It was a balmy March day in Washington as the Irish ambassador to the U.S. headed to the White House. He carried a small gift for the president: a box of Irish shamrock in honor of St. Patrick's Day.
The year was 1952. The president, Harry Truman, was out of town. So the ambassador, John Joseph Hearne, dropped off the shamrock and went on his way. By doing this one act, Hearne notched the notion of Irish-America to all of America.
By 1953, with Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, the low-key shamrock presentation of the previous year began to resemble the ceremony we know today.
A gift that had been dropped off was now presented to the president in person. The small box containing a few sprigs of shamrock evolved into a custom-made Waterford crystal bowl full of sprouts, specially flown in for the event.
When John F. Kennedy, himself an Irish-American, the media event was full-blown. Interest diminished after his death, but his successor, Lyndon Johnson, gamely kept the tradition alive.
In the 1970s, the occasion settled into a more routine, minor event on the schedule for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Carter even delegated the task to his vice president one year, when he was preoccupied with negotiating 1979's Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Ronald Reagan, however, was fond of extolling his Irish roots, so his arrival in the White House helped transform St. Patrick's Day in Washington into a jovial, celebratory, all-day affair.
By then, the nation's capital was hosting its own parade, and the shamrock ceremony was soon joined on the schedule by an annual congressional St. Patrick's Day luncheon in the U.S. Capitol, hosted by House Speaker Tip O'Neill.
After Reagan, George H.W. Bush accepted the shamrock for four years. Clinton set a precedent by meeting only with Irish prime ministers. George W. Bush deliberately toned down the celebration as a way of signaling his intention to limit his administration's involvement with Northern Ireland.
President Obama made clear his commitment to continuing the ritual, calling it "an affirmation of one of the strongest bonds between peoples that exist in the world."
Ireland, too, is committed to sustaining the custom. A 2009 official government report on U.S.-Ireland relations cited the importance of the shamrock ceremony: After nearly 60 years of St. Patrick's Day ceremonies, what's actually become of all those bowls of shamrock?
Ronald Reagan used one of his Waterford bowls to hold jelly beans. Bill Clinton displayed his glassware in the White House.
White House security regulations dictate that any food, drink or plant presented to the president be "handled pursuant to Secret Service policy." That's Secret Service-speak for destroyed -- an unceremonious fate, for an enduring symbol of a long friendship.