On Independence Day 2022, many Americans found reason to gather and celebrate for the first time in three years amid easing coronavirus precautions. And Joey "Jaws" Chestnut again demonstrated his appetite for hot dogs, retaining the crown.
It was a day for taking off work, flocking to parades, devouring hot dogs and burgers at backyard barbecues and gathering under a canopy of stars and fireworks.
"The Fourth of July is a sacred day in our country -- it's a time to celebrate the goodness of our nation, the only nation on Earth founded based on an idea: that all people are created equal," President Joe Biden tweeted Monday. "Make no mistake, our best days still lie ahead."
Biden celebrated with his optimistic tweet as he prepared to host military families for a barbecue at the White House and fireworks on the National Mall. A year ago, he presided over a similar Independence Day party that was billed as the first big public spectacle after the pandemic.
Colorful displays were scheduled to light up the night sky Monday from New York to Seattle and from Chicago to Dallas. But other locales, particularly in drought-stricken and wildfire-prone regions of the West, planned to forgo that feature of the holiday.
Fireworks were the suspected cause of a fire in Centerville, Utah, that led to the evacuation of dozens of homes and the cancellation of some of its Independence Day events, officials said.
It was a different matter in Phoenix, which is again going without fireworks -- not because of the pandemic or fire concerns, but because of supply-chain issues.
In emotional ceremonies across the country, some swore oaths of citizenship, qualifying them to vote as soon as the midterm elections.
In a ceremony for naturalized citizens at Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told 52 people from 42 countries that they were essential to the nation.
"Immigrants strengthen our workforce, and, in the process, help drive the resiliency and vitality of our economy," she said.
For many, July 4 was also a chance to set aside political differences and celebrate unity, reflecting on the revolution that gave rise to history's longest-living democracy.
"There's always something to divide or unite us," said Eli Merritt, a political historian at Vanderbilt University whose forthcoming book traces the fraught founding of the United States.
But he sees the House hearings probing last year's storming of the U.S. Capitol as a reason for hope, an opportunity to rally behind democratic institutions. Even though not all Americans or their elected representatives agree with the committee's work, Merritt is heartened by the fact that it's at least somewhat bipartisan.
"Moral courage as a locus for Americans to place hope, the willingness to stand up for what is right and true in spite of negative consequences to oneself," he said. "That is an essential glue of constitutional democracy."
DARTH VADER, STORMTROOPER
The frankfurter-munching phenom Chestnut put a protester in a chokehold while gobbling his way to a 15th win Monday at the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest, powering down 63 dogs and buns at the annual exhibition of excess.
In a decisive comeback, women's record-holder Miki Sudo downed 40 wieners to win that title after skipping last year's frank fest because she was pregnant.
A spectator wearing a Darth Vader mask rushed the stage, momentarily disrupting the competition. Chestnut subdued the protester until contest officials hurried over and escorted him away.
Another protester in a white stormtrooper mask had also snuck behind the competitors and hoisted a sign saying, "Expose Smithfield's Deathstar," referring to the manufacturer of the Nathan's hot dog brand.
After the altercation, Chestnut went back to the task at hand: Devouring more hot dogs.
Monday marked the contest's return to its traditional location outside Nathan's flagship shop in Brooklyn's Coney Island neighborhood. The event was relocated in 2020 and last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's beautiful to be back here" in front of a throng of spectators, Chestnut told ESPN after his feat, which the 38-year-old managed while wearing a surgical boot because of a leg injury.
"It hurts, but I was in the zone for a little bit. I was ignoring it," said Chestnut, but the pain eventually slowed his pace in the 10-minute competition.
Last year, the Westfield, Ind., resident topped his own record by consuming 76 franks and buns.
Sudo, of Tampa, Fla., set the women's record at 48½ wieners in 2020 before taking last year off while expecting her baby. She and Nick Wehry -- a fellow competitive eater whom she met through the Nathan's contest in 2018 -- welcomed son Max on July 8, 2021.
From dad's arms, the baby watched his 36-year-old mother notch her eighth Nathan's win. She told ESPN she hoped he would someday take a message from it.
"I want to set an example," she said, "to do things that you love and push yourself to your absolute limits and, when things get difficult, to still give it a try. And, you know, you might actually just come out victorious."
Sudo then took over parenting duties while Wehry tried for the men's title.
Information for this article was contributed by Bobby Caina Calvan, Kathleen Foody, Michael Tarm, Roger Schneider, Fatima Hussein, Stephen Groves, Amy Beth Hanson, Jennifer Peltz and Julia Nikhinson of The Associated Press; and by Dave Goldiner of the New York Daily News (TNS).