Entertaining on the Fourth of July has become a grand old American tradition, as patriotic as setting off firecrackers and waving flags.

"It's a group holiday," said Debbie Wilson, manager of Dana Party Supplies in Capistrano Beach, which stays open on the Fourth just to sell red, white and blue balloons. "And people are celebrating in a more decorative way. We've seen a real resurgence in the Fourth."

Decorating home and garden for Independence Day picnics, potlucks and ice cream socials has exploded like a fireworks finale. The Fourth of July has become a major thematic event, right up there with Halloween and Christmas, decor experts say.

"People are more interested in decorating for all of the holidays," said Eric Cortina, creative director of Roger's Gardens in Corona del Mar. "Entertaining is back."

The stars and stripes have turned up on tableware, party goods, knickknacks and holiday-inspired home accessories. Many table decorations reflect a nostalgic longing for old-fashioned Fourth celebrations, when folks would sit out on front porches draped in bunting and watch the small-town parade go by.

"It's that Main Street U.S.A. look," said Darren Calkins, a buyer at Roger's Gardens. "Nostalgia seems to be really big. People want to re-create what they experienced as a child."

People are setting their tables with vintage-looking china and glassware, such as Roger's hobnail tumblers ($15 each) made from the same nubby molds as vintage milk glass, and galvanized aluminum charger plates ($13 each) reminiscent of old metal pails and watering cans.

"Everything has an Americana feel to it," Cortina said.

Others are decorating picnic and patio tables with vintage Fourth paraphernalia.

"There were all kinds of things that were patriotic or red, white and blue" in the early 1900s, said Mary Ann Kennedy, a group owner of American Roots antiques in Orange.

Some decorators drape their tables in vintage banners, bunting or patriotic quilts, she said. Red woven table linens that were popular at the turn of the century make ideal Fourth cloths ($85 to $145). Tables can also be covered in checkered or plaid cloths from the 1930s that came in patriotic combinations of red, white and blue (about $30 to $45).

Tin picnic baskets (about $45), some embellished with flags, were popular in the 1920s and '30s and are now used for decoration or get-togethers at beaches and parks on the Fourth, Kennedy said. Antique wicker baskets painted Americana colors ($175 to $300) have become highly desirable for display, not just on the Fourth but year-round.

Showing one's patriotic spirit need not involve a big investment. Often, people can use red, white or blue tableware they have on hand and add just a few inexpensive decorations, Calkins said.

He created a Fourth of July table using blue and white import china, which many people collect.

"People have so much blue and white [china]. They might already have tall ginger jars on their fireplace mantle. Why do they have to stay indoors? Why not pull them off the mantle and use them outdoors on the table?" Calkins said.

"Or you can use your white china and your silver and add red cut glass" instead of crystal for an elegant Independence Day dinner, he said. Roger's carries carved glasses in red or blue ($5 each). Blue glassware remains popular and can be found at Target, Pier 1 Imports, other discount stores.

Calkins also suggests bringing out one's white tablecloth and adding striped bunting down the middle; at around $7 a yard at Roger's or fabric stores, it's an inexpensive table runner.

Decorators can mix their tableware with a few items that sell for under $10 and scream Independence Day like a Piccolo Pete.

Postcard-sized flags, which Roger's has for $2 each, can be tucked into napkin rings. Glass or crystal bowls from the cupboard can be filled with star-shaped floating candles (99 cents) for the centerpiece.

Kennedy suggests filling terra-cotta flower pots or fruit jars with small American flags, available at many hardware and drug stores for a buck or two. Red wagons and tin wheelbarrows can be filled with watermelons. Some decorators add fold-out paper bells, Old Glory garland and ribbon made of shiny red, white and blue Mylar or flag and fireworks patterns, according to Toni Thomason, manager of Stats in Capistrano Beach.

"Everything's traditional. Some ribbons have a touch of gold, but most things are pure red, white and blue," she said.

Red carnations and roses, lavender agapanthus, white daisies and other fresh flowers cut from the garden make simple--and cheap--Fourth of July decorations. Stats also offers silk flowers set in custom arrangements that feature candles and flags ranging from $6 for a small design to more elaborate creations for $50.

Ivy topiaries can grace tables indoors and out; Roger's Gardens has some varieties shaped like stars and adorned with patriotic ribbon for $25. Those who already own topiaries can simply add a star-spangled blue and white ribbon or wire garland with shooting Mylar stars.

Paper plates and napkins remain a popular choice for casual outdoor get-togethers, and they don't have to be plain old white.

There are fancy red, white or blue metallic paper plates and cups or sets with designer stars and stripes. Cups and plates range from about $2 to $8 a set at Dana Party Supplies and Stats.

Still, whether the table is set with paper plates or china, the real stars will always be the apple pies, potato salads, barbecue and other traditional Fourth of July fare.

As Stats manager Thomason says, "It's all about food."

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