I love Saint Patrick's Day. I celebrate it the whole month of March.

I suppose it goes back to my Irish Catholic childhood. On St. Patrick's Day, which falls during the penitential season of Lent, we were absolved from all Lenten penances. If I gave up candy (which most children did), I could eat all I wanted that day. Even in a school with strict uniform requirements, all sorts of green accessories were worn that day, even by the nuns.

Nowadays I collect St. Patrick's Day cards and banners and decorate the whole house with them. The Coulter family wears green on March 17, and we invite our friends in to celebrate the great occasion with us. What makes it even more fun is that so few people have ever been to a St. Paddy's Day party, so they don't know what to expect. By the time they have found something green to wear, they are in the mood to have a good time.

The evening generally begins with showing of "the green" and swapping stories of the adventures each person had finding something appropriate to wear (yes, they do make green underwear!).

We always serve Irish Coffee which is an ideal drink and dessert. My husband serves as bartender and narrator so no one will miss the full effect.

Then come the toasts. "Slainte! (Shlahn-tah) Good health!" will do for later rounds, but for the first round we give them the full effect.

The original old Irish toast goes as follows: "Health and long life to you Land without rent to you A child every year to you And may you die in Ireland."

This is the version preferred by Americans: "Health and long life to you The wife of your choice to you Land free of rent to you From this day forth."

My favorite toast is the old Irish blessing: "May the road rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back. May the sunshine warm upon your face, The rains fall soft upon your fields, And, until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of his hand."

For things to nibble on, I always serve something unexpected -- like green sour cream dip with Irish potato chips, or green cream cheese with crackers. We don't dye the beer green (some people do), but serve Guiness Stout for those who prefer it. Cake with green icing completes the green portion of the evening. Sometimes I serve sandwiches of either "Paddy's pig" (ham) or corned beef on rye with cole slaw (a slight touch of green).

If guests ask to contribute something to the evening, I have learned to say, "Yes, if you have an Irish specialty." That was how I got the recipe for "Lynn's Irish Soda Bread," which is the best I have ever tasted. Her directions say simply, "Mix well," while other recipes are much more involved. I have found it foolproof. With a few of my own additions, here is the recipe. LYNN'S IRISH SODA BREAD 3 cups flour 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon soda 1 teaspoon baking powder 1 tablespoon caraway seed 1 cup raisins 2 tablespoons soft shortening 2 eggs, well-beaten 1 1/4 cups buttermilk

Sift first five ingredients together, mix in caraway seeds and raisins, then cut in the shortening. Combine eggs with buttermilk and add to dough, reserving 1 teaspoonful. Put dough into a greased 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Cut a deep cross in the top to drive out the demons and brush the loaf with the egg and buttermilk mixture. Bake in preheated oven at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Serve warm with butter.

Background music is usually our Clancy Brothers of Irish Rovers records, either of which would put anyone in a party mood.

The evening ends with silly prizes (like "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons) for the best or most unusual "wearing of the green."