from India, wrote about his early impressions of the country. "India has very strict rules governing the display and use of the national flag."

Patriotic Beer

Anheuser-busch america beer july fourth traditions

Only in the United States would a major beer company just rename itself in honor of Independence Day. That's what Anheuser-Busch did in the summer of 2016, rebranding its Budweiser cans to read "America," in a patriotic move that garnered tons of publicity, but left plenty of outsiders confused.

Massive Backyard Parties

black family grilling outside, father's day gifts, gifts for dad

While many Europeans might head to the park or have a modest gathering in their home, Americans often host big bashes in their massive backyards. "I see American houses on TV and am amazed by how they have all these massive detached houses," wrote British Redditor @BloatedBaryonyx. "I thought the people living there were rich or something, but I eventually picked up enough context to know that this was a standard suburban house." This is especially true around the Fourth of July, when Americans get excuses to show off their mini-mansions in a major way.

American Cheese. On Anything. And Everything.

american cheese on burger, july fourth traditions

A standard topping Americans will toss on their burger during Independence Day celebrating is that beloved square of American cheese. It pretends to be cheddar cheese, but is a pasteurized—and, some might say, watered down and over-processed—version of it. "In Canada, they don't have 'American cheese,'" one Redditor noted. "They have 'Kraft processed singles.'"

Red, White, and Blue Everywhere

patriotism, american flag t-shirt july fourth traditions

Go to any Fourth of July gathering and you can expect to be visually assaulted by America's patriotic colors. From T-shirts to novelty glasses to full linen suits, we love to make fashion statements when celebrating our country.

Massive Amounts of Food

steaks on grill, july fourth traditions

One of the freedoms we like to celebrate on the Fourth is the freedom to eat as much as we like. Summer barbecues are filled with massive slabs of steak, triple cheeseburgers, and spacious grills covered with dozens of dogs—the fact that no one will be able to finish all of the food that's getting cooked up is beside the point… and true to the American stereotype.

Giant Barbecue Grills

grill july fourth traditions

In most other countries, a barbecue is a simple grill with a place for the charcoal, a place for the meat, and a lid to pop over the top. But in the United States, we like to kick things up several notches, with barbecue grills that take up half the backyard patio and come with three burners, wood-smoking and rotisserie-roasting options, and a built-in refrigerator so guests can keep their beers cold while they watch you cook.

Young Adults "Can't" Drink

man refusing alcohol, july fourth traditions

In the United States, the legal drinking age is far older than every other developed nation. And that's fully on display during our celebrations of the Fourth, where everyone's drinking, usually openly, even though technically half the people with beers in their hands are not legally allowed to. "In the United States, you feel like a fugitive for 75 percent of the time you're at college," Kaplan and Palmer noted.


tailgating july fourth traditions

Why celebrate in the comfort of your backyard or in a lush park when you can party in a parking lot? Americans love tailgating, setting up a pseudo campsite outside our trucks and creating a party on the asphalt, complete with enough gear and food to sustain an army for a week. Good luck spotting a bash like that in suburban Bournemouth!

Open-Door Policy Parties

friends summer bbq fourth of july traditions

Americans have a reputation for throwing open the doors to their gatherings and eagerly welcoming anyone who cares to join. For Fourth of July, that's doubly true, as hosts in the United States are often fine with welcoming friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. "Americans are extremely friendly, almost to an uncomfortable degree for some," Reddit user @TheMediumPanda wrote.

Lobster Racing

three lobsters on a wooden deck

This tradition may not be as widespread as fireworks or barbecues, but it is baffling enough to have gained a reputation for seriously confusing outsiders. The Lobster Races at MDI YMCA is an annual event in the city of Bar Harbor, Maine, in which a handful of crustaceans (many sponsored by local businesses) race against one another, in multiple heats throughout the day. Visitors put $1 bets on the lobster of their choice and cheer for their favorite to be the one to slowly make it across the finish line first.

Treating our Founding Fathers as Rock Stars

Mount Rushmore South Dakota weird state facts

Every country has its history-makers and celebrated founders, but Americans take our love of our own bewigged declarers of independence to a much higher level. Figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson don't just grace our currency, they grace hilariously over-patriotic tank tops worn on the Fourth, often with sayings like, "America: Back-to-Back World War Champs!" After all, how many other countries have massive hit hip-hop musicals about their founders?

Complaining about "90-Degree" Temperatures

fahrenheit thermometer july fourth traditions

For one thing, it's in Fahrenheit—so anything "9o-degree" will leave a foreigner totally puzzled—as one Australian wrote for Odyssey, "Fahrenheit: why do you have to be so confusing?"

The ongoing confusion about why Americans refuse to adopt the comparatively straightforward, universally accepted metric system hits a boiling point in the hot summer months when all the talk about the temperature "being in the 90s" or "hitting 100" becomes a constant topic of conversation—and leaves metric-using foreigners confused.

Celebrations of Freedom

friends at a fourth of july cookout july fourth traditions

Around the Fourth of July, you'll hear Americans hold court on "freedom" and "liberty"—and that's not just anecdotal. In a recent survey, the Pew Research Center found that "Americans tend to prioritize individual liberty, while Europeans tend to value the role of the state to ensure no one in society is in need."

And Festivals Celebrating Non-Fourth Things!

crowd at a festival july fourth traditions

The Fourth of July is a big time for festivals—from sea to shining sea. From the Vintage Car Show, in Lakehurst, New Jersey, to the San Francisco Mime Troupe's Bay Area Opening Weekend, we celebrate a lot more than our independence on the Fourth.

Uncle Sam

uncle sam walking in the jacksonville florida july fourth parade

Who is the bearded guy walking in the local Fourth of July parade? Where did he come from? Was he based on a real person? What's his story? Why is he on stilts? Americans wouldn't think twice about any of these questions. Tourists and visitors, on the other hand, are left scratching their long white beards. And for more on the Fourth, check out the 30 Major Events That Also Happened on July Fourth.

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Alex Daniel
A journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Read more
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