St. Patrick’s Day just came and went, but it was just another Sunday to me. It was a big deal when I was little, though, mostly thanks to construction paper shamrocks, rainbows, and pots of gold. The ritual helped, too: Wear green or suffer a school day filled with unmerciful pinching. If I forgot to wear green I’d point to my eye color, the sort of playground technicality prefaced with a series of “no’s” and followed by a chase around the swing set.
Grade school kept the calendar interesting with a steady stream of decorations and crafts. My elementary years predate MLK Day, so the annual festivities kicked off with Valentine’s Day. Decorating a shoe box or lunch sack to hold all of those obligatory and store bought cards was good for a little fun, though honestly we were all just in it for the candy hearts and heart-shaped suckers. Cupid, a half-naked baby sniper, seemed like a strange holiday mascot to me, but what did I know about love?
As quickly as our construction paper hearts went up they came down to make room for pictures of Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays we celebrated by reading picture books filled with myths and legends. I had a hard time differentiating between Abe and George and Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan–too many axes and trees in those four stories–but it was all Americana, so close enough.
Toward the end of February the presidents made way for a pair of animals, some cotton ball clouds, a construction paper kite or two, and a row of construction paper tulips. “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” read the paper letters stapled across the top of the classroom bulletin board. The idea of putting away my winter clothes and busting out a kite thrilled me.
And then St. Patty’s, with its leprechauns and shamrocks and green-eyed technicalities.
When I was in grade school even the minor holidays saw some construction paper action: Groundhog Day, Arbor Day, Flag Day, Columbus Day. “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue….” That little rhyme has stuck with me for 45 years, guaranteeing that I’ll never forget the year of that historic voyage.
That’s what it was all about, really–enculturation, transmitting a broad cultural knowledge that we could all share for the rest of our lives. Never mind whether it was nuanced or historically accurate, the point was that it was collective. Those stories were meant to bond us together like Elmer’s glue stuck cotton balls to Popsicle sticks.
As adults we tend to turn our noses up at special days. We criticize them as hokey or commercial, point out their logical flaws and historical abuses. What do eggs and bunnies have to do with Christ’s resurrection? Why celebrate that genocidal maniac? You know what St. Patty’s is really all about, don’t you? You know they could care less about Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, right? He never even chopped down a cherry tree! Come on!
Maybe our cynicism is rooted in the fact that as adults we know better than to believe the holiday myths, or maybe we just reach an age when we’re ready to put away childish things. Regardless, as we grow increasingly divided socially and politically, the value of collective experiences grows more important. Every holiday, no matter how trivial, is an opportunity for us all to move in the same direction for a brief moment. That moment doesn’t have to be somber, either–it can be fun and silly. There’s nothing wrong with corned beef and green beer. The value is in the moment itself, not what the moment alleges to represent.
So this April Fools’ Day consider greasing a doorknob, or perhaps dye an egg or two this Easter. Maybe as grown-ups it’s time that we remember how to share in common cultural experiences now and then. A little more of that and a little less bickering would be a welcome change of pace.
And share your Elmer’s, please. These cotton balls aren’t going to stick to my construction paper all by themselves.