Gimme a Smile: Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick’s Day is an awesome holiday to celebrate your Irish heritage — especially if you don’t have any. Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, or so they say.


We gather together to eat corned beef and cabbage (the Irish weren’t especially noted for their fine cuisine, OK?), pin shamrocks on our hats for luck, wear green and look for suckers to pinch.

Kids especially love St. Patrick’s Day, because kids are especially good at pinching. What other holiday utilizes their unique skills so completely? There’s a reason why teachers all get into the spirit of the Irish by wearing green — they don’t want to encourage their students to question authority with a St. Paddy’s Day pinch.

Young children also enjoy St. Patrick’s Day because of the very real hope of seeing a leprechaun. They construct elaborate T-R-A-Ps at school (don’t pronounce the word — the little folk might be listening) using tissue boxes and paper towel rolls and yards and yards of tape to lure the leprechauns into shedding some of their gold. Green footprints, gold coins and notes from Sneaky and Lucky provide definitive proof of the presence of leprechauns, but somehow the T-R-A-Ps never seem to capture one. Maybe next year.

Adults love St. Patrick’s Day because of its association with drinking and carousing. We’ve always heard that St. Patrick was the patron saint of Ireland, not the patron saint of alcohol. It’s important to recognize that the two are not synonymous.

St. Patrick’s rise to fame stems from another source altogether. As a saint, Patrick rated an official feast day from the Catholic Church. But there are tons of saints who have their own feast days. St. Patrick rises above the fray due to a particular twist of fate without which he would likely be no better known than St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things (and one of my personal favorites). St. Patrick’s Day falls within the 40 days of Lent.

As we all know, Lent is the time to give up eating chocolate, watching “Dr. Who” and engaging in other satisfying activities. This self-denial brings one closer to God. But Sundays don’t count — you can sit on the couch all day eating bon-bons and watching all fifty years of Dr. Who episodes every Sunday in Lent if you want to. Likewise, official Christian feast days (St. Patrick’s Day!) don’t count as part of the penitential practice of Lent. You can go out and party with all the green beer you can guzzle on March 17 — you get a pass on the guilt trip, thanks to good old St. Paddy.

With all these traditions, it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking St. Patrick’s Day. Sad but true, there is a distinct minority of St. Patrick’s Day dissenters. As a child, I found myself in that camp. My family was originally Scotch-Irish, the Protestant orange to the Irish Catholic green. Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, except for the proud Scotch-Irish who wear orange to “spite the Irish.”

Try explaining that to your elementary school classmates who want nothing better than to pinch you for not wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day. “I’m wearing orange!” never did seem to cut it. Now I’m older and wiser, and have found a way to celebrate my family heritage and still remain pinch-free on St. Patrick’s Day. I wear both orange and green, hoping to symbolize reconciliation between two cultures that continue in strife to this day. It’s not easy. If you’ve ever seen the color wheel, you’ll notice that orange and green sit on opposite sides of the circle, about as far away from each other as they can get. Not many items of clothing incorporate both colors. I do have one Tongass Alaska Girl Scouts T-shirt that has an orange fish on a green background, and that’s the shirt I wear every March 17, without fail. Nice of the Girl Scouts to promote togetherness like that, even if they didn’t do it on purpose.

Shamrocks, leprechauns, green beer and parades led by bagpipers who are most likely of Scottish rather than Irish descent — everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother and aspiring author who lives in Juneau. She likes to look at the bright side of life.


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