For many people, Christmas is the big holiday. For others, it’s the Fourth of July. For Tiffany Hutton, it’s July 3.
That’s the day Chattanooga usually holds its annual Pops on the River at Coolidge Park, with a performance by the Chattanooga Symphony and fireworks.
“It’s my day,” she said. “Christmas is a lot of work, Thanksgiving is a lot of cooking, and on Halloween everyone’s trying to figure out what costume to wear. This is just easy and fun. Everyone is just happy.”
Coming to the Pops been a tradition in her family for six years. This year, Hutton pulled together barbecue, homemade sangria and red, white and blue Rice Krispie treats for her family and friends.
Hutton and her family had claimed their spot on the lawn at 7 a.m. Sunday.
By 6 p.m., Coolidge Park had become thoroughly red, white and blue with flags and balloons, and the Walnut Street Bridge bulged with onlookers as a steady stream of people lugged coolers, wagons and tents and set up camp.
Joel Chanez and his family came from Whitfield County, Ga., for the extravaganza. His son Cesar, 8, was one of dozens of kids ducking in and out of the park’s fountains.
Chanez emigrated from Mexico 18 years ago and said he adopted the holiday a long time ago.
“It’s a great day for family,” he said. “We’ll throw chicken and steak on the grill, go to the fireworks in Dalton.”
The Pops concert draws about 25,000 people each year, said Carla Pritchard of Chattanooga Presents, which organizes the event.
“It feels great every year,” Pritchard said. “It’s so important for a community to have an Independence Day celebration.”
Pulling the Pops together this year was particularly satisfying, Pritchard said, because of earlier funding worries. The event is sponsored by several organizations and the city.
Sunday night, organizers passed out buckets to take donations for next year.
As the minutes ticked down to the opening fanfare, musicians guzzled water and fanned themselves in the heat.
“It’s very hot for them,” said Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Executive Director Molly Sasse. “But it’s so much fun. It’s such an important cultural part of this city.”
The orchestra played familiar patriotic tunes like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “American Salute,” but it also played themes from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Sound of Music.”
The concert was new CSO Music Director Kayoko Dan’s official debut. Dan is the orchestra’s first female director and its youngest ever. She exuded a gracefully commanding presence and interacted warmly with the crowd.
“If you want to hum along, sing along, dance along, feel free. This is the place to do it,” she said.
As the crowds settled back to take in the fireworks, Chattanooga firefighters were poised for any stray sparks that might take a wayward turn.
Fire Department spokesman Bruce Garner said the department usually stations at least one engine at the annual fireworks display.
He said there’s usually not a major uptick in fireworks-related blazes on the Fourth, but he cautioned parents to take their kids to commercial fireworks displays instead of setting off their own.
“Despite your best efforts to use fireworks safely, they can malfunction or set off in the wrong direction,” he said.