The calendar year is lousy with holiday minefields. New Year's Eve. Valentine's Day. And then there's spring break for fair-skinned people – that pagan debauch otherwise known as St. Patrick's Day.
I grew up in a home where our Irishness was the dominant culture, where we had mashed potatoes every night, tenors singing "Danny Boy" on the stereo and tea towels with blessings involving the road rising to meet you. As a child, St. Patrick's Day meant a green ribbon in my hair and corned beef and cabbage for dinner. In college, I did a term on Irish history and literature at Trinity in Dublin. But though I've always been proud of my heritage, I've only grudgingly endured the annual celebratory displays of it, cringing at the way every year "Irish" becomes simultaneously synonymous with "adorable wee folk" and "public urination." Pot o' gold! Always after me Lucky Charms! Something something blarney!
As an adult, I've become used to feeling riled by the way that St. Paddy's seems to bring out the most grotesque stereotypes of my ancestors -- that we're rowdy and tacky. But in recent years the whole thing has become ever rowdier and tackier. I think it started back in the 1990s, when Celtic design tattoos made white people feel like they could be ethnic too, and the Irish tourism industry caught on that their generally miserable month of March could be exploited as a fabulous vacation opportunity. Ever since, the holiday has exploded into a supersize free-for-all of kitsch and debauchery.
My St. Patrick's Day routine is generally the same every year -- figuring out how to avoid that big parade that doesn't like the gay people, enduring the Cranberries' "Zombie" blaring out of every bar, and fending off the surprised "Where's your green?" questions from passersby who cannot fathom why a freckled redhead isn't sporting some emerald-hued invitation to KISS ME or declare that IRISH I WERE DRUNK. Last St. Patrick's Day, I had to ride in a commuter train full of woozy-looking revelers decked in shiny green plastic hats, in a car that had already been puked in before lunchtime. You just can't feel super great about your people after something like that. As my very smart friend Tom puts it, "There is so much to celebrate about Irish culture, past and current. Funny thing, most Americans of Irish descent know dead little about modern Ireland and aren't a lot better on its history."
I get that the Irish-American St. Patrick's Day experience is distinct from the Ireland Irish one. As my friend Gerry says, "I appreciate the fact that Guinness is discounted at the supermarket this time of year." We have our own culture and traditions here, and knowing where Armagh is shouldn't be a requisite to enjoying a pint of Harp. You don't even have to know that the patron saint of Ireland was British, but you're welcome. We have our parades and our funny ways of dressing up and we send each other musical cards that say "Top o' the mornin'" and we dye our rivers green. Many of us even manage to make the holiday into something truly special. My old schoolmate and fellow ginger Liz tells me, "I like it better than Thanksgiving and Christmas because it's just the immediate family and we have a chance to reminisce and teach the kids some favorite tunes. There's a lot of family and love." And my friend Candace says simply, "Life is boring. St. Patrick's Day is fun."
I love a good celebration too, and I try in my own small ways to make St. Patrick's Day one for my family. I bake a soda bread and serve salmon and tell my children the story of Fionn Mac Cuill and I crank up "My Bloody Valentine." Because I love my family and I love my identity, in a way that has nothing to do with shamrock shakes and green beer or great throngs of people celebrating intoxication and cereal-box leprechauns. And I'm Irish enough to know that stupid stereotypes can pogue mahone.