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Celebration: Patriotic Holidays in Colonial America and the Early United States

Updated: Oct 11



On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth (June 19th) our 11th Federal holiday. Of these there are four that are inarguably what we would call “patriotic holidays.” These are President’s Day (George Washington’s Birthday), Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day. Of these four, only two of them date back to the 18th and early-19th centuries: Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. Memorial Day, first observed in 1868, did not become a Federal Holiday until 1971. Meanwhile, the first celebration using the term “Veterans Day” occurred in 1947. Originally known as Armistice Day – a day to commemorate those who died in WWI – it became a legal Federal holiday in 1938. With the huge mobilization, and loss of life required for fighting WWII, the US Congress amended the holiday in 1954 making it Veterans Day to honor all who have served in the US military in all wars.


So, the question arises, “just what patriotic holidays did people here in British North America observe during the Colonial Era and then later in the Early Republic?

Before the Revolution

Prior to the American Revolution, the holidays observed by colonists in North America were largely the same as those observed in England. These fell into two categories; those that were annual observances and those that occurred a single time to commemorate some significant military victory or event. In today's article we are going to limit ourselves to only discussing the annual patriotic celebrations.


The King's Birthday (or Ascension Day)

The King’s Birthday was perhaps the most widely celebrated holiday and was almost always one of the largest of the year. The date of this varied over the years depending on who was the King (or Queen). For instance, during the seventeenth century we had James I (19 June), Charles I (19 November), Charles II (29 May), James II (14 October), and William III (4 November). In the 18th and Early 19th Centuries we had Anne (6 February), George I (28 May), George II (30 October), George III (24 May), and George IV (12 August). Holding the observance in the Monarch’s actual birthday continued until 1936, when the Parliament decided to keep the observance on the second Monday in June.

Queen's Birthday Ball at St. James Palace
Queen's Birthday Ball at St. James Palace

Here in the English colonies the King’s birthday was celebrated with gusto. On the 15th of February 1703, the treasurer of New York City was ordered to repay to the mayor £9 10s 3d, which he had spent for a large outdoor celebration on Her Majesty’s birthday which included a bonfire, beer, and wine for the citizens.


In the November 5, 1736, issue of the Virginia Gazette they report from Williamsburg, VA:


Last Saturday being His Majesty’s Birth Day, the same was observ’d here, with firing of Guns, Illuminations, and other Demonstrations of Loyalty: And at Night there was a handsome Appearance of Gentlemen and Ladies at His Honour the Governor’s where was a Ball, and an elegant Entertainment for them.

A Ball at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, VA
A Ball at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg, VA

In 1760, the gentry of New York celebrated King George III's birthday at Bowling Green Garden in the city with "A deal of Fireworks...and many...Loyal Healths...drank by His Honour our Governor, and other principal Gentlemen of this City."


The June 6, 1766, issue of the Virginia Gazette reported from Williamsburg, VA:


“Wednesday last, being the King’s Birthday, his Honour the Governor, with some of the principal Gentlemen of this city, met at Mr. Pullett’s tavern, and spent the evening in honour of His Majesty; and several houses were illuminated, as also the flag displayed on the Capitol. There was no ball at the Palace, nor any publick rejoicing here; as we learn that the 255th of October, the anniversary of the assention of our Most Gracious Sovereign to the throne, will for the future be observed in the same manner as his Majesty’s birthday used to be, a great deal of company generally being in town at that season of the year.”


On June 6, 1768, in New York:

“an elegant entertainment was given by General Gage to the Gentlemen of the Army, and of this place. In the evening, a number of lamps were dispersed in such a manner over the gate in the fort as to represent the letters GR, and before the door of his Excellency General Gage was exhibited by lamps, properly placed, an elegant appearance of the Royal Arms, there being also a general illumination throughout the whole city, and every demonstration of joy thrown by all ranks that could be expressed by a loyal people to a gracious sovereign.” (Virginia Gazette, June 30, 1768)


Finally, from New Bern, NC we find the following description of the celebration of the King’s birthday.


“That very elegant and noble structure the PALACE, which has been erected here by this province, for the residence of his Excellency the Governor, and his successors in office, being now very near completely finished; the opening of the same, together with the King’s birth day, were celebrated here on Wednesday last: At noon a royal salute was fired from the battery, and in the evening his Excellency gave a very grand and noble entertainment and ball at the Palace, . . . About eight in the evening the company were entertained with a very grand and (illegible) exhibition of fire works which were played off in the back yard of the Palace a bonfire was also lighted up, and great plenty of liquor given to the populace.” (Virginia Gazette, 10 January 1771)


Pope Day (Guy Fawkes Day)

The other annual “patriotic” observance in the American Colonies was Pope Day (Guy Fawkes Day in England), which was celebrated on November 5th. It commemorated the failed “gunpowder plot” in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament, in which Guy Fawkes was the chief plotter. Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, had hoped to rid England of Protestant rule. It was brought to the North American colonies by British settlers, and was widely observed, especially in New England and in New York.


While Pope Day had been celebrated in New England as early as the 1720s, it became much more commonplace in the 1760s after the French and Indian War ended. The struggle with the Catholic French and their Catholic Indian allies had sparked a wave of anti-Catholicism throughout the colonies. More measures against Catholics were enacted in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania and Pope Day ceremonies became more elaborate affairs.


Because of this, it evolved into an anti-Catholic ritual, especially in Boston and New York, where public practice of the religion was banned during most of the colonial period. Men and boys would hang effigies of the pope, or the devil, often burning them in huge bonfires. Rowdy mobs would occasionally get out of hand, and there was at least one death in Boston during Pope’s Day revelry.

Early Illustration of Pope's Night activities
Early Illustration of Pope's Night activities

Pope’s Day in Newport RI was described as follows:


A great bonfire was established on the lower end of the main street...Soon after dark, a rude stage...placed on wheels and drawn by horses, made its appearance, on which was seated...an effigy of the pope, hideously painted, and behind him stood another representing the Devil...Two men with masks on their faces and fantastically attired, attended the grotesque figures...One of these men was furnished with a pole, at the end of which a little basket was suspended in which to receive contributions for drinking the King’s health, and the other man carried a small bell; the whole was surrounded with lanterns…the entourage would go to the homes of the wealthy, ring the bell and put out their basket for a contribution. If the owner did not offer a donation, “the end of the pole was driven through the glass and the pageant proceeded to some other house amid the shouts and uproar of the crowd.” When the parade ended, the pope’s effigy was then tossed into the bonfire to great cheering.


Interestingly, the person most responsible for the decline of Pope’s Day was likely to have been George Washington. On taking command of the Continental forces besieging Boston in 1775, Washington learned that his troops were planning to celebrate Pope Day that November 5. From his headquarters he issued a stern warning:


That ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope—He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step … at a time when we are soliciting, and have really obtain’d the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada.”


Washington’s statement worked. No soldiers dared celebrate Pope Day that year. In the years following, the event died out in New England and the rest of the colonies. As the colonists sought help first from Canada and later from France their attitudes towards Catholics rapidly shifted.


In the Early United States


Washington's Birthday

During the Revolutionary War, commemorations of George Washington's birthday began to replace those honoring George III. The birthday of George Washington has not always been celebrated on the same day. Washington was born on February 11, 1731. [If this date doesn’t look familiar, remember that in 1751 the English Parliament adopted the Gregorian calendar and added eleven days to the calendar, which changed the date of Washington’s birth to February 22, 1732. Old habits die hard, and some people did not recognize the calendar change; in fact, Washington continued to celebrate his birthday on February 11 until the early 1790's.]


Soldiers at Valley Forge in 1778 gathered to offer birthday wishes to their Commander-in-Chief with a serenade by the band of the Fourth Continental Artillery. As early as 1779 the birthday was a cause for public celebration in Milton, Massachusetts. In 1781, Count de Rochambeau honored Washington by a declaration of celebration in Newport, Rhode Island where “French troops paraded through the city and the French and American officers dined together.”


Richmond, Virginia claims to have held the first public celebration to honor Washington; in 1782 when a celebration was held on February 11 and “demonstrations of joy” filled the city. Talbot Courthouse, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts both had special celebrations to honor Washington’s fifty-first birthday on February 11, 1783, however, New York City is recognized as the first location to institute a public celebration to honor Washington on February 22. In the New York harbor a gun sounded a salute and “a number of men dined together, heard speeches praising Washington, and exchanged thirteen toasts – one for each of the original thirteen colonies.”


In the last years of the 18th century and early years of the nineteenth century, in cities across the United States like New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond, public balls and dinners were major events for social elites, while public parades and demonstrations for the masses filled the city streets of the Republic, celebrating Washington's Birthday. The February 26, 1779, issue of the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, Virginia reported a ball was held in honor of Washington. The Virginia Herald of Alexandria, Virginia and the Fredericksburg Advertiser reported that a birthday ball was held for Washington in Alexandria on February 11, 1780.

Gadsby's Tavern, Alexandria, VA
Gadsby's Tavern, Alexandria, VA

Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria held the first recognized Birth night Ball for Washington on February 10, 1797, even though Washington could not attend because he was still in Philadelphia. Notices were placed in both The Times and Alexandria Advertiser, inviting all “Ladies of Alexandria and its vicinity on both sides of the Potomac” to the ball and indicated where gentlemen could purchase tickets. In 1798, after Washington returned to Mount Vernon Gadsby’s hosted the ball on February 11, 1798. On February 11, 1799, Gadsby’s held the last Birth night Ball during Washington’s lifetime. However, the tradition continued after his death. The Alexandria Gazette ran the following advertisement on February 18, 1803:


“The Gentlemen of Alexandria and its vicinity are respectfully informed, that an Assembly will be given at Gadsby’s Hotel, on the 22nd instant [February], in commemoration of the Nativity of Washington.”


These balls continued to be held until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1932 the American Legion post #22 restarted the tradition of Birth night balls but it was not an annual affair, and it was not until 1976 that the Birth night balls became an annual tradition Gadsby’s in Alexandria


On the downside, by the 1790s, some celebrations of Washington's birthday were as elitist as those honoring George III had been 30 years before. One resident reported:


"There is a great deal of snobbery in Philadelphia, where classes are sharply divided. This is particularly noticeable at balls. There are some balls where no one is admitted unless his professional standing is up to a certain mark. . . At one of the balls held on February 23, 1795, to celebrate the birthday of Washington, I begged Mr. Vaughan, my near neighbor, and my colleague in the Philosophical Society, to buy me one of the tickets of admission. But he replied that since I was a storekeeper, I could not aspire to this honor. . .I got no tickets, and did not see the ball."


In the years following his death in 1799, patrons publicly honored George Washington, as they visited pleasure gardens. Washington was no longer just a hero & the nation's first president; he was a god. In 1832, a Congressional committee invited Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall to deliver an oration on February 22 to mark Washington's Birthday. The seventy-seven-year-old Marshall—too frail to physically speak—declined "the honor proposed" regretting his inability to mark "that great event."


Independence Day (July 4)

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. Although the vote for actual independence took place on July 2nd, with the formal adoption 2 days later the 4th of July became the day that was celebrated as the birth of American independence. During the summer of 1776, some colonists celebrated the birth of independence by holding mock funerals for King George III as a way of symbolizing the end of the monarchy’s hold on America and the triumph of liberty.


Philadelphia held the first annual commemoration of independence on July 4, 1777, while Congress was still occupied with the ongoing war. Festivities included bonfires, parades and the firing of cannons and muskets, accompanied by the public reading of the Declaration of Independence. The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported:


“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.”


That same night, the Sons of Liberty set off fireworks over Boston Common.

George Washington issued double rations of rum to all his soldiers to mark the anniversary of independence in 1778, and in 1781, several months before the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown, Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4th an official state holiday.


Many 4th of July celebrations took place in American commercial gardens. A public pleasure garden was a privately owned (as opposed to governmentally owned) ornamental ground or piece of land, open to the public as a resort or amusement area and operated as a business. Shortly after the ratification of the Constitution--by the early 1790's--the 4th of July emerged as the most popular holiday celebration in America's commercial gardens.


When inclement weather caused Baltimore's John Jalland, owner of Jalland's Gardens, to reschedule his annual 4th of July ceremony in 1794, the proprietor promised his disappointed, tea-drinking patrons that the rain-delayed garden illumination would "take place with splendor, in commemoration of a day which every tyrant must abhor, but which every friend of liberty must venerate as the first dawn of Gallic freedom." Jalland also vowed to provide music "suitable to the occasion" of the anniversary of his nation's Declaration of Independence.


In the new Washington City in 1795, over 100 people gathered to celebrate the Declaration of Independence near the tree-lined banks of the meandering Rock Creek with a dinner prepared by the owner of the Washington Tavern. (Columbian Chronicle, 7 July 1795)


Although John Adams was the first president to occupy the executive mansion, it was Thomas Jefferson who began the traditions of a July 4th celebration at the White House or President’s House as it was called in his time. Jefferson opened the house and greeted the people along with diplomats, civil and military officers, and Cherokee chiefs in the center of the oval salon under Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington. Jefferson also added music to the celebration. The Marine Band, already "The President’s Own," played in the Entrance Hall performing "The President’s March" and other "patriotic airs."


The north grounds of the President’s Park—the "common"—came alive at daybreak with the raising of tents and booths, soon followed by crowds of people. A festival took place just for the day. Food and drink and cottage goods of all types were sold. There were horse races and cockfights and parades of the Washington Militia and other military companies. A bare headed Jefferson with his "grey locks waving in the air" watched from the steps of the White House. Then he invited everyone in to partake in his hospitality and his thanksgiving for the preservation of independence.


We have an account of July Fourth at the President’s House, 1801, from a letter from Mrs. Smith to her sister Mary Ann Smith:


"About 12 o'clock yesterday, the citizens of Washington and Geo. Town waited upon the President to make their devoirs. I accompanied Mr. Sumpter (?). We found about 20 persons present in a room where sat Mr. J. surrounded by the five Cherokee chiefs. After a conversation of a few minutes, he invited his company into the usual dining room, whose four large sideboards were covered with refreshments, such as cakes of various kinds, wine, punch, &c. Every citizen was invited to partake, as his taste dictated, of them, and the invitation was most cheerfully accepted, and the consequent duties discharged with alacrity. The company soon increased to near a hundred, including all the public officers and most of the respectable citizens, and strangers of distinction. Martial music soon announced the approach of the marine corps of Capt. Burrows, who in due military form saluted the President, accompanied by the President's March played by an excellent band attached to the corps. After undergoing various military evolutions, the company returned to the dining room, and the hand from an adjacent room played a succession of fine patriotic airs. All appeared to be cheerful, all happy. Mr. Jefferson mingled promiscuously with the citizens."


In Maryland, Rosalie Stier Calvert wrote to her father in the early 1800s about attending a 4th of July party for more than 100 people, held on the banks of the Potomac under a 70-foot-long tent decorated with laurel garlands. The table was "very well provisioned" for the garden feast. Guests were asked to come in "American made clothes," and only wines and liquors made in Virginia were served -- apple & peach brandy and whiskey. "It was a completely patriotic fete."

Fourth of July picnics and barbecues were often set up near water or under the shade of a grove of trees to protect the celebrants from the heat of the day. In Frederick, Maryland, in 1805, the town's residents assembled for a 4th of July dinner at Mr. John Dare's spring, near the shady banks of the beautiful Monocacy River. (The Hornet, 9 July 1805). At St. Johns College in the old Maryland capital of Annapolis in 1812, "a handsome dinner prepared by Mr. Isaac Parker, on College Green, under the shade of that majestic Poplar" to celebrate the nation's independence. (Maryland Gazette, 9 July 1812)

An Early 19th Century 4th of July Celebration
An Early 19th Century 4th of July Celebration

Near Philadelphia on July 4, 1814, an organization called the Tammany Society's Wigwam met at Richmond, on the shady banks of the Delaware River and "sat down to two tables of 160 feet each in length, well and plentifully supplied with the best products of the season." (Philadelphia Aurora General Advertiser, 6 July 1814)


At some outdoor public celebrations, commercial vendors set up booths & tables to provide refreshments for citizens, as they attended Fourth of July events. During the 1820 4th of July celebration in Washington D.C., turtle soup was offered at Lepreux & Kervand's "near the 7 buildings," from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m., and at Burckhart & Koenig at the Columbia Garden beginning at 12 noon. Both vendors offered carry-out service. (National Intelligencer, 3-4 July 1820.)


In New York City, Clam soup was a favorite. New Yorkers strolling through Central Park in 1824 could choose from more than soup. Vendor booths in shady Central Park offered "baked beans, roast pig and punch, custards and clam soup." (New York Daily Advertiser, 5 July 1824). Four years later, turtle soup had been added to the take-out menu on the Fourth of July in New York City. "Flushing Bay Clam and Turtle soup. . . [was] served up in the usual style, at the Flushing Hotel," while "green turtle soup" was available at the Washington Hall dinner in July of 1828. (New-York Enquirer, 4 July 1828, 2-3).


Another large outdoor dinner took place on the Washington Parade grounds in 1826 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Tables were arranged in lines 500 feet in length under a temporary covered arbor and "were tastefully decorated with flowers and evergreens." For this huge celebration, the butchers of Greenwich Market cooked & served "roasted oxen" with the Governor of New York was served first, taking the first cut of an ox. "A crowd of citizens & military then pressed forward, formed a line the whole length of the arbor, and commenced a spirited attack upon the eatables & drinkables, in the most gallant style of epicurean emulation. The attack continued with unabated ardor until the victory was complete, and the whole assailing force, satisfied with their share of booty when they retired in a peaceable and creditable manner at an early hour." (Richmond Enquirer, 14 July 1826)


The same newspaper reported that in nearby Petersburg, Virginia, 200 citizens gathered at Poplar Spring for dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fourth of July. (Richmond Enquirer, 11 July 1826)


Tickets were needed for most 4th of July celebrations, but at the 1826 dinner 50th anniversary commemoration in Charlotte, North Carolina, soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War "were invited to partake 'without money, and without price." (Charleston Courier, 21 July 1826)


Outdoor public dinners at this time sometimes allowed for the presence of women, but females were typically not invited to organization celebrations. The often-excluded women were not above taking matters into their own hands occasionally. At Mossy Spring, Kentucky, in 1819, a group of determined pioneer women "seated themselves on the grass" and celebrated the holiday with food which each had brought from home. Copying the typical progression of the gentlemen’s dinners, a patriotic oration was presented by one of the female diners followed by an offering of 13 "resolutions," not toasts, which the ladies feared might "be deemed unfeminine." (Commentator, Frankfort, Kentucky, 30 July 1819). To celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1824, the town's genteel ladies held a "Tea Party on the Green, presenting a brilliant and enchanting scene." (Boston Evening Gazette, 10 July 1824)


In Smithfield, Va., in 1855, it took an entire day prior to the Fourth to prepare for their town's dinner, which called for a wide assortment of meats and baked goods: Tuesday was a great "preparation day" in Smithfield, Virginia, for the Democratic jubilee and banner presentation was to take place on Wednesday. Chickens and ducks were decapitated by the hundred; fat pigs, lambs and calves, were slaughtered by the dozen, and a number of busy cooks were engaged in preparing immense bacon hams, and large joints and sides of fresh meat, as well as untold quantities of pies, puddings and cakes for the long tables that were spread for the numerous guests expected from Norfolk, Portsmouth, and elsewhere on the glorious Fourth (Daily Southern Argus, 7 July 1855)


Arguments against large celebrations:

From very early on, there were those who argued against these large public celebrations as likely to disturb the peace. In 1820, in Washington DC, the editor of the National Intelligencer described in an editorial the danger of public celebrations and suggested that eating in taverns might not be the best thing to do:


There are many objections, indeed, to the usual manner of commemorating the day; and it is hardly a subject of regret that ceremonies have been dispensed with which serve little other purpose than to fatigue those who engage in them, and are, to many the foundations of disease. We yet hope to see some mode devised of honoring the day, which shall not necessarily connect itself with exposure to a boiling sun, nor yet with tavern dinners. (National Intelligencer, 4 July 1820.)


To celebrate the 4th of July in 1821, in Amherst, New Hampshire, the entire town decided to not have the traditional town ceremony but to gather together to go fishing in a nearby pond and then to cook up two large pots of fish chowder for all to enjoy. (Hillsboro Telegraph, 6 July 1821)


Admittedly, sometimes these celebrations could get out of hand. In 1815, in New York, a group of "patriotic tars," who had been confined during the war as POWs at Dartmoor prison hauled down the British colors on display that day but were dispersed by the police before other mischief was done. (Niles Weekly Register, March – September, 1815 – Vol. III p. 248 H. Niles, Baltimore)


Finally, celebrations of America’s independence were not limited to the citizens of the United States. In 1831, while fourth of July celebrations were taking place, A group of Indians from the Pequod nation gathered just south of Alexandria, VA to celebrate the Fourth of July with a series of war dances at a wigwam there.


Thank you for joining us for today’s post exploring patriotic holiday celebrations in colonial America and the early United States. Hopefully this article has given you some new insights into how our ancestors viewed patriotism and how they celebrated it. This blog is now going to take a couple of months off to get some rest and gather our thoughts. Researching, writing, and publishing articles every two weeks is quite draining, and we need some rest. After that we will return to our summer “recreation” series examining sports and entertainments from the 18th and early 19th centuries.


While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


References

Apgar, P. D. (1995). Festivals of Colonial America: From Celebration to Revolution. Texas Tech University.


Burton, H. W. (1877). The History of Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk: Norfolk Virginian Job Print.


Forrest, W. S. (1853). Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Norfolk and Vicinity. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston.


Mescher, V. (2004, February). George Washington's Birthday Celebrations. Retrieved from

Ragged Soldier Sutlery and Vintage Volumes: http://www.raggedsoldier.com/wash_bday.pdf


Parks. (1736, November 05). Williamsburg, Nov. 5. Virginia Gazette, p. 4.


Purdie and Dixon. (1766, June 6). Williamsburg, June 6. Virginia Gazette, p. 2.


Purdie and Dixon. (1768, June 30). New York, June 6. Virginia Gazette, p. 2.


Quinn, J. F. (2017, Summer/Fall). From Dangerous Threat to "Illustrious Ally": Changing


Perceptions of Catholics in Eighteenth-Century Newport. Rhode Island History, 75(2), pp. 56.


Rigo, D. A. (2012). Commemoration of George Washington's Birthday. Retrieved from Washington Library, Center for Digital History, Digital Encyclopedia: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/commemoration-of-george-washingtons-birthday/


Rind. (1771, January 10). December 14. Virginia Gazette, pp. 1-2.


Sarudy, B. W. (2020, July 4). America - A Struggle between Aspirations & Realities - July 4th Ceremonies Before 1850. Retrieved from It's About Time: https://bjws.blogspot.com/2019/07/symbolism-celebrating-independence-4th.html


Stewart Col., W. H. (1902). History of Norfolk County, Virginia and Representative Citizens. Chicago: Biographical Publishing Company.


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