Going green: Why we love St. Patrick’s Day

VYTO STARINSKAS PHOTO

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 3/17/11] 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. This is the one day each year when everyone is a little Irish.

Truth be told, I actually am a little Irish; though, for obvious reasons I’ve always identified myself culturally as Italian (as you can imagine, in my family, it casts kind of a long shadow.)

A close second for me is my Scottish heritage, of which I have about 25 percent on my mother’s side. And while her family is kind of a mixed bag, I’ve been assured there’s Irish in there somewhere.

Along with New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day has earned the uncomfortable distinction as an amateur party day — a day of socially-accepted debauchery and alcoholic excess.

But behind all the Guinness-sponsored pub-crawls and Shamrock Shakes, there exists a genuine celebration and appreciation of Irish culture – a cornerstone of the American consciousness. The Irish stand out among our country’s late-19th/early-20th century immigrants in that no other’s holiday has truly risen to such ubiquitous observance.

True, Columbus Day is technically a federal holiday, but it really doesn’t approach the levels of revelry that St. Patrick’s Day does.

Sure, there are pockets of celebrations with parades here and there, but we Italians were never really able to capitalize on our day in the same way. Part of me has to wonder why.

Maybe, it’s the time of year. Columbus Day is in early October when the weather is still pleasant. Conversely, St. Patrick’s Day is in March when people — driven to near madness by the winter blues — are only too eager to throw a party.

Or perhaps, it’s Columbus’ federal holiday status, with its parenthetical “(observed)” suffixation promising its fixed occurrence on the second Monday of October, that has rendered it an innocuous excuse to sleep in and take advantage of mattress prices so low they have to be seen to be believed.

Patrick is a moving target so to speak. That’s part of the fun, I suppose. It falls on March 17 every year and, whether it be a Tuesday or a Saturday, it is observed on that day without fail. (Catholics, however, may want to note that the Church does not observe St. Patrick’s Day when it falls during Holy Week. But don’t worry; that won’t happen again until 2160.)

You see Patrick has little regard for your job, family or other life commitments. The challenge for revelers, then, is balancing their celebration with making it to work the next day.

Though, it could be the mascots that are holding us Italians back. The Irish have so many epic characters – James Joyce, any number of Kennedys, Bono (circa 1990), Conan O’Brien, leprechauns.

We Italians, on the other hand, have been on decline since the Renaissance. Just look at our role models in popular culture: the Super Mario Bros., Silvio Berlusconi (the Benny Hill of foreign leaders), the entire cast of “Jersey Shore.” The closest thing we Italians have to a leprechaun is Snooki.

Even our crime families have degraded over the years. How did we go from the romanticized nobility of the Corleone dynasty to the fat-guys-in-track-suits tackiness of the Sopranos?

Maybe, I’m being too harsh on my Italian heritage. After all, we do have the Irish on food — Grad-ma’s lasagna beats corned beef any day of the week.

Despite our small Irish claim, my family never did much for St. Patrick’s Day. Occasionally, my mother would serve up a boiled dinner of corned beef, cabbage and potatoes, but that was fairly infrequent. (Like I said, lasagna is so much better).

Of course, there is the customary wearing of the green, which my mom was always cheerfully game to do, compelling me to also take part as a child.

Going to Christ the King school, whose uniforms then were a smart, demoralizing monochromic dark blue/light blue combo, wearing green posed a challenge that my mom met by tacking a large, plastic shamrock pin onto my shirt.

And here’s the thing; I let her do this to me without protest.

In fact, I had all kinds of pins — a collection, you might say (but I wish you wouldn’t) — that I would wear to school around holidays. Halloween, Christmas, Easter, I had a pin for them all. (The Easter one was especially regretful with its cutesy bunny hunched over an array pastel of eggs.)

Despite this, I still somehow had a decent amount of friends. I was just incredibly lame until about seventh grade.

(Looking, back I wonder where my older siblings were. Why didn’t they ever intervene to tell my mother that she was making me look like an idiot with all the ridiculous pins and coddling?)

Recently, my mom was cleaning out a closet when she came across my old box (yes, a whole box) of festive pins. She presented them to me, saying, “Do you remember your pin collection?” expecting me, I think, to be overcome with sentimentality.

“Please burn them before anyone else sees this,” was all I could muster, my face going flush as all the memories of my lameness came flooding back. Casting around for other St. Patrick’s Day traditions, I came up a little short. The boiled dinner was a common response, as were the familiar whiskey-soaked festivities that I was less interested in exploring.

One tradition that popped up at least twice was a something called the “Attack of the Leprechauns.”

As one person described it: “They come in and turn everything upside down and mess (the house) all up … They make the milk green.

“The night before, when we were kids, we used to set up traps to try and catch a leprechaun. If they got away then, they left us a treat.”

I guess my family wasn’t Irish enough to do this, but it does sound like a fun little tradition for both the parents and the kids.
St. Patrick’s Day remains an opportunity for celebration and appreciation. Like I said, America is steeped in Irishness . And while many other cultures have made equally significant contributions, none can throw a party quite like the Irish.

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