March 17: Happy Italian Unification Day

St. Patrick and Giuseppe Garibaldi

In cities across America, March 17th is often reserved for wearing shades of green otherwise inadvisable for clothing, consuming green alcohol, and dying rivers green (no – the Gowanus Canal is naturally that color) all in celebration of St. Patrick, a 4th century bishop who tried to bring Catholicism to the Irish people. The popularity of this holiday in the US is understandable considering that Irish is among the top recorded ancestries in the States today, and that the main objective of the day is, well, to get drunk.

Something you may not know however, is that March 17th also marks the unification of Italy. Prior to various campaigns, including the overthrow of the Kingdom of Naples led by Guiseppe Garibaldi in 1861,  (That’s a gross oversimplification of the Risorgimento which lasted decades), Italy was just a bunch of bickering neighbors. Garibaldi is one of the most identifiable symbols associated with the unification. It is, in part, thanks to him that the Italian map takes on the familiar shape of a boot rather than a penny loafer.

I was curious, with Italian-Americans following close behind Irish-Americans in numbers, why this supposedly important event in Italian history hasn’t received more press in the new country. I lived in New York for over 15 years – at times in largely Italian neighborhoods – and have never once been invited to a Unification party, or a Garibaldi dinner on March 17th. I even recall my Italian-American landlord wearing a sweater bedazzled with green shamrocks on the anniversary of Italian Unification.

At a glance, I would guess that in today’s New York, there is more influence of Italian culture than perhaps of any other Western European country. Even Garibaldi himself could be considered a New Yorker -while exiled from Italy he stayed with his buddy Antonio Meucci at his place on Staten Island.

I looked further into the reason this date has been seemingly eclipsed by St. Patrick and learned that not even in Italy is it a widely celebrated day. Only because this year marks the 150th anniversary has a public holiday been granted. The effort has been accused as artificial, which is not surprising from a populace that tends to favor regional allegiance over national pride and a political system peppered with groups that stand on secessionist platforms.

While St. Patrick is parading flamboyantly down 5th avenue Garibaldi will be in his usual New York haunt – Washington Square Park – surrounded by pigeons. Perhaps you’d like to pay him a visit. He’s the guy with the sword.

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