How Many Leaves Does Your Shamrock Have?
It has become a holiday tradition in my family, along with the wearin' of the green, to complain about the epidemic of four-leaf clovers substituted for St. Patrick's Day shamrocks.
In brief (and not that I need to tell you): the shamrock, symbol of St. Patrick (or, rather, symbol of the Trinity used by St. Patrick) and thus of Ireland, has three leaves. The four-leaf clover is a good-luck symbol that has nothing to do with St. Patrick's Day.
You may never have given it a second thought, but if you keep an eye out as you go about your business today, you'll probably be surprised how many inappropriate four-leaf clovers you (forgive me) overlooked before. It's an irritating mistake, like typos on menus ("burger's" or "Fresh Soups Everyday"), at least if you're the type of person who is easily irritated by such things. (In some cultures we are known as "copy editors.")
It is also, perhaps, a sign of widespread disregard for the religious significance of the holiday -- but there it's in very good company, because let's be honest, there isn't much that's religious about the American celebration of St. Patrick's Day. It's an ethnic-pride holiday, and in a lot of cases it isn't even that so much as an excuse for drinking too much. "Happy St. Patrick's Day! Be safe, everybody!" is a message I still see popping up on my Facebook wall. I don't think the implied danger has to do with praying too hard.
It's easy enough to see how four-leaf clovers worked their way into the holiday's iconography: they're lucky, and there's all this talk of "the luck of the Irish" (though if the Irish were really that lucky they probably wouldn't have needed to establish an ethnic-pride holiday stateside). Maybe it's time to accept the error, and use it to help distinguish between the minor church feast dedicated to St. Patrick and the secular bacchanal with which it coincides.
When it comes to the St. Patrick's Day Parade and disputes about the inclusive or discriminatory policies of same, that tension between religious identity and cultural heritage is what causes all the trouble. Why would gay groups want to "crash" the parade? Could be because they just want to "draw attention to themselves" (said the pot to the kettle).
Or, it could be that a lot of gay people are Irish, and they want to participate in the annual display of Irish pride. The question they, and a lot of onlookers, would ask, is: Why should Catholic doctrine and/or ingrained prejudice determine who gets to go parading? (Apparently, the Ancient Order of Hibernians says that's not the issue at all -- but nobody believes it.)
To say that (family-friendly) gay and lesbian groups cannot march under their own banner strikes many onlookers -- who can see clearly enough that the St. Patrick's Day parade on Fifth Avenue is far from a religious procession -- as an arbitrary exclusion. As Peter Quinn suggested in an interview on NPR yesterday, it could also be seen as out of step with the origins of the parade as an "immigrant event": "You know, the parade is about inclusion. I think that was in the beginning, about immigrant communities trying to find its way in. And I think that immigrant community should be inclusive within its own borders. Times have changed." He also summarized the original message of the parade, in nativist times, as "We're not ever leaving, we're here to stay and, you know, we're proud of who we are." Where have I heard that sentiment before?
My prediction is that either the parade's organizers will relent and allow gay groups to march, or the event will suffer a loss in status and become just another NYC ethnic-pride parade (there are more than you think). Who knows, that might be good for the religious side of the holiday. It could be an opportunity to develop a spirituality of St. Patrick that isn't grounded in Guinness: for example, I like this invocation of Ireland's non-native saint to pray for modern-day victims of human trafficking.
As for four-leaf clovers on St. Patrick's Day, I suspect they're here to stay, and I'll just have to get used to it.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.