Today is St. Patrick’s day. I have Irish ancestry (as well as French and German), but my cultural upbringing has been Working Class White American* Consumer. So what does that mean for me today?
First, let me offer you this list of Irish authors to read: https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/irish-authors
Now let me wax contemplative:
Given that I have not participated in or promoted Irish politics, culture or progress, I have not learned Gaelic or Irish step dancing or Irish cooking or anything else decidedly Irish, I’d feel like a bit of a fraud “celebrating” my Irish ancestry today. Yet, it makes me wonder, as holidays frequently do, what are MY cultural traditions and heritage as an American?
Traditions are meant to give us a sense of belonging, of kinship, of continuity in a constantly changing world. They give us something to look forward to, and shining moments to remember.
But in America, land of independence, of life in the fast lane and disposable instant trends, where our home-grown holidays are just a chance to have a day off and usually to party, what traditions long survive the American nuclear family as it grows and splits into individual units? What are the deeper cultural values and traditions we share?
We are divided politically and are not supposed to have a national religion (and though Christianity dominates, it has a thousand varieties). We are a nation built of multiple races, ethnicities, and ancestral roots, each possessing its own equally valid and rich identity and heritage, not all equally represented or influential but we are ideally moving in a direction where they are, rather than a direction where we become homogeneous under a single dominant one. We no longer even all watch the same few television channels, listen to the same few radio stations, or read the same handful of books to create a shared pop-cultural identity, let alone cultural identity.
My grandmother used to make clam chowder every Christmas Eve, for example, and the family would all gather. But as family members were added, lost or moved, as the children grew to have children of their own and had other places to be on Christmas Eve, this tradition fell by the wayside.
Growing up observing the families of recent immigrants, or those who had held onto their “old world” culture, I envied them. “Family” meant 30 or more people gathering and celebrating their culture, their traditions, their personal histories and each other with special foods, music, dances, rituals, games, objects, toasts and more.
Yet, even these families fall prey to the stripping down of tradition and culture as the younger generations raised in America move on to live their own very American lives.
So clearly, traditions and a sense of culture cannot themselves be used as a simple means of creating a sense of belonging or family. And for many, family bonds are simply not something that can be magically created or mended out of dysfunction or absence.
And yet, when you dig down deep, the bond between people is so much of what traditions are really meant to celebrate and strengthen.
Therefore, it is our relationships that must be nurtured outside of the occasional holiday, birthday or wedding for traditions to have real strength, whether with our blood family, our wedded family or our family of friends.
And today’s traditions must be flexible and special enough to achieve this in the realities of the nuclear family, of geographic dispersal, of divorces, of single parents and chosen families; of multiple diverse heritages, orientations, genders and viewpoints.
Perhaps the best we can hope for as Americans, then, are traditions that we celebrate with a few select others (chosen for their importance or relation to us, not their similarity), knowing that these “traditions” are for ourselves, meant to bring us closer in that moment to those we celebrate with, and these “traditions” may not survive us.
So I won’t dress up like a leprechaun today and spill beer across the tee-shirt declaring myself to be Irish, nor celebrate the man who first spread Christianity among the pagan Irish.
But I will perhaps catch up a bit on Irish news, maybe practice a greeting or two in Gaelic, and contemplate the ways in which my Irish ancestry is important to me and perhaps even subtly shapes me. I will spend the day contemplating what St. Patrick’s Day means to me. Whatever I learn, I will invite friends and family to celebrate that with me next year.
And most importantly, I will try to spend today, and every day, celebrating my family and friends. I know I will sometimes fail, being swept up in daily routines and demands, but I will try.
*I am using the term “American” in the common short-hand to mean one living in the United States. Native American tribes, and nations other than the U.S. that are on the American continents, each have their own traditions and values that are equally valid and important.