Last December, as halls were decked and holiday trees were aglow, a new phrase entered the news show lexicon with a bang: The War on Christmas. Battle lines were drawn in tinsel between the etymologically faithful and those happy enough with a holiday. It looks like it will take a few more seasons to decide the winner: Bill O’Reilly or the secularists.
But the War on St. Patrick’s Day was fought, and pretty much settled, a long time ago. This Roman Catholic feast day for the bishop who centuries ago converted the people of an island in the north Atlantic is now celebrated with shamrock-stamped butt-pinchers resembling salad tongs sold at the local Hallmark store. The shamrock that signified the Holy Trinity is now stamped on a button inviting absolutely everybody and anybody to kiss you. The celebration has moved from churches to bars, as revelers of all stripes indulge in the stereotypical activity of the Irishman–drinking till he must cling to a blade of grass to avoid falling off the face of the Earth.
St. Patrick’s Day was first celebrated in the United States in Boston, 1737, and had spread to a New York tavern by 1756. Turns out Paddy was a great excuse to have a parade, and nowadays St. Patrick’s Day parades are thrown everywhere from Beijing to Moscow. Somewhere along the way, dyeing waterways green–such as in Chicago–caught on, as well as dyeing beer and milkshakes. In Ireland, there has recently been greater emphasis on celebrating national identity than religious adherence. (In Downpatrick, however–the city where the saint is buried–they celebrate his feast day for a whole week.)
Even though the saint has largely been taken out of St. Patrick’s Day, this hasn’t bothered 34 million Irish Americans too much. Why? Because in this age of multiculturalism, St. Paddy’s Day reminds everyone from schoolkids to recent immigrants that white people have culture, too, and the Irish are lucky enough to have been singled out for providing this lesson.
In fact, it’s often heard at diverse celebrations that “Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!” (You’re not, though, so deal with it.) Former New York Mayor Ed Koch once declared himself “Ed O’Koch” for the day. The annual Los Angeles County Irish Fair and Music Festival, which this year boasted ten stages and plenty of shepherd’s pie, is held in 65 percent-Hispanic Pomona; the Los Angeles St. Patrick’s Day Parade starts at the corner of Olvera Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue downtown.
One year at the Irish fair–to which the Scots also come with their Highland games–I brought along a Hispanic friend. After wandering the grounds watching the dancing, eating grilled bangers, and listening to the music, she remarked, “I didn’t realize white people had culture!” And after being transfixed by a hot bagpipe player, she was hooked.
California actually has rich Irish heritage, though you’d never know it from the cultural diversity lessons we’re bombarded with that focus more on skin color than anything else, or focus only on countries of origin to the south. The Irish began showing up when California was still part of Mexico, and after the Mexican-American War it was an Irishman who introduced the resolution banning slavery at the state’s constitutional convention. (They also knew good property: In 1857, Irishman Matthew Keller held the title to more than 13,000 acres of Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, according to California State University, Northridge, history professor Gloria Ricci Lothro.)
In 1879, Los Angeles had an Irish police chief; Irish were also instrumental in the development of the city. In 1875 the Ancient Order of Hibernians was organized in L.A., and chapters continue to this day. There are also more recently formed Irish heritage groups, such as the Los Angeles Police Emerald Society. And the Irish Import Shop at Melrose and Vine, at which you can buy everything from soda bread to spotted dick, dates back to 1962. The popular Tom Bergin’s Tavern on Fairfax Avenue, which boasts a St. Patrick’s Day countdown clock on its Web site and is opening at 6 a.m. on the blessed day, is the oldest Irish establishment in Los Angeles, dating back to 1936. And today, the Irishman and Irishwoman of the year will be honored by the mayor and city council at the 131st annual Irish Day Civic Ceremonies.
In declaring this Irish-American Heritage Month, President Bush called on all Americans to celebrate the contributions of Irish-Americans to the nation. I’m not sure if we’ll see tributes to the Irish of the sort we see during some cultural celebratory months, but no matter. We can seize upon this day to educate others about our heritage, all the while bringing in sweeping revenues for Guinness. (Of the 22 gallons of beer consumed each year by the average American, about 20 will be chugged today, according to the unofficial estimates of one Irish columnist.)
When the city’s Irish march near the historic section El Pueblo de Los Angeles in today’s L.A. St. Patrick’s Day Parade, in tomorrow’s Hermosa Beach parade, and around southern California in other local communities, it won’t be just Irish lining the streets to wave flags. It won’t be just Irish kids pinching others for not wearing green to school (and probably getting sent to the principal’s office for sexual harassment). And it won’t just be Irish drunkards bellying up to the bar and kissing random Irish lasses (hence, I should stay home).
In the sense that silly traditions keep the Irish in America from being more than just another pale face, the culture war is won. And some of us still remember Patrick, too.
As goes one of the kitschy Irish sayings emblazoned on every possible household item, “There are two kinds of people in the world: The Irish, and those who would like to be Irish.” (Oh, and then there’s the British.)