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ISSUE 121 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 3/21/2008

Sweaters sprout clovers

By Kelin Loe
Opinion Editor

Friday, March 21, 2008

The stand-out image of the St. Olaf student is thin, tall and blond. Even if someone does not have straight blond hair, the image still translates through hair dye and straighteners. One only need trek to Tostrud to find champagne ponytails and hair ironed into straight lace. Generally students associate thin, tall, blond with Norwegian -- a culture abundantly practiced and valued on campus. And if Norwegian isn't your culture? It is now. Living in an environment that pushes the Norwegian image, I find myself clinging closer to my Celtic background. When it comes to St. Patrick's Day, I don't feel like sharing.

One aspect of the St. Olaf community is drastically underplayed in admissions publications: the rampant Nordic image and culture. And as St. Olaf is such a fantastically tight community, the Scandinavian image follows me to class, to eat, to the library, to the gym and to the bars. Thin. Tall. Blond. Woven through red thread with iron toggles. Woven through blue thread with little snowflakes. Woven through black thread with little deer.

If the image isn't institutionalized enough, students new to the Norwegian culture find themselves "welcomed" into smiles of greeting, smiles of friendliness, smiles of stress and smiles of buried resentment. Granted, this may be Minnesotan culture, but it is grounded in Minnesota's Scandinavian heritage. The real culture bomb drops at Christmas time. For some of us, this is the first time we experience anything Norse.

As a member of Manitou Singers, I devoted multiple Caf dates to committing Norwegian hymns to memory. I do not remember the hymns being given in their original context. (Or at least I never learned how the hymns fit into Norwegian culture so that I could then appreciate it -- we just learned the pronunciation.)

Once Christmas hits, suddenly sweaters have the same formal value as suits, jackets and pearls. One has to drop a considerable amount of their paycheck to indulge in the yarn-ed bliss of the Norwegian sweater.

Then all the food in the Caf turns into lye. Admittedly, my palete is a little more particular than most, and many may thoroughly enjoy the new attention paid to our advent food. However, for me, the lutefisk stench starts when I turn the corner from Rolvaag to Buntrock. Quite literally, Norwegian culture taints my every breath.

Now, when it comes to my Irish (and Scottish and English) heritage, I definitely fall for the sensationalized nationalism enabled by white American culture. Ireland! My motherland! I will revere Dublin above Minneapolis! I'm not American -- I am a mixture of Euro-percentages.

Perhaps sensational Irish-American pride comes out of 19th-century ethnic stereotyping. Irish immigrants were stereotyped as belligerent alcoholics unfit for any work beyond the factories. The Know Nothing Movement sought to keep all Catholics out of political office. Employers made sure to specify that "No Irish Need Apply."

St. Patrick's Day has become, in the United States, another commercialized holiday, a green Valentine's Day. Instead of the religious and national holiday it is in Ireland, Americans don green outfits and throw back oceans of imported beer. If anything, this only enables the stereotype of the drunken Irishman, too smashed to pick up a book.

The United States has generated a preposterous tradition in St. Patrick's Day. When I see a party of people sporting "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" pins, top hats made of green, white and orange, green boas and shamrock face paint, I roll my eyes. Might as well distribute leprechaun cards and rainbow candy from the pot of gold, because that celebrates Irish heritage. Heck, why not dye the Chicago River kelly green?

The St. Olaf campus has clearly identified itself as Norwegian, so my eyebrow twitches when gobs of green-bannered students raise their Guinness and cheer. It only perpetuates the image of the Irish and Irish-Americans as hapless drunkards. It goads me when a Norwegian-affiliated campus grabs a pint and toasts: "To the Irish! Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day!" If you've worn the sweater, at least take a second to reflect on the real emotions and tensions surrounding St. Patrick's Day.

I'm not saying we shouldn't celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I appreciate an Irish brew as much as the next person. I just hope we can be aware of the stereotypes we enable. Come next March 17 (which does not interfere with Holy Week), I will remember that I am American-born and raised, but I'll wear the green in my eyes and raise a tumbler of Jameson to my roots.

Opinions Editor Kelin Loe '08 is from Denver, Colo. She majors in English and Asian studies with a concentration in China area studies.

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