March 17, 2014 Updated: March 17, 2014 at 6:47 am
When it comes to America's borrowed holidays, St. Patrick's Day takes the popular pot of gold.
Observed in Ireland primarily as a Catholic holiday honoring the nation's patron saint, in the U.S. the day - and weekend in its vicinity - is a coast-to-coast celebration of all things Irish. The Chicago River, the White House fountain and a gazillion beer taps run green. On St. Patrick's Day, it is said, everyone's a little bit Irish.
For descendants of the diaspora - the estimated 35 million Americans who claim at least partial Irish heritage - the holiday is an opportunity for something far more meaningful than a good party, though.
The great-granddaughter of Irish immigrants, Jennifer Ryan grew up in Pueblo the youngest of six children in a family who placed great weight on the traditions of its ancestral homeland. St. Patrick's Day began with preparations for the holiday meal by Ryan's mom, Ann, orchestrated and enjoyed to the beat of Irish music and stories about life in the old country.
"Every single one of us kids still does it today," said Ryan, now of Colorado Springs, whose family tradition gained even greater weight when she adopted her daughter, Anya, from Russia 8 years ago.
It was important to Ryan for Anya, now 10, to maintain a sense of the culture of her birth nation.
"When I first brought her here, not knowing that I needed to prepare her for being an adopted child who didn't come from the United States, I wanted to teach her to be proud to be Russian," said Ryan, who home-schooled Anya on topics, including basic Russian, until she was 5. It was then that she realized her daughter's particular learning needs - and the differences in the language mechanics - required a more solid foundation in English.
Another identity twist came when Ryan and Anya's adoptive father divorced, and Anya assumed her mom's last name.
"Her adopted father was Polish, so she went from a Russian surname to a Polish surname to an Irish surname," Ryan said. "Since she took on the surname Ryan, it's been very important to me for her to know what being Irish means."
So, what does being Irish mean?
"Being Irish means never giving up. Persistence, strength. It means laughing at hardships and always overcoming obstacles," Ryan said. "And of course, spreading joy."
As the holiday draws close each year, conversation in the household turns toward things Irish: history, legends, traditions, sprinkled with a few basic Gaelic words and phrases. When Ryan's 90-year-old father, Edward, moved in after Ryan's mother died two years ago, his recollections of time spent with family visiting from overseas became part of the lesson plans.
Ryan also wanted her daughter to know, specifically, what it means to be a member of the Ryan clan, including that the family's original name O'Ryan was changed in an attempt to sound less ethnic at a time when bigotry and bias against Irish immigrants compounded hardships in the New World.
"This is all part of the story we tell Anya," Ryan said. "She's very proud of coming from Russia and she's proud that her name is Ryan."
When she gets home from school Monday, Anya will join her mother in the kitchen to help prepare the day's meal of corned beef, Irish soda bread and colcannon, a traditional dish made from potatoes and cabbage. Later in the day, the family and a few close friends will gather for the feast and talk of Ireland.
"I think it's really cool because I like being Russian, but then my mom took me and now I'm part Irish and it's fun being like that," Anya said. "I like my new last name."
Someday soon, perhaps next year, mother and daughter plan to visit both Ireland and Russia in a single, whirlwind trip.
"I want to go to Ireland because it's beautiful and in the forest there's a fairy ring, and that means that's where the fairies are," Anya said.
Russian, Irish, American and 100 percent little girl.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364