“Daddy, it’s orange.” “Now we just wait for the leprechauns to do their magic and turn the river green!” I can’t resist smiling at the toddler as she looks at the river in anticipation. The girl’s emerald feathered top hat keeps bobbing up and down as she cranes her neck to see the boats and the river. Her father wears a green tall and towering stovepipe hat. Everywhere I look it’s a sea of green. I spot a dozen kilts and bagpipes. There goes a green bowtie; there an emerald parasol. I even spot Irish flag suspenders and a fake red leprechaun beard in the crowd. Green beads and shamrocks in every shape and size keep flashing by as people try to secure a great spot to watch Chicago’s beloved river dyeing ceremony on the Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day.
Most cities have parades, pub crawls, Irish corned beef and cabbage dinners, and green beer; Chicago celebrates the Irish culture and tradition by dyeing a section of its river emerald green. The Windy City’s most beloved tradition started half a century ago in 1962. Around 45 pounds of eco-friendly vegetable dye are dumped into the river by the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers; the union manages both the river dyeing ceremony and Downtown parade since its start. The dye is originally orange and stains the river a brilliant shade of green. The dye formula is the city’s best kept secret and that is where tales of leprechaun magic come in. City-dwellers and tourists both come out in hordes to watch the Downtown ritual; my forest green tunic and I are engulfed by the green throng. We all are watching the river dyeing ceremony in complete wonder.
The members have headed out in boats and are emptying cans of the dye in the river; couple of tourboats, kayaks, and water taxis follows them. The dye starts seeping in and suddenly there is a brilliant flash of emerald green color trailing the boats. There is an answering burst of green as the watching crowd cheers and roars. The color is luminous and dazzling in the bright sunlight; it seems almost magical. Leprechaun green, there is no other word for it. The color of the Emerald Isle, it represents the lush rolling knolls and vales of Ireland and makes me yearn for the Isle. Maybe one day. Soon the entire river is a resplendent green and the crowd wildly applauds, thrusting green, white, and orange Irish flags in the sky. Celtic music bursts out from somewhere to my right.
I start down the river walk numb with joy; I still have a parade to attend and green beer to gulp down. It is glorious to experience the beautiful tradition and my love of Chicago knows no bounds. Today the sun is beating down my head and it is 80F but through the years the ceremony has been held in spite of snow, ice, hail, rain and shine. The slightly grunged, towering, monotone buildings of Chicago downtown and the reddish-brown trussed metal bridges on the river have perfectly framed the vibrant green flowing river for half a century. The river will lose its color in about 5 hours but it will live in thousands of memories forever. Maybe there is leprechaun magic at work here.
I attended Chicago’s famous St. Patrick’s Day river dyeing ceremony in March 2012.