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5 Holiday Shopping Pitfalls to Avoid

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Now that the holiday shopping season is in full swing, you'll probably have to navigate a retail gauntlet to pick up gifts for everyone on your list. You may think that as long as you don't headbutt another customer while going for the last Wii or get assaulted in a doorbuster frenzy on Black Friday, you'll be fine. You might want to reconsider, though, as any number of pitfalls could still give you trouble, including some that strike after you get your booty to its carefully chosen hiding place in your home. (And yes, your children know it's all hidden in the guest room closet.)

1. Fisticuffs

Everyone jokes about fistfights to get a particularly coveted item, but every year people forget the holiday spirit and decide to throw down. This year's Black Friday was no exception. Videos of a scrum for the last Xbox 360 trickled onto YouTube, but no story quite encapsulated the merry sentiments of shoppers quite like this one from Friday's New York Times:

At a Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, Nikki Nicely, 19, jumped onto a man's back and pounded his shoulders when he tried to take a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television to which she had laid claim. "That's my TV!" Ms. Nicely shouted. "That's my TV!"

A police officer and security guard intervened, but not before Ms. Nicely took an elbow in the face. In the end, she was the one with the $798 television, marked down from $1,000. "That's right," she cried as her adversary walked away. "This here is my TV!"

2. Store Bankruptcy

Nothing says "I care, but not enough to put any thought into your gift!" quite like a gift card from a big-box retailer. While sticking a gift card in an envelope may seem slightly more personal than giving cash, it carries some added dangers. In the current economic climate, it's not all that uncommon for a store to go bankrupt, which means your gift will also say, "I didn't care enough to investigate this merchant's underlying financials, either." Some estimates state that the bankruptcies of stores like Linens "˜n Things and The Sharper Image this year have killed off close to $100 million in gift card value.

You're not necessarily left out in the cold if you've got a gift card for a company that files for bankruptcy; Circuit City actually received permission to continue honoring their outstanding cards after filing for Chapter 11 a few weeks ago. Other stores will redeem their cards, but there might be a catch. When The Sharper Image filed for Chapter 11 earlier this year, it eventually allowed consumers to redeem their gift cards"¦but only if they were spending twice the card's value on a transaction. Companies don't have to do even that, though, and if the store for which you're holding a card goes totally belly-up and starts paying off its creditors, you're probably not going to see the $40 from your aunt. You can make a claim in bankruptcy court to get your cash back, but as an unsecured creditor, good luck seeing any money. You'll be one tiny step up the payment priority ladder from the kid the CEO borrowed milk money from in grade school and never repaid.

3. Filthy Money

You've probably heard statistics about just how grimy paper bills can get as they circulate. A 2007 Irish study found that 100 percent of tested bills contained trace amounts of cocaine. Your cash isn't just covered in narcotics, though; it's also crawling with germs. A 2001 study showed that 87 percent of bills contained bacteria that could conceivable make someone with a weak immune system sick, and 7 percent of the studied bills carried bacteria that could make even a healthy person sick. You're picking up bacteria everywhere, so you don't need to do anything rash like trade in your wallet for a coin purse. But if you're handling a lot of extra cash during your holiday shopping, you might want to stock up on some hand sanitizer.

4. Drug Trafficking

Just find that hot new toy you were looking for? You might want to give it the once-over to make sure it's not full of narcotics. Colorado authorities got a surprise as they investigated a methamphetamine ring in 2006; enterprising traffickers were packing toys with their wares. Most notably, an Elmo doll contained four pounds of meth. Watch out for this sort of trap if you decide to look for tough-to-find toys on the secondary market. It may seem like a long shot, but if your Elmo sweats and nervously scratches his face instead of giggling when tickled, you might want to keep moving.

5. Deadly Toys

Once you've scrapped and clawed for that perfect toy to put under the tree, you might want to make sure it's not conspiring to harm your child. For this year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is warning against five specific types of toy threats: scooters (potentially deadly falls), small balls and small parts (choking hazards), balloons (again, choking), magnets (look delicious but cause injuries if swallowed), and toys with chargers or adapters (burn hazards).

Even if you manage to avoid all of those tempting-but-deadly toys, there's no guarantee that the toy you pick won't have a problem with high lead content. Last year manufacturers recalled close to 4 million toys due to lead concerns. Those Curious George plush dolls may have looked adorable, but The Man in the Yellow Hat never explained the less-cute symptoms of lead poisoning, including nausea, chest pain, and irritability.

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10 Things You Didn't Know About the Fourth of July
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With 242 years of tradition behind it, the Fourth of July is one of America’s most cherished holidays. It's when we celebrate our nation's mythology with a day off, a backyard barbecue, and plenty of fireworks. But with all that history, you'd be forgiven if you didn't know quite everything about July 4. So from the true story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to some staggering hot dog statistics, here are 10 things you might not know about the Fourth of July.

1. THE DECLARATION WASN'T SIGNED ON JULY 4 (OR IN JULY AT ALL).

John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons

It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn't quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

It's now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on the Fourth of July—that's just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.

So if you want to sound like a history buff at your family's barbecue this year, point out that we're celebrating the adoption of the Declaration, not the signing of it.

2. THE FIRST CELEBRATIONS WEREN'T MUCH DIFFERENT THAN TODAY'S.

After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

"The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."

There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.

3. EATING SALMON ON THE FOURTH IS A TRADITION IN NEW ENGLAND.

The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.

To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you'll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you're really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)

4. MASSACHUSETTS WAS THE FIRST STATE TO RECOGNIZE THE HOLIDAY.

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn't until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.

However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday "within the District of Columbia" only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.

5. THE OLDEST ANNUAL FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION IS HELD IN BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND.

Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as "America's Oldest Fourth of July Celebration," the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.

The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2017 will be its 232nd entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a "patriotic exercise"—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.

6. AND THE SHORTEST PARADE IS IN APTOS, CALIFORNIA.

From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there's a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.

7. THERE ARE AROUND 15,000 INDEPENDENCE DAY FIREWORKS CELEBRATIONS EVERY YEAR.

Fireworks burst over New York City.
JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren't exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at around $2.5 million.

8. WE'LL EAT AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF HOT DOGS.

Around 150 million, to be more specific—that's how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

In 2016, 70 of those dogs were scarfed down by Joey Chestnut, who won the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition for the ninth time.

9. AND WE'LL SPEND BILLIONS ON FOOD.

Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $7.1 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.

Then comes the booze. The Beer Institute estimates that Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $450 million on wine.

10. THREE PRESIDENTS HAVE DIED, AND ONE WAS BORN, ON THE FOURTH.

You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They're not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country's 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

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These Digital Fireworks Displays Can Help You Celebrate July 4 Wherever You Live
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Every Fourth of July needs to be capped off with a dazzling fireworks display, but depending on where you live, getting to one isn’t always easy. Many states have strict laws around which fireworks you can and can’t use on your own, and if there’s no public show in your town, you may be totally out of luck.

If you’re still craving a show, though, AtmosFX’s digital fireworks displays may be your best bet. These digital, animated fireworks shows can be downloaded from the company’s site where you can then either display them on your TV or project them onto surfaces around your home or backyard. The video options available allow for some customization, so you can either stick with a generic fireworks display or choose some patriotic colors along with a "Happy Fourth of July" message.

The company’s various digital fireworks videos come in at a 1080p HD resolution with sound effects that can be adjusted and customized—which is the perfect alternative to those decibel-busting fireworks displays designed to frighten your beloved pets. Some videos are meant to be displayed on TVs and monitors, while others are for wall projections and window displays. You can buy these à la carte for $6.99 each, or together in a package for $20.

Whether you live in an apartment, a state that prohibits fireworks, or are expecting some wet weather for your Independence Day party, look into a digital alternative by heading to the AtmosFX website.

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