This piece was published in the San Francisco Examiner on March 17, 2000.
Holidays are important to small children. They provide elementary school teachers an opportunity to teach “art” by having their small charges pick the correct color crayon for each holiday.
Children used to make paper chains of read and green in anticipation of Christmas, even if they came from Jewish, Muslin or non-observant families.
Now we are multicultural. Everyone is included. We still take a week or two off at Christmas but we call it the “winter break” or “winter solstice.” It doesn’t really matter, the entire country takes December 25 off work – believers or not, religious or not, observant or not.
What are we to make of St. Patrick’s Day? No one gets a day off work, but elementary school children use green crayons to color four-leaf clovers and cartoon versions of St. Patrick. Adults drink green beer and New York has a big parade.
My Irish-German mother loves St. Patrick’s Day. When I was a kid she made “blarney stones” out of white squares of cake covered in green frosting, rolled in crushed peanuts. My brothers and sister and I devoured them. They were a family tradition.
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest in the late 1950’s, safe in the knowledge that everyone in the world was white, Christian and just like me. Some may call my upbringing homogeneous. I call it deprived. I didn’t eat a taco until I was 24, the same year I attended my first symphony concert.
I moved to California in 1982. There were a lot Spanish-speaking adults and children and I picked up a few words. I got a taste of real Mexican food, a la California, and loved every bite. I was introduced to Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Cuban food. I drew the line at sushi.
Being German, Irish and French (my Dad’s side), in other words, “white,” I have often felt left out in this multicultural world. As a child I ate Wonder Bread, Spam, Tater Tots and fish sticks. There was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my lunch box every day at school, along with three pennies so I could buy a carton of white milk.
Although I didn’t think much about it as a child, I didn’t have an ethnic identity of my own.
After moving to California I felt deprived and left out. I was just plain white. My anancestors had come from Europe more than a few generations ago; I was simply a WASP, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I had no food, (other than my mother’s Blarney Stones) language or dress to claim. Or so I thought.
I was so busy being envious of my co-workers, neighbors and friends who took pride in their ethnic heritage, I didn’t look hard enough at my own. I owe my compulsive need for neatness to my German side, my love of laughter and writing to the Irish side and my occasional snootiness, and love of Chardonnay, to the French side.
One bright St. Patrick’s Day morning a few years ago I went to work sporting a huge, plastic fluorescent green bow tie. It was like a party hat and the tiny elastic band held the clown-size bow tie securely to my neck. I was a big hit. I claimed my heritage. I belonged!
Some of my co-workers wanted a green bow tie too.
“Oh, no,” I exclaimed, “You’re not Irish.” They felt left out. Oh, my.
I no longer wear a green bow tie to work on St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps someday I will sport a small button that says, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” Probably not.
I know who I am, where I belong and how I got here. I arrived like almost all of us did, with hope, optimism and a deep sense of who I am: an American.
Kathleen Vallee Stein