My maternal grandmother (Nanny Winnie) was half Irish and half Scotch. My Irish great-grandmother, Cecelia Ryan, died well before my mother was born, so my mother received no direct inoculation of Irish traditions. I don’t remember my mother ever talking about St. Patrick’s Day celebrations when she was a child, but Nanny Winnie must have marked the occasion in some fashion.
In fact, my mother talked about her Scotch grandfather, James Strachan, who could dance a jig while balancing a pillow on his head. That impressed my mother as a child.
No matter how she received her education in Irish traditions, my mother never let St. Patrick’s Day passed without dressing all her children in green. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned only Irish Catholics wore green on St. Patrick’s Day. The Irish Protestants wore orange.
During my grade school years the wearing of the green was easy for me. I simply donned the green and brown plaid jumper that was part of my school uniform, as I did every other weekday.
My brother tried to resist the green paper shamrock my mother pinned to his sweater, but my threat to pinch him was usually enough to get him to comply. Some years he tried to claim that a band of green trim on his socks was sufficient.
We also drank green milk at meals and ate cupcakes with green frosting. Those were the best parts of our St. Patrick’s Day traditions. The milk with green food coloring was mostly for show—it didn’t taste any different than regular milk. But it did go well with cupcakes.
Dinner on St. Patrick’s Day consisted of corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage and/or carrots. I hated both cabbage and cooked carrots. I managed to choke down the corned beef and potatoes, then tried to hide the carrots and/or cabbage under a scrap of food. But my mother saw through my subterfuge.
The rule in our house was that you didn’t get dessert until your plate was clean. On days when we had cooked carrots, I could sit for an hour after the rest of the family finished their dinner trying to eat my carrots without gagging. Some nights I gave up. Some nights I managed to get dessert.
Green-frosted cupcakes were a powerful inducement to finishing my dinner. But if I were lucky, I’d had a cupcake in my lunch box, and could survive without another.
I still hate cabbage and cooked carrots. Carrots are such a vile orange color and taste just as disgusting. They always have and always will.
“They’re so sweet,” my mother said. But they don’t seem sweet to me. A green-frosted cupcake is sweet.
“They’ll make your eyes strong,” my grandmother told me. My eyesight was a lost cause by age eight. It would take a ton of carrots to make a discernible improvement.
One advantage of being my own cook now is that I can simply not prepare what I don’t want to eat. The only time I cook carrots is as part of a stew. Then I pick them out to give to my husband. And I never cook cabbage.
But I still wear something green on St. Patrick’s Day and think of my mother as I do.
What ethnic holiday traditions do you remember from your childhood?