SAVANNAH, Ga. - If the parade is the heart of Savannah's St. Patrick's Day festivities, the Celtic Cross ceremony is its soul.
Hundreds gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Sunday for a pre-ceremony Mass, filling it to capacity with pew after pew of green blouses and suit jackets.
The Rev. Patrick O'Brien, originally from County Cork in Ireland but now of St. Peter the Apostle Church on Wilmington Island, told how the circle on the Celtic Cross represents the endlessness of God's love.
"The legend in Ireland is that St. Patrick created the first Celtic Cross by putting a circle over a Lenten cross to incorporate the pagan moon goddess symbol," the Rev. O'Brien said.
He pointed to the ceremony as evidence that Savannah's St. Patrick's celebration is becoming more family oriented, then spoke directly to the children in congregation.
"I encourage you to stay close to your faith and to your family. Be proud of your roots and thank God every day for the gift of faith, the gift of family and the gift of heritage," he said.
Dozens of those children took part in the Mass, holding the brightly colored flags of the 34 counties and four provinces of Ireland as officials from Irish heritage societies marched into the cathedral.
After Mass, the flag unit helped lead the procession to Emmet Park and the Celtic Cross monument.
In front of the cathedral, Wendy Wash snapped a photo of her daughter, Ashlee, 10, holding the black and white flag of Sligo.
"This is so exciting, I've been watching this since I was a kid," Mrs. Wash said.
But not all the Irish traditions impressed all the children.
"Could the bagpiper guy give us a break?" 10-year-old Katherine Brinson asked after marching in front of pipes for about 20 minutes.
At Emmet Park, parade Grand Marshal Daniel J. Sheehan Jr. and two aides set a flower wreath at the base of the Celtic Cross.
The monument, which was cut from Irish limestone and dedicated in 1983, reads simply:
"To Americans of Irish descent past present and future. Erin Go Bragh."
The last line is Gaelic for "Ireland forever."